The rainbow forest, or Ode to Sumac

Smooth Sumac may be invasive in abandoned old fields and prairies in the eastern part of the U.S., but it contributes some of the prettiest colors to the fall vegetation.

sumac forest


X marks the spot for a little highlight of color in the midst of a sea of green leaves.

The reason I call sumac a rainbow forest (or at least a half-rainbow):  leaf colors range from green through the yellow-orange-red-crimson part of the color spectrum as they senesce before dropping off the plant.



Chlorophyll pigments that make the leaf look green decrease in the fall, exposing the xanthophyll (yellow) and carotenoids (orange) pigments that are part of the secondary light harvesting complexes.


The deep red color of some leaves means they contain anthocyanin compounds, which are synthesized in some newly emerging leaves as well as in some senescing leaves. Anthocyanins act as a sort of a sunscreen to protect leaves from damage on cooler days with bright sunshine.

sumac leaves-2Just can’t get enough of that brilliant red…

8 thoughts on “The rainbow forest, or Ode to Sumac

  1. Sumac is a popular garden shrub in the UK because of the beautiful autumn colours although as you say its suckering habit makes it very invasive. I always think of sumac on top of my kebab!

  2. I saved some on my property and the never have good fall foliage while in other places close to me they are gold, scarlet, crimson, red, orange or yellow. If I dug some beautiful ones and planted them would they have the same brilliant color? What determines their color?

    • Hi Audrey, Sometime leaf color is poor if the plants don’t get enough water, especially late in the summer a few weeks before fall. When they are water stressed, they just drop the leaves without changing color. The other thing that makes intensely bright color is warm days and cold nights, but if the sumac near your place is turning vivid colors, then that is not the problem. I’m not sure that transplanting new plants would necessarily solve the problem.

  3. My volunteer sumac has yellow leaves this autumn. I had hoped for red since many along the roads in southern Michigan are beautiful red and orange. Two possibilities come to mind. 1). It is growing where a large oak stump was ground up two years ago so soil chemistry may be peculiar. Or 2) it may not have had as much late summer sun as those growing wild between farm fields and the road. I think it did get plenty of rain.

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