Shrub highly variable, 0.6 - 2 m tall, spreading 1.8 - 3 m Leaves: alternate, stalked, with three leaflets (trifoliate). Leaves are aromatic when rubbed. Flowers: either male or female, borne on separate plants (dioecious), or with some bisexual flowers (polygamous), pale yellow, borne at ends of branches, with male flowers in 2.5 cm catkins and female flowers in short spike-like clusters. Flowers mature before or as the leaves expand. Male catkins persist through winter. Fruit: fleshy with a center stone (drupe), 4 - 5 mm long, bright red, densely hairy, can persist into winter but loses color. Twigs: highly branched, slender, hairy, aromatic when rubbed, with circular raised leaf scars. Buds: yellow, tiny, hairy, surrounded by a leaf scar. Leaflets: very short-stalked or stalkless, medium green, often glossy above, egg-shaped, coarsely toothed, with a lower surface that is hairy when young. The terminal leaflet is 4 - 8 cm long, elliptic to four-sided and tapering to a short pointed tip and a wedge-shaped base. Lateral leaflets about half the size of terminal leaflets and rounded toward the base. Fall color is orange to red to reddish purple.
Similar species: Rhus aromatica var. arenaria differs from Rhus aromatica var. aromatica by having smaller terminal leaflets (1.5 - 4 cm long) that are inversely egg-shaped with blunt to rounded tips, and flowers that mature after the leaves expand.
Flowering: March to April
Habitat and ecology: R. aromatica var. aromatica is infrequent on rocky slopes and bluffs. It occasionally occurs in dry or rocky woods, glades or along roadsides. However, it is planted as an ornamental along roadsides, so many plants in these areas are not spontaneous. It often forms thickets by suckering from the roots.
Occurence in the Chicago region: native
Etymology: Rhus is the Greek name for a species of sumac. Aromatica means aromatic.
Author: The Morton Arboretum
From Flora of Indiana (1940) by Charles C. Deam
Infrequent throughout the state except on the dunes of Lake and Porter Counties where it is frequent. Found on the dunes about Lake Michigan, on the gravelly bank of the St. Joseph River, on rocky or gravelly banks and bluffs of the Wabash River and its tributaries, and in southern Indiana on bluffs and slopes of streams.