Scarlet sumach is native to North America, mainly the eastern parts of the continent, but can be found in almost every state of the Union, as well as in southern Canada. It is a suckering tree or shrub which thrives in full sun on sandy slopes and roadsides. One of the common names refers to the hairless branches, which are the best distinguishing mark from its near relation, the stag’s horn sumach (R. typhina).
The attractive foliage has multiple leaflets, whose autumn colours range through all possible shades of yellow, orange, red and violet. In summer the small green flowers are in erect dense panicles up to 20 cms, which on the female plants turn brilliant red in September. The fruit is a berry covered with red hairs, remaining on the shrub in erect clusters after the leaves have fallen. The berries have been used to make juice, to give aromatic citrus flavour to soft drinks, and in medications. Dyes obtained from various parts of the plant were in general use in the 1800s but the spread of artificial dyes has replaced them.
Several of these showy scarlet sumach shrubs have been planted for testing in various parts of the Arboretum, though they are considered rather winter tender.