A Gardening Journal

Cut-leaved Staghorn Sumac

rhus-typhina-laciniata-candelabra-type-growth-01071-640

 

Thick branches of candelabra-like stems give staghorn sumac a dramatic and even prehistoric presence in Winter. Older stems are readily colonized by lichen, furthering the shrub's look of age and gnarled endurance.

 

rhus-typhina-laciniata-lichened-trunk-010713-640

 

The young twigs are thick and covered with velvet, just like any proper stag's antlers.

 

rhus-typhina-laciniata-uncoppiced-growth-twig-011713-640

 

The free-range growth in the pictures above is only one of three options for this versatile shrub. The tall and rail-straight stem in the picture below grew in response to pruning. Rhus typhina 'Laciniata' throws new shoots from stumps as well as directly from the roots. They grow several times as quickly as free-range twigs from unpruned branches—see how much farther apart the leaf scars of the shoot are compared to those of the twig above—and can become three to five feet long in a single season.

 

rhus-typhina-laciniata-coppice-induced-twig-010713-640

 

The picture below shows that it's quite an awkward look when straight new stems arise near bent and lichened old ones.

 

rhus-typhina-laciniata-lichened-trunk-010713-640

 

With staghorn sumac, it's best to make your choice early: Do you want to enhance the display of older antler-like branches?  Or do you want to forgo those in favor of the tall-and-straight younger branches? If you want to go younger, you've got two more choices to make. See "Quirks and special cases" for recommendations on all the options for helping this unusual native shrub look its best.

 

Here's how to grow this dramatic native shrub:

 

Latin name

Rhus typhina 'Laciniata'

Common name

Cut-leaf staghorn sumac

Family

Anacardiaceae, the Cashew family.

What kind of plant is it

Deciduous shrub or small tree.

Hardiness

Zones 4 to 8.

Habit

Thick stems branch and rebranch, usually developing pronounced to-and-fro leaning as they go. The roots sucker relentlessly along their entire length, enabling establishment of a colony that, unless restrained, will quickly take over all available space. See "How to handle it" for suggestions for control.  

Rate of growth

Fast.

Size in ten years

Lateral spread is definite unless the colony is restrained. Potential heights are listed as thirty to sixty feet, but I have never seen a colony in New England taller than fifteen. Ten to twelve feet is more typical. Taller at the warmer end of its hardiness range; a colony in Alabama is over fifty feet high. 

Texture

In leaf, feathery and almost palmy, thanks to the pinnate leaves that are large enough to seem like fronds of tropical ferns or palms. Their size is worth enhancing; see "How to handle it: Another option—or two!"

 

Out of leaf, architectural and big-boned. Delicate sensibilities would call it coarse. 

Grown for

its foliage: Pinnate and large, with leaflets that are slender and much-divided. Although Rhus typhina is hardy into Quebec, when in leaf it has a tropically ferny or palmy look.

 

its stems: Free-range branching is irregular and "artistic," with large candelabras of stems that help inspire the "staghorn" name. Young growth is covered with a cinnamon-colored velvet that only enhances the similarity to antlers. Root suckers as well as stems produced in response to pruning are contrastingly broomstick-straight. See "Quirks and special cases," below, for strategies to shift the display towards a more pure display of either antler-type or broomstick-type growth.

 

its fruit: The species is dioecious but, to date, all cultivars are females, whose ball-bearing-sized fruit is ruddy red and held in tightly packed, long lasting panicles at the tips of the branches. Although Rhus typhina is native, and the tiny fruits are so edible they can infuse a kind of lemonade, I've never been aware that Rhus typhina 'Laciniata' spreads by seed. I'm also not aware of volunteers of the straight species, either.

 

its toughness and intrepidness: The shrub is justly famous for colonizing hot and, seemingly, soil-free habitat such as that along railroad tracks.

Flowering season

Early Summer: The greenish-yellow flowers ripen quickly to showy brick-red fruits, which are showy well into the Winter. 

Color combinations

The panicles of fruit achieve their full brick-red color just when the garden reaches its August-into-September peak, and hold that color through Fall and into Winter. Happily, all the colors of Fall foliage are natural partners for the fruit: Yellow, orange, red, tan, and burgundy. The pinks and blues of late-season asters or the last of the dahlias should be kept far away.

Partner plants

Colonies of Rhus typhina usually have foliage only at the tips of the stems, leaving the majority of the stem, and all of the ground, in full view. Unless you are a diligent weeder, you'll want to combine staghorn sumac with a groundcover. The sumac stems are leafless but also architecturally prominent during the cold months, and show up even better with evergreenery to their backs and at their feet. As is so often the case, a carefully-pruned hedge of yew would be an ideal contrast, bringing monumental simplicity near to rough-boned and sculptural wildness.

 

A shade-tolerant groundcover that is evergreen is another cold-season opportunity not to be missed. Choose one that allows the suckering sumac roots to sprout where they may, so avoid shrubby groundcovers whose woody stems and congested growth might tangle with the sumac's shoots. No prostrate plum yews, then. No Zabel's cherry laurel, either. Pachysandra or vinca are the first choices, and are economical enough to use in the large quantity, and with the dense planting, that will provide quick coverage where an often-large-sized colony is desired.

 

Both groundcovers will thrive only in normally moisture-retentive and nutrient-rich soil. If you're planting staghorn sumac in soil that's shallow or dry or nutrient-poor—where the sumac will thrive—you'll need to forgo evergreen groundcovers. Euphorbia cyparissius won't help the cold-weather look, but it is every bit as intrepid a colonizer as the sumac. And it's weed-proof when happy. Physalis alkekengi is another herbaceous terror to consider. While neither groundcover is a choice for deep shade, the filigree shadow of the Rhus foliage hardly qualifies as shade at all.

