Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) is often dismissed as a weedy shrub but it shouldn’t be. You will likely have seen its very ornamental, conical, rust-colored fruiting clusters. In the fall, it provides brilliant color, ranging from yellow-orange to bright red. It is no wonder that the plant is featured in the famous High Line in New York City, as well as Chicago's Morton Arboretum.
Staghorn sumac is very easy to grow, and doesn't mind poor soil. You can find it throughout Beverly Shores, including in the sandy dunes near Lake Michigan, but not in soggy, poorly drained areas. It does well in full sun to part shade, though full sun gives the best fall color.
Staghorn sumac looks a lot like ERG's Chinese invasive arch enemy, tree of heaven. Both have compound leaves with long, narrow leaflets. Read ERG's tree of heaven coverage to learn how to distinguish these two species. The Cliff Notes version: staghorn sumac's leaflets are serrated while tree of heaven leaflets have smooth edges except for one or two “hips” near the base. Break off a leaflet and sniff the stem. If it smells like peanut butter gone bad, you have a tree of heaven.
Staghorn sumac is named for the reddish-brown hairs that cover the young branches which resemble the new antlers of a male deer or “stag.” It grows into an open, spreading shrub or small tree that can reach a height of 15 to 25 feet. The leaves turn a dramatic yellow, orange and red in the fall. The female flowers produce long fruiting clusters containing tight spikes of hairy berries turning bright red in autumn and persisting through much of the winter. The fruit is very attractive to birds including some of our larger ones, like turkeys. But since staghorn sumac has male and female plants, large plantings are needed for this beautiful fruit to form.
In addition to its dramatic appearance, staghorn sumac’s spring-blooming flowers are very important nectar sources for many butterflies and the plant is host to the caterpillars of the spring azure butterfly. It is also very valuable for naive bees and other pollinators.
Staghorn sumac can be planted in masses on slopes for erosion control or in hard-to-cover areas with poorer soils. It can also be naturalized in open, partly sunny woodland areas. It is best grown where there is plenty of room because it can spread rapidly by suckers.
Several interesting varieties of this sumac have been developed for gardening. These include “Cutleaf” staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina ‘Laciniata') with finely divided, fern-like green leaves and yellow to red fall color. “Tiger Eyes” staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina ‘Bailtiger') also has finely divided leaves but is chartreuse green and changes to yellow, orange and red in fall.
If you have questions about staghorn sumac or other native or non-native plants, don’t hesitate to contact Terry Bonace (firstname.lastname@example.org), Candice Smith (email@example.com), or Bill Schaudt (firstname.lastname@example.org) for assistance. Also please explore our website, www.bserg.org, for further information on invasive plants and native replacements.