As I look out the window to our garden the staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) is beginning to turn brilliant orange, almost glowing in the soft morning light. Erect pyramidal clusters of fuzzy red seeds form soft spires against the foliage.
This large shrub is native to most of eastern North America east of the Mississippi River. It is widely planted, and thrives, in much of the rest of the continent. A mature sumac can reach 25 feet tall and equally broad. It’s often a multi-stemmed shrub, spreading by suckers arising from the roots. Staghorn sumac is often found in the wild on disturbed sites and woodland edges.
In the garden, plant staghorn sumac in almost any soil, as long as it is reasonably well-drained. Give it full sun or partial shade and you’ll be able to enjoy its seasonal changes for many years.
During the spring and summer it’s covered with large dark green pinnate leaves that have up to 27 leaflets. The undersides are much lighter green. In early to mid-summer female plants produce tall, showy panicles of tiny yellow flowers.
When autumn rolls around the leaves turn shades of red, orange, and yellow. The flowers mature into seeds, each a little red fuzzball and lingering long into the winter.
Once the leaves drop it’s easy to see how the plant got its common name. The stems are densely covered with hairs that resemble the velvet on the horns of male deer. The Latin species name, typhina, means “like cattail” and refers to the resemblance of the fuzzy stems to cattails.
Staghorn sumac is attractive to wildlife. According to the US Forest Service, ” Staghorn sumac seeds and fruits are eaten by many species of upland gamebirds, songbirds, and mammals]. White-tailed deer and moose browse the leaves and twigs. The bark and twigs are eaten by rabbits, especially in winter.” Deer are frequent visitors in our garden but we haven’t noticed much browsing on our sumac and the rabbits haven’t done any damage.
In addition to the straight species, the Tiger Eyes (Rhus typhina ‘Tigereye Bailtiger’) cultivar is quite popular in gardens. Tiger Eyes has more finely cut foliage that is on the chartreuse side of green and is especially striking in autumn. Another cultivar with finely divided foliage is simply called cutleaf staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina ‘Laciniata’).