Rhus, - derived from the same root as Rosa, rhudd, in Celtic, signifying red, on account of the color of the fruit.
Some of the species are valuable in the arts, for tanning, dyeing, varnish, etc. The Sumachs are much cultivated for their singularity, and for the beauty of the foliage, especially in autumn, when it assumes the richest colors. "The most elegant species cannot be safely admitted into a garden, on account of their poisonous qualities."
Rhus typhina. - Stag's-Horn Sumach. - This is one of the safe species, and highly ornamental in the shrubbery, on account of its elegant compound leaves and bunches of rich scarlet berries. . The shrub, which grows to the height of twelve to twenty feet, is ugly shaped, its branches being rather naked and crooked. It must, therefore, be planted with other shrubs, so as to conceal, as much as possible, the crooked, irregular stems and branches. There is no particular beauty in the flowers; but in July and August the heads of berries begin to assume a rich scarlet color, afterwards turning to purple, and remain conspicuous and beautiful into winter; while in autumn the leaves begin early to turn, and become of a red color, with various shades of yellow, orange, and purple. The ends of the branches, from their irregularity and the abundant down with which they are covered, resemble the young horns of the stag, whence their name.
Rhus copallina, - The Mountain Sumach, - is another beautiful species, "found growing on dryrocks, or sandy hills, about the same height of the last, in favorable, protected situations, but usually about three to five feet. The varnished polish of the leaves, and the rich purple they assume in autumn, as well as the scarlet of the leafy heads of fruit, make this species one of the most beautiful of the genus."
Rhus glabra. - The Smooth Sumach. - This is a hand-some, spreading, leafy bush, usually four to six, rarely ten, feet high. The leaves are compound, smooth, of a rich green. The flowers are disposed of in a large green head, of yellowish-green color, and agreeable fragrance. The velvety crimson heads of berries on this plant, as on the others, are very acid and astringent. The leaves are used in tanning.
Rhus cotinus. - Venetian Sumach, or Smoke Tree. - This species is much cultivated as an ornamental shrub. It is a crooked, straggling growing plant, from ten to fifteen feet high. No attempt should be made to make it grow straight by pruning, as it looks the best when left to itself, clothed with branches to the ground. Persons ignorant of the habits of the shrub,
Rhus. 263 often complain of nurserymen because they do not give them regular-shaped plants; but this is impossible, nor is it desirable.
The foliage is handsome; the flowers are disposed of in large panicles, first green, changing to a reddish-brown, and afterwards a brownish smoke color. The flowers, or appendages to them, have the appearance of downy silk, in light, airy masses, and, as the plant is nearly covered with these graceful clusters, have some resemblance to puffs of smoke emerging from the graceful leaves.
It is propagated from layers, very readily, and probably from seed, which, however, we have never seen. It is well adapted to the shrubbery.
"In Greece and Russia, the shrub is used for tanning, and for dyeing a rich, beautiful yellow, and in Italy and about Venice, for dyeing black, and also for tanning."
The poisonous species of Rhus to be avoided are, R. venenata and R. toxicodendron.
Rhus venenata. - The Poison Sumach, or Dogwood. - "This is the most poisonous woody plant of New England. Some persons are so susceptible to its influence as to be poisoned by the air blowing from it, or being near a fire on which it is burning. The poison shows itself in painful and long-continued swellings and eruptions of the face and hands, and other parts of the body. The effects are exasperated by smelling or handling the plant. Other persons handle and rub it, and even chew and swallow the leaves, with impunity.
"The Poison Sumach is, perhaps, the most beautiful plant of the swamps." It is a shrub from eight to fifteen feet in height. The leaves are compound, having from three to thirteen leaflets, that are attached to the mid-rib without much if any stem, or, as the botanist terms it, "nearly sessile." The leaves are a dark-green, with a rich polish; the veins of a purplish-red above, much paler, sometimes downy, beneath.
The flowers, which are small and greenish-yellow, are in open, loose panicles, ten or twelve inches long, from the axils of the leaves. These are succeeded by pendent clusters of whitish berries. The writer has had painful experience, in his younger days, of the bad influence of this plant upon his person, having been thoroughly poisoned a number of times by approaching it. I imagined that it would poison me when I came near the plant, even without a touch; therefore, always carefully avoided it.
R. toxicodendron. - Poison Ivy. - "This is a handsome climbing plant, and would be desirable for covering walls, trees, etc., were it not for its poisonous qualities. It is very hardy, frequent in moist or shady places, climbing over rocks, to which it attaches itself by numerous radicles, which penetrate the investing lichens, or over bushes, or along the trunks of trees, often to a great height, fastening itself to the bark so firmly that it breaks more readily than it is detached, and so closely as to impede the growth of the plant. The leaves are smooth, and shining on both surfaces. The plant is poisonous, like the last, but in an inferior degree."