Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Wildflower Wednesday - Staghorn Sumac

Our house is located just a short walk from the beach and at all times of year you can find us wandering down to look at the water and stretch our legs.  On the side of the dirt road as you come to the water there is a stand of Staghorn sumac or Rhus typhina that always captures my attention.

This shrub is native to eastern North America and stands anywhere from 3 - 10 metres tall.  They like full sun and well drained soil.  In fact poor soil conditions will suit these plants just fine.  They're most important requirement is no standing water.  The plants spread aggressively via rhizomes and form large colonies.  The spreading open form makes it easily identifiable at any time of year but during the cold days of winter the red fruiting cones are what makes me take notice.

The cones are what botanists call a drupe.  That means there's a fleshy outer coating around a seed.  Essentially the cones are comprised of many many berries containing a seed in each one.  So not only do sumacs spread by their rhizomes, the birds that feast upon the berries are also spreading the seeds.  Planting one of these shrubs would mean attracting all sorts of feathered attention including ruffed grouse, ring necked pheasant, crows, gray catbird, hermit thrush, robins, eastern phoebe, eastern bluebird and starlings among others.  The berries weren't terribly damaged when we walked past these shrubs a few weeks ago but I'm sure as winter drags on there will be little left. 

The birds have begun to peck away at this cone
As I was photographing these plants my husband asked me their name.  I told him Staghorn sumac and he responded 'how in the world will I be able to remember that?'.  That brings me to the other notable feature of these plants.  Take a close look at the branches.

I got hubby to reach out and touch them.  The new growth each year is covered in a soft fuzz.  Like the velvet on the new horns of a deer in spring.  The branches are extremely soft to the touch.  Their texture and the open shape of the branches is an instant reminder of the name - staghorn.  We'll see if he remembers it the next time we walk down this road.

Many of the details about this native shrub were learned from the wonderful information presented by our local institution, the MacPhail Woods Foresty Project.  Being new to eastern Canada and the province of Prince Edward Island I have so much to learn about the native plants around me and MacPhail has been a wonderful resource in this regard.  I was very pleased to learn this shrub likes poor dry soil as I had rather expected it required lots of water.  Now I'm thinking I might make a spot for it in my garden, possibly adding it to the hedgerow where it can expand as much as it likes.

Wildflower Wednesday is brought to you by Gail at Clay and Limestone.  On the fourth Wednesday of each month garden bloggers come together to share their favourite wildflowers and native plants.


  1. It is gorgeous shrub. I like the leaves on it too. If you have room to let it do its thing, go for it!

    (I learned something new about the velvet on the branches - thanks!)

  2. I learned something today here. I did not know the seed heads were cones or called drupes.I love this plant in fall and like you said, I love it too for all the wildlife that feast on it.

  3. Love sumac! There is a lot here in Ontario and I love the bright red of the leaves in autumn. Good to know how easily it spreads and the birds that it attracts. Being a wood carver it is an excellent type to carve as its variagation is so beautiful, albeit the branches are quite slender. A plant I will definitely add at Crofters Lane.

  4. I so love these beauties~I've been clearing away some invasives (!) and have the perfect spot for them to take over! Lovely photos and thank you for celebrating wildflowers with us! gail

  5. Ms. S - the leaves are interesting aren't they? I've been thinking about creating a tropical-ESQUE sort of area in my yard and I think these shrubs might fit the bill. I really like that they have winter interest.

    Gardenwalk - I'll admit this is the first I've heard of a drupe myself. I was looking up some info and a site mentioned drupe so I had to look it up. Essentially any fruit with a stone inside (peaches, cherries) is a drupe. Kind of interesting.

    Jane - wow, you can carve this stuff? I didn't think the plant would be big enough but then I've seen some sumacs trained into a tree form so the trunk can get quite thick. very cool.

    Thanks for having me Gail. I'm thrilled to have an excuse to learn more about the native plants in this area.

  6. We have them growing wild all around us in dry rocky areas. For some reason they look highly primitive to me, like they belong in a scene with dinosaurs browsing! I don't know why, but to me they just don't look like they belong in our woods and fields!

  7. They're beautiful, aren't they, especially this time of year. One of these days, I'm going to give lemonade a go with the berries.

  8. Laurrie - They do have a funny look to them don't they? I guess that's why I've always noticed them, there's nothing else quite like it.

    Liz - you can make lemonade with them? That's a pretty neat idea. Does that involve crushing/juicing the berries? I hadn't thought that people might eat them.

  9. Hope you don't mind a link here, but check this out...

  10. Hello Marguerite : )
    I am just catching up on some blog reading now and have to comment on this one especially.
    I have a Staghorn Sumac (along with a Tiger Eye) .. If you go back wards on my blog you will see that I pollard my sumac each Spring to have it form a top almost looking like a palm tree .. I haven't been able to find another gardener that does it like I do yet ! It has a twisted trunk with two many leaders. It is my baby in the garden : )
    Yes .. it sends out runners like mad and I have to yank out a lot of wanna'be trees but I am willing to pay the price for how it looks !
    Joy : )
    Merry Ho Ho !

  11. Sumac is also native to our area, and in the fall it provides the most beautiful color along the roadsides. But I didn't know much about it before--thanks for such great information! I love those drupes; I'll have to pay closer attention to see if I can see them as I'm driving down the highway.

    Thanks for visiting me, and best wishes for a Merry Christmas!

  12. Liz - that's a great link, thanks! It seems the sumac lemonade is quite popular.

    CanadianGardenJoy - There's a house in our area that has their sumac trained to tree form as well! but you're right, it's not very common as that's the only one I've seen. Quite a beautiful sight.

    Rose - I've read about how sumac changes colour in fall but thus far I haven't noticed that here. Perhaps I'm just not looking at the right times. I'll have to pay more attention next year. Thanks for visiting!

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  14. These are great winter pictures of the staghorn sumac -- it helped me double check my ID of a couple clumps in my neighborhood I just spotted on my walk today. If you're interested in making sumac-ade (or eating shoots), check out Samuel Thayer's "The Forager's Harvest". There is a good section on sumac in there.

  15. Anonymous - I'm glad these photos helped. Sometimes it's difficult when you only see a plant in one season to judge what it might be at other times of year.