This adaptable, low-maintenance shrub or small tree offers multi-season interest and tremendous wildlife value. Staghorn sumac grows 15 to 30 feet tall and wide with a crooked or leaning trunk, velvety branches, and footlong panicles of yellowish flowers in early to mid-summer. Its most recognizable characteristic may be its erect, pyramidal clusters of fuzzy, crimson berries that are easily observed along roadsides by motorists throughout fall, winter, and spring. However, some would insist that the brilliant yellow, orange, and deep-scarlet fall hues of the palm-like foliage is the plant’s most outstanding feature. After the leaves have fallen, the pyramidal fruit spikes persist like candle flames at the ends of the branches, beckoning wildlife when food is scarce.
This vigorous shrub thrives in challenging sites where few other plants would survive. It grows in a wide range of well-drained soils--including dry and nutrient poor--and tolerates pollution, road salt, occasional drought, and proximity to black walnut. It appears naturally in areas with open canopies and light gaps and does best when sited in full or part sun. While the plant is largely pest and disease free, galls caused by the sumac leaf gall aphid may appear on leaf undersides in late summer. The galls are not generally harmful to the tree. Staghorn sumac usually reproduces by forming large, dense colonies from a single seed, often with the younger shoots surrounding the older shoots in the center. The colonies are often strictly male or female, and only the female flowers produce fruits. Because of its fast-growing, suckering habit and adaptable nature, sumac is often used along roadsides in restoration projects to stabilize dry, rocky slopes. Colonies may be rejuvenated by cutting to the ground during winter every few years.
Staghorn sumac is a member of the sumac/cashew family (Anacardiaceae). Fourteen of the 150 species are native to the United States, and staghorn sumac is the largest. The specific epithet, typhina, and the common name both refer to the young, wide-forked branches covered in reddish-brown hairs that resemble the velvet-covered antlers of a stag. Like others in its family, staghorn sumac attracts numerous bees, wasps, and beetles. Its berries are winter food for many upland gamebirds, songbirds, and large and small mammals.
Native habitats include dry uplands, abandoned fields, roadsides, forest edges, prairies, and fencerows. Use it for mass plantings, in naturalized areas, and on steep slopes. It’s most effective when drifts or colonies are allowed to establish.
Reaches 15-30’ tall and 20-30’ wide.
Prefers full or part sun.
Grows in average to dry, well-drained soils, including alkaline, clay, rocky, and loamy. Tolerates occasional drought and road salt but not overly moist conditions.
Panicles of hundreds to thousands of 5-petaled, yellowish flowers 1/8” wide occur May-July, followed by dense clusters of fuzzy, brownish-red, 1-seeded drupes about 1/6” wide from June-September.
Alternate, pinnately compound leaves are 10-22” long with 9-31 coarsely toothed leaflets that are green with pale undersides. Leaf petioles and stems are coated with rust-colored hairs. The leaf stalks are wingless, similar to smooth sumac. Fall color is brilliant shades of red, orange, and yellow.
The short trunk is up to 10” in diameter and divides frequently to form ascending branches. Leaves are only produced on new branch segments. Bark is thin and mostly smooth, sometimes peeling off in layers.
Sumacs are a host plant to 54 species of Lepidoptera larvae in central Ohio, including the luna moth, red-banded hairstreak, and spring azure butterfly. Short-tongued bees, wasps, and flies visit for nectar or pollen. Little carpenter bees make tunnel nests in the pith, causing little damage. Over 300 species of birds dine on sumac fruits, including ruffed grouses, ring-necked pheasants, eastern phoebes, common crows, northern mockingbirds, gray catbirds, American robins, wood and hermit thrushes, eastern bluebirds, and quail. Rabbits and squirrels eat the bark, and deer browse on both the stems and fruits. The dense colonies provide cover for a variety of wildlife.
Medicinal, Edible, and Other Uses:
The fruits may be soaked and washed in cold water, strained, and sweetened into a pink "lemonade" sometimes called "Indian lemonade.” The drink extract can also be used to make jelly. The shoots can be peeled and eaten raw.
Native Americans mixed the leaves and berries with tobacco and other herbs for smoking. The tannin-rich fruits, bark, and leaves were used to tan hides. The leaves and fruits were boiled to make black ink. Everything but the roots can be used as both a natural dye and as a mordant.
Some beekeepers use dried sumac bobs as a source of fuel for their smokers.
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