Carnegiea gigantea, Giant Saguaro

Southwest Desert Flora

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

Cirsium ochrocentrum, Yellowspine Thistle

Rhus trilobata var. trilobata, Skunkbush Sumac

Skunkbush Sumac has many small inconspicuous flowers on the tips of short stiff branches. Plants bloom from March to May or later across its wide geographic range. Rhus trilobata var. trilobata Skunkbush Sumac has red or red-orange fruits, known as drupes, which are also hairy and sticky. Rhus trilobata var. trilobata Skunkbush Sumac has fragrant green leaves, deciduous, flat alternate and trifoliate. The terminal leaflet often has several lobes. Rhus trilobata var. trilobata Skunkbush Sumac grows up to 8 feet or more in height and 6 to 10 feet wide. The shrubs are erect with multiple arching branches. The plants are woody with a disagreeable scent. Rhus trilobata var. trilobata

Scientific Name: Rhus trilobata var. trilobata
Common Name: Skunkbush Sumac
Also Called: Aromatic Sumac, Basketbush, Fragrant Sumac, Ill-scented Sumac, Lemon Sumac, Polecat Bush, Scented Sumac, Skunk Bush (Spanish: Limita, Aigritas)

Family: Anacardiaceae, Sumac Family
Synonyms: (Rhus aromatica ssp. flabelliformis, Rhus aromatica ssp. trilobata, Rhus aromatica var. flabelliformis, Rhus aromatica var. trilobata, Rhus trilobata, Rhus trilobata var. anisophylla, Rhus trilobata var. quinata, Rhus trilobata var. racemulosa, Rhus trilobata var. serotina, Rhus trilobata var. trilobata, Schmaltzia trilobata)

Status: Native

Duration: Perennial

Size: Up to 8 feet or more and 6 to 10 feet wide.

Growth Form: Shrub, erect, multiple branches, arching, ascending; plants woody with disagreeable scent.

Leaves: Green; deciduous, flat; alternate, leaves trifoliate, the terminal leaflet often has several lobes, leaves are without pubescence; leaves fragrant; mature leaflets coarsely-toothed.

Flower Color: Yellow or whitish-yellow and bright red; inflorescence appears before leaves; flowers sessile on tips of short stiff branches; fruit a hairy, sticky, bright red or red-orange drupe.

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

Elevation: 2,500 to 7,500 feet; below 6,500 feet in California.

Habitat Preferences: Wide-ranging; mid to upper deserts, mesas and lower mountain habitats; common on slopes, canyons, rocky hillsides; variable plant communities where it is found in chaparral, madrean pine-oak woodlands, pinyon-pine woodlands ponderosa pine forests and riparian communities.

Recorded Range: Rhus trilobata var trilobata is native mostly to the western ½ of the United States; to Alberta and Saskatchewan, Canada and to Baja California and Mexico.

North America & US County Distribution Map for Rhus trilobata var. trilobata.

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: Skunkbush is so named because it gives off an odor when the leaves or stems are bruised or intentionally crushed. This odor is ill-scented to some while fragrant to others. Its scientific epithet "trilobata" is a direct reference to its trifoliate leaves.

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

Importance to Wildlife, Birds and Livestock
Rhus trilobata var. trilobata is browsed by big game such as elk, mule deer and white-tailed deer, bighorn sheep and pronghorn. It is also browsed by small mammals such as jackrabbits and cottontails. The plants are important winter food sources for birds, particularly upland game birds. Livestock will occasionally browse on Skunkbush.

Special Value to Native Bees, Butterflies and Insects
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 trilobata var. trilobata is included. Find out more from Butterflies and Moths of North America.

According to Arizona Flora Native Americans ate the berries and used the stems to make baskets, while other parts of the plant were used as a mordant to help bind dyes. Skunkbush has been used as a cold remedy, burn dressing and miscellaneous disease remedies. This is an important species to southwestern American indigenous peoples.
Date Profile Completed: 11/26/2014, 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).
Anderson, Michelle D. 2004. Rhus trilobata. In: Fire Effects Information System, [Online]. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory (Producer). Available: [2017, May 1].
John M. Miller & Dieter H. Wilken 2017. Rhus aromatica, in Jepson Flora Project (eds.) Jepson eFlora, as Rhus aromatic var. trilobata., accessed on May 01, 2017.
John L. Anderson, 2007, CANOTIA: Vascular Plants of Arizona: Anacardiaceae, Volume 3, issue 1, Arizona State University Vascular Plant Herbarium.
SEINet for synonyms, scientific names and recorded geographic locations,