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Ask Mr. Smarty Plants is a free service provided by the staff and volunteers at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

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Wednesday - January 11, 2012

From: San Antonio, TX
Region: Southwest
Topic: Diseases and Disorders, Drought Tolerant, Trees
Title: Leaves dropping on evergreen sumac in San Antonio
Answered by: Barbara Medford

QUESTION:

I have a large evergreen sumac in my back yard that started off as a small shrub 10 years ago. This summer the leaves turned red and now have dropped off. Is the plant dead? It sent out two smaller plants which look fine so far, but I don't want to lose them either. Local plant experts can't figure out what may have happened, since I have done nothing different to the plant or my yard in the entire time I have lived here.

ANSWER:

Rhus virens (Evergreen sumac) is, according to this USDA Plant Profile map, native in the area of Bexar County. It is not a true evergreen; like live oaks it drops its leaves in the Spring, which are quickly replaced by new leaves. The two small plants that you are seeing are actually shoots, still part of the original tree, and emerging from the same root. We are guessing, although this tree is drought tolerant, that our unusually hot and dry weather caused it to be drought-deciduous, dropping its leaves early to protect the roots.

You aready know, because of the shoots, that the roots are still alive. Use the thumbnail test to see if any of the stems have died. Beginnning fairly close to the top (or as high as you can reach) scrape off a very thin layer of the bark with your thumbnail. If there is a thin layer of green beneath the bark scraping, that trunk is still alive. You can check other areas or branches and, if you find no green layer, move farther down on the same branch.

We could find no projected age for this plant, but its mature height is usually about 8 to 10 feet. We did find information saying it could tolerate extra watering if it was in a well-drained soil but since, as you say, the care for it has not changed in 10 years, we doubt that could be the problem. At this point, we prescribe patience. If you found the green underskin, it is probably just waiting for better times. Leaves should begin to reappear in the Spring, per schedule.

 

From the Image Gallery


Evergreen sumac
Rhus virens

Evergreen sumac
Rhus virens

Evergreen sumac
Rhus virens

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