Carnegiea gigantea, Giant Saguaro

Southwest Desert Flora

Home to the plants of the Sonoran, Chihuahuan and Mojave Deserts

Cirsium ochrocentrum, Yellowspine Thistle

Rhus ovata, Sugar Sumac

Sugar Sumac or Mountain Laurel has small but attractive cream, white or pinkish flowers. The inflorescence is a dense panicle. Rhus ovata Sugar Sumac fruit is a drupe, pretty red berries, often sticky. The plants bloom from March to April or later across its small geographic range.  Rhus ovata Sugar Sumac has bright green shiny leathery leaves that are mostly evergreen. The leaves are heart shaped to elliptic, often folding at the midrib. Rhus ovata Sugar Sumac grows in elevations from 3,000 to 5,000 across its range in Arizona and California. Preferred habitats are south-facing slopes, rocky hillsides and washes. The bright green leaves make the plants conspicuous in mid-desert chaparral communities. Rhus ovata

Scientific Name: Rhus ovata
Common Name: Sugar Sumac

Also Called: Mountain Laurel, Sugar Bush, Sugar-bush (Spanish: Lentisco)

Family: Anacardiaceae, Sumac Family

Synonyms: (Rhus ovata var. traskiae)

Status: Native

Duration: Perennial

Size: 6 to 15 feet (1.8-4.6 m) tall.

Growth Form: Large shrub with rounded appearance or small tree; evergreen, densely leaved, twigs reddish, stout branches, puberulent early then becoming glabrate; old bark shaggy.

Leaves: Bright green; evergreen, shiny, leathery, leaves 1.6 to 3.3 inches (4-8.5 cm) long and 1 to 2 inches (3-5 cm) wide and alternate along the stem or twig; shape variable, heart shaped or ovate; margins entire; glabrous; simple; petiolate; folding at midrib.

Flower Color: Cream, white or pinkish, deep red; inflorescence dense panicles, glabrous; sepals red or magenta; petals cream to pinkish, ciliate; fruit a reddish lenticular-pubescent, sticky (viscid) red berries.

Flowering Season: March to April or later; March to May in California.

Elevation: 1,800 to 6,200 feet (550-1,900 m); below 4,000 feet (1,220 m) in California.

Habitat Preferences: Mid to upper edge of Sonoran Desert, canyons, rocky hillsides, along washes, south-facing slopes and mesas, common in chaparral.

Recorded Range: Rare in the United States found in southern California and central and northwest Arizona. Also found in Baja California.

North America & US County Distribution Map for Rhus ovata.

U.S. Weed Information: No data available.
Invasive/Noxious Weed Information: No data available.
Wetland Indicator: No data available.
Threatened/Endangered Information: No data available.

Genus Information: In North America there are 18 for Rhus. Worldwide, The Plant List includes 131 accepted species names and a further 96 scientific names of infraspecific rank for genus Rhus. The genus Rhus was published by Carl Linnaeus in 1753.

In the Southwestern United States: Arizona and Texas each have 7 species of genus, California has 5 species, Nevada has 2 species, New Mexico has 5 species and Utah has 3 species. All data approximate and subject to revision.

Comments: Sugar Sumac is an attractive plant often used as an ornamental and desert landscape specimen in central and southern Arizona and southern California.

In California, Sugar Sumac is similar in appearance to, and known to hybridize with, Lemonade Sumac, Rhus integrifolia.

In Southwest Desert Flora also see; Kearney's Sumac, Rhus kearneyi, Littleleaf Sumac, Rhus microphylla and Skunkbush Sumac, Rhus trilobata var. trilobata and Smooth Sumac, Rhus glabra.

Importance to Wildlife, Birds and Livestock
The fruit and flowers are also popular with birds and butterflies and the plant itself provides good habitat for birds.

Special Value to Native Bees, Butterflies and Insects
According to the The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, Rhus ovata has special value to Native Bees and provides nesting materials and structure; According to Butterflies and Moths of North America, several varieties of butterflies and moths regularly visit member of the genus Rhus. It is likely Rhus ovata is included. Find out more from Butterflies and Moths of North America. and from the Pollinator Program at The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation.

Ethno-Herbalist: Southern California Ethnobotany; Ethnobotany of Southern California Native Plants:Rhus ovata.

Rhus ovata has been used for food and other purposes American indigenous peoples.
Cahuilla Drug, Cold Remedy, Infusion of leaves taken for colds.
Cahuilla Food, Dried Food, Berries dried.
Cahuilla Food, Porridge, Berries ground into a flour for mush.
Coahuilla Drug, Analgesic, Infusion of leaves taken for chest pain.
Diegueno Drug, Gynecological Aid, Infusion of leaves taken just before the birth for an easy delivery.
Yavapai Food, Fruit, Mashed, raw berries used for food.

See other ethno-botanical uses at Native American Ethnobotany, University of Michigan, Dearborn.

Date Profile Completed: 11/21/2014, updated 01/21/2020
Arizona Flora, Kearney, Thomas H., Peebles, Robert H., 1960, University of California Press, Berkley and Los Angeles, California.
U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service on-line database – ITIS search (accessed 01/18/2020).
The Plant List (2013). Version 1.1. Published on the Internet; (accessed 01/17/2020).
John L. Anderson, 2006; Vascular Plants of Arizona: Anacardiaceae, Sumac Family. CANOTIA 3(2): 13-22.
Sonoran Desert Field Guide, Plagens, Michael J., accessed 04/28/2017.
John M. Miller & Dieter H. Wilken 2017. Rhus ovata, in Jepson Flora Project (eds.) Jepson eFlora,, accessed on January 21, 2020.
'Rhus ovata', Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 19 December 2019, 07:34 UTC, [accessed 21 January 2020]
SEINet for synonyms, scientific names and recorded geographic locations,