“Life finds a way,” says Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park. He’s talking about dinosaurs, but the principle holds for staghorn sumac, too. This native shrub finds a way to succeed spectacularly in the most unfriendly of habitats. Across the eastern United States in early autumn, for instance, bone-dry highway hillsides are painted brilliant red thanks to this tough colonizer. It marches for miles by suckering and by self-seeding via its pyramidal clusters of fuzzy red berries. If you’ve got a spot that’s downright hostile to plant life, introduce it to staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) and stand back.
Common name: Staghorn sumac, velvet sumac, fuzzy sumac
Botanical name: Rhus typhina
Plant type: Deciduous shrub
Zones: 3 to 8
Height: 15 to 20 feet tall
• Sun: Full sun to part shade
• Soil: Average, well-drained. Tolerates many types of soil.
• Moisture: Average to dry
• Mulch: Mulch to help keep soil moist.
• Pruning: Cut suckers to the ground if you want to prevent staghorn sumac from forming a thicket.
• Fertilizer: None needed.
• By seed, cutting, or division.
Pests and diseases
• Caterpillars, aphids, and scale insects may appear.
• May be vulnerable to powdery mildew, wood rot, leaf spot, blister, and canker.
• The same qualities that make staghorn sumac a champion next to interstates make it a plant to handle carefully in the garden. Plant it in a spot where you actually want it to spread.
• The berries of staghorn sumac aren’t poisonous. In fact, you can use them to make tea, lemonade, or wine. Just soak the berries in cold water, strain, and sweeten. Poison sumac (Rhus vernix or Toxicodendron vernix) has white or gray berries, and its leaves and stems are smooth, not hairy.
• R. typhina is most spectacular in the fall, when its leaves turn blazing red. Give it fall-blooming neighbors like asters, goldenrod, black-eyed Susan, and ornamental grasses.
• Male and female flowers are on separate plants; only the female plants produce the showy fruit.
• There are two cultivars known as cutleaf staghorn sumac: R. typhina ‘Dissecta’ and R. typhina ‘Laciniata’. They’re almost impossible to tell apart. Both are female plants with deeply cut, fernlike foliage.
• R. typhina ‘Baitiger’ Tiger Eyes is another cutleaf staghorn sumac, but its golden-green color and small size set it apart from the other cultivars.
All in the family
• Mango, pistachio, and smoke tree are other familiar species in Anacardiaceae.
• The genus Rhus contains about 200 species from all over the world: North America, South Africa, East Asia, and Australia.
• Another common North American sumac is smooth sumac (Rhus glabra), which is nearly identical to R. typhina, except it has no hair on the stems. It also has a cutleaf cultivar—R. glabra ‘Laciniata’.
(Text by Elizabeth Noll, photo of Rhus typhina by Tracy Walsh.)