“Band of Rhus Brothers”
Sumacs are a really interesting bunch of plants. Depending on which ones we’re talking about, they can be a vine, a low shrub, a tall shrub, a small tree, or a large grove of smaller trees.
Members of this local plant syndicate include the infamous poison sumac, toxic poison ivy, and the more approachable members such as staghorn, smooth, shining, and fragrant sumac.
Let’s start with my favorite. Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina) – is a stellar plant for larger places. It can be tree-like, but it thinks it’s a shrub…just a really big one. You’ll find Staghorn Sumac along highways, in open areas where little else will grow, and along the woodland edge. On several occasions, I’ve seen it trained as a single-stem tree surrounded by lawns. It sends up suckers a couple of times a year, but it’s nothing regular mowing can’t handle.
Depending on the particular ecotype, I’ve seen them as a 4′ tall spreading colony to a 20′ tall single-stem tree. Usually, they land somewhere in between, in the 10-12 foot range as a spreading colony.
Its flowers aren’t much of anything, but the large tropical-looking pinnate leaves are unique among shrubs in our area. The true beauty of this plant is the fall color – which is unrivaled amongst our flora except maybe by Sugar Maple, J.N. Strain Musclewood, and perhaps Chokeberry. Staghorn Sumacs are indifferent to soil conditions except that they don’t like very wet sites.
The coarse structure of Staghorn Sumac is interesting in winter; tall barren stems topped with dark red clusters of fuzzy berry-like seeds in a rough cone shape. They are not relished by birds, but it seems they serve as a desperate late winter fare, as they usually seem to get picked over a few months after the snow falls.