Staghorn Sumac

Fall is one of my favorite times of the year. The weather gets more enjoyable with many fun outdoor activities. Also, the trees and shrubs all around us become so colorful. A great plant that grows wild all along roadsides and fields would be Sumac.

Staghorn sumac, branch, Bill Cook, Michigan State Univ, Bugwood
Staghorn Sumac stem with velvety hairs, Photo by Bill Cook, Michigan State University, Bugwood.org

Staghorn sumac, Rhus typhina, is a large shrub or small tree that grows up to 15-20 feet tall and will colonize as it grows. Staghorn sumac plants have compound leaves with 13-27 leaflets that are each 2-5 inches long. The full leaf of a staghorn sumac are 12-24 inches long. Sumac can be grown as a large shrub or small tree, depending on pruning, and it will sucker to colonize. The leaves turn a bright red color in the fall, making them a great plant for fall interest. The flowers of sumac are very small and white and are held in a panicle. Staghorn sumac is a unique sumac that is hairy throughout the majority of the plant. The stems are covered with velvety hairs, as are the fruits. The fruits are crimson red and develop on the sumac in the late summer and will persist through winter.

One fun variety of the staghorn sumac is var. laciniata which has divided leaflets, making it look like a fern. This is commonly called cutleaf staghorn sumac. There is a cutleaf smooth sumac as well, which would not have the velvety hair all over the plant but has the divided leaflets. The Cutleaf smooth sumac turns more orange in the fall, if you are looking for that color. There is an Aromatic sumac, Rhus aromatica, which is named for the aromatic scent that it has when the leaves or stems are bruised. Aromatic sumac is shorter, it only grows up to 6 feet tall and it has a shorter cultivar called ‘Gro-Low’ which only grows to about 2-3 feet tall but gets up to 8 feet wide.

Sumac can be found growing almost anywhere. It is planted along the roadsides in ditches and you can find it growing almost as a weed in forested areas. It is very widespread because it is very adaptable to almost any type of environmental conditions. Sumac can withstand almost any growing conditions, except permanently wet soils.

Sumac is a native plant to Nebraska. According the “Weeds of the Great Plains” by the Nebraska Department of Agriculture, it is used by wildlife as a food resource. The berries are eaten by many birds, the leaves are eaten by sheep, deer, and rabbits occasionally. Sumac is also used by wildlife and livestock as a shelter. Historically, Native Americans used the fruit to make a lemon-flavored drink. They also smoked the leaves and used the stems to make a yellow dye. Sumac is also a good pollinator plant for honeybees, and other native bees.

Sumac is a great plant for an acreage or other areas in your landscape. It would work best as a hedge or soil stabilizing plant in any location. This would be a great fall interest plant for any landscape due to the beautiful, bright red coloration of the leaves in the fall, just make sure you have room to accommodate the colony that will develop. It is also a great plant for wildlife and pollinators, so a great choice for many landscapes.

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