 

My colony of Rhus typhina is in a small planting pocket surrounded by bluestone, in the center of my red garden. Only the warm-weather appeal—and only from July into October—is important. I've planted Physalis at its base as much to function as a groundcover as to lessen my chances of having Japanese lanterns grow throughout the garden.  So far, so good.

 

Older stems of Rhus typhina usually develop a pronounced lean; the wood is just not that strong. So I caution against bringing an evergreen element to the shrub's Winter look via any self-clinger such as ivy or euonymus. One icy snowfall and the entire sumac would probably collapse.

Where to use it in your garden

Staghorn sumac is vigorous enough to use for large-scale filler, and so aggressive in the hot and dry sites it thrives in that some may exile it to isolated hardship sites. If it can be sited where control is practical, the shrub is one of the strongest year-round "design" statements that can be made in a cold-climate garden. A small colony—ten feet square, say—could anchor any building, while a hundred feet of the shrub could partner even the largest skyscraper or low-rise campus. The stark Winter branching and lush Summer foliage are both at home near contemporary architecture, even the most uncompromisingly minimalist. The shrub is so hardy, and so happy in poor soils and in hot sun, that it could grow year-round in a large above-ground container.

Culture

Full sun in any soil as long as the drainage is good. Completely happy in sandy, gravelly, or otherwise nutrient-pool soil; a quick failure in soil that drains poorly. Sumac is very tolerant of exposed coastal sites, whether the water is fresh or salt.

How to handle it: The Basics

Plant any time the soil is workable and you have the plants and the energy; Rhus typhina is so hardy and so tough that it doesn't require a specific planting season. The shrub grows quickly, so there is no need to seek out large stock. Youngsters are often painfully scrawny—often just one tall stick with a few leaves at the top. Even though that single stick will form a colony in just a couple of years, it's a better look to plant at least three to start. Plants of Rhus typhina are inexpensive, so why not?

 

If your goal is a mass planting, space plants three to five feet apart, in staggered rows, for a reasonable fullness even in year two. All such mass plantings mature better if the planting area has been cleared of vegetation first, and is tilled and mulched just as if you were going to plant a perennial border. That said, as long as extant growth is kept lower, so as not to shade out the young sumac stems, Rhus typhina seems peculiarly able to colonize right into extant growth. Natural colonies also seem unusually open and pure, without the self-seeded competitors—bittersweet, briar, multiflora rose, poison ivy—that would otherwise infiltrate any sunny and well-drained wild space in New England. Staghorn sumac accepts underplanting of groundcovers well when used in a garden, so its prowess at keeping away natural competitors is a mystery.

How to handle it: Another option—or two?

To control its ever-outward suckering roots, site Rhus typhina as you would bamboo. Pure colonies surrounded by a wide lawn will be controlled just by regular grass mowing. Here in New England, the roots aren't able to travel underground the width of a paved driveway, but are not fazed by the width of a standard poured-concrete walkway. They are able to insert themselves through the tiniest gap, so cracks or expansion joints might show sprouts. Colonies that are bounded by building foundations only need control on the remaining sides.

 

It would be ideal siting if the colony could be surrounded by foundation walls on all sides, which would be the case if Rhus typhina were planted in large raised beds, or in the midst of a large terrace. Another ideal site would abut poorly-drained soil or even open water. Like bamboo, Rhus typhina cannot infiltrate soil that is saturated.

Any (other) quirks or special cases?

Foliage size as well as the length of first-year stems can both be increased by cutting all stems down to stumps each Spring. Normally, such coppicing is done only down to six inches or even a foot. With Rhus typhina, "extreme" coppicing—right down to the ground—is an unusual option, because the shrub suckers so well directly from the roots.

 

Resultant stems grow upward as straight as broomsticks, and almost as high, with just a few leaves at the tip. In Summer, the look would be that of a phalanx of young treeferns; in Winter, a phalanx of fuzzy, well, broomsticks. In either season, the effect would be dramatic and sui generis.

 

Because almost any pruning can result in such broomstick shoots—even yanking up suckers, which are themselves, of course, nothing but starter broomsticks—it would take dedication to limit a colony of Rhus typhina to just one or a few trunk-like main stems. As I've demonstrated with the handling of my own colony, albeit inadvertently, the juxtaposition of gnarly and lichen-covered trunks with ramrod-straight young growth arising alongside is not a happy one.

 

Even so, it should be possible to control ground-level suckers while also encouraging (or, at least, experimenting with) broomstick growth from the tops of old trunks.  In other words, to grow Rhus typhina as a pollard. A phalanx of broomstick shoots from a coppiced sumac is one kind of drama. A spherical explosion of them at the top of a trunk would be quite another.

Downsides

The roots are far-reaching, and can sucker anywhere along their length. The suckers are easy to pull, but this doesn't stop additional ones from forming.

Variants

The foliage of 'Dissecta' is even more finely divided. That of 'Tiger Eyes' is bright yellow, and holds the color the entire season. These two and 'Laciniata' are female; to my knowledge, there is no source for plants of Rhus typhina that are confirmed as male. Fortunately, shrubs bear fruit reasonably well even without a male pollinator nearby. 

 

Availability

On-line and at retailers.

Propagation

By division. The shrub is infamous for its vigorous suckering. Chop out portions at almost any time and replant elsewhere.

Native habitat

Rhus typhina is native to the northeastern United States and adjacent portions of Ontario and Quebec.  

 
 
FacebookTwitterRSS Feed

Stay in touch!

 

Sign up for twice-monthly eNews, plus notification of new posts:

 

* indicates required