Garden Oracle / Drought and Heat Tolerant Gardening / Tucson - Phoenix - Arizona - California

Growing Rhus ovata:
Sugar Bush

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Form: A shrub, or with pruning, a small tree.
Lifespan: Over 100 years.
Leaf retention: Evergreen.
Growth rate: Slow to rapid, depending on microclimate, with temperature extremes slowing growth.
Mature Size: 8-15' (2.4-4.5m) high and 8-18' (2.4-5.5m) wide.
Flowers: Five very small white to pink petals, with rounded tips, backed by reddish sepals. The flowers, sticky-sugary sap-covered and fragrant, are clustered on spikes at the end of their branches. The unopened buds are red or white. The flowers receive a sweet sap coating by dawn, which attracts insects, when rainfall or irrigation is sufficient. The sap then dries out during the day, leaving a sticky residue. The flowers are either female or male, and occur on different plants. These plants are self-incompatible and cross pollination within the same species is most likely to produce fruit. The plants may be sold as female or (fruitless) male.
Bloom: Late winter and spring. Flowers first appear after the plant is 4-6 years old.
Fruit: Small, reddish, hairy, and sticky-sugary sap-covered, the fruit are oval in shape, with thin flesh surrounding a hard shell containing one seed. Like the flowers, the fruit occur in clustered spikes, but on female plants only, and are edible.
Leaves: Green, shiny, leathery, broadly oval with a pointed tip, smooth margins, sometimes folded along the midrib.
Stems: New stems are reddish, gradually turning grey. The trunk is grey or brown and shaggy with age. The outer bark can flake off in large pieces, leaving branches entirely uncovered, apparently without harm to the plant.
Roots: An extensively branched tap root provides drought tolerance to established plants. The roots likely extend to the edge of the canopy.
Wildlife: The flowers attract bees, butterflies, and the occasional hummingbird. The fruit attracts birds and small mammals. Pieces of the bark can be removed by rodents. The leaves are unpalatable and seldom browsed by mammals.
Toxic / Danger: The ripe fruit are edible. The leaves are considered unpalatable for mammals in most locations. The sap is sweet and edible, sometimes with a lemony or lime taste. Warnings of a skin rash from the sap are common; actual reports appear nonexistent.
Origin: California, Arizona, and Mexico.

Cultivation and Uses
USDA hardiness zones: 7-11. The plants are hardy to 25°F (-3.9°C) in their first year, to 10°F (-12.2°C) after three years, and to 0°F (-17.8°C) or lower after six years.
Heat tolerant: Yes, but avoid reflected heat.
Drought tolerant: Yes.
Sun: Full sun.
Planting: Locate this plant where it will have well-draining soil, receive full sun, and be in an area large enough for its mature size to reduce pruning. Having afternoon shade 4-6' (1.2-1.8m) high, which the plant can outgrow, will help getting established. It should have good air circulation.
Soil: This plant is very tolerant of soil types that are well drained, with pH 6.1 to 7.8 (slightly acidic to slightly alkaline). Fertilizer is unnecessary because this plant grows well in poor soil. Avoid chemical fertilizers.
Water after becoming established: Deep water every 4 weeks in summer and winter, allowing for rain. Do not overwater in summer. Wet soils can result in fungal infections, especially in warm temperatures.
Mulch: Never. This plant is susceptible to root rot and other fungal infections in moist conditions and the surrounding top soil must dry quickly.
First Year Care: Protect from temperatures below 25°F (-3.9°C). Do not fertilize.
Prune: Remove weeds by hand within 6' (1.8m) of the trunk. Prune lightly to remove dead leaves and branches before bud break in winter. This shrub does not respond well to heavy pruning such as top trimming or canopy thinning.
Litter: Low.
Propagation: Seed soaked in water for 24 hours before planting in spring; root cuttings taken in winter.
Uses: Ornamental, hedge or screen, bird garden if male and female shrubs are present. A lemonade-type drink can be made from the fruit which can also be eaten fresh.

This plant is a member of the Cashew and Sumac family (Anacardiaceae). Another common name is Sugar Sumac. It is more fire resistant than most dry climate plants, especially when watered, and can resprout from its crown after a fire. It hybridizes with Lemonade Sumac: Rhus integrifolia, a coastal plant that thrives near the ocean in moderate temperatures.

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Rhus ovata: Sugar Bush flower buds

Rhus ovata: Sugar Bush flowers

Rhus ovata: Sugar Bush leaves and flowers

Rhus ovata: Sugar Bush in tree form
Rhus ovata: Sugar Bush in tree form

Latest update: March, 2024
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