Friday, October 13, 2006

Staghorn sumac in the country garden

We have plain old staghorn sumac growing around our old silo – all that's left of the old barn site – and it's the perfect landscaping for that spot, courtesy of Mother Nature. Before we came, a previous owner had also planted a few Scotch pines around the silo, and the pine/sumac combination looks wonderful. We keep the sumac in bounds by mowing around the silo.

Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) isn't often planted as a garden shrub because it is one of those great spreading shrubs, suckering from the roots to form a large colony. Maybe the other reason sumac is not much appreciated is that it grows wild all around us.

Woody plant expert Michael Dirr warns that it has to be sited carefully, and that it needs maintenance to keep it in bounds, but he adds: "Europeans have long appreciated R. glabra [smooth sumac] and R. typhina. Perhaps some day Americans will become more introspective and appreciative of our rich woody plant heritage."

That aside, staghorn sumac is a great plant for acreages, where its wandering ways can be appreciated. The cutleaf cultivars are very graceful and have the best orange-red fall color.

Perhaps foolishly*, I've planted the cutleaf sumac 'Laciniata' in a small bed at the corner of the house (shown here). The area is surrounded by an upper and lower patio, which theoretically should keep the plant contained. I just hope it won't damage the house foundation. (Dirr says not to use it as a foundation plant!)

I guess we can always tear it out if it gets to be a problem. For now, I just enjoy the great fall color, and I take heart from the advice about using this plant from the Brooklyn Botanic Garden:

Cutleaf staghorn sumac has ornamental possibilities that go beyond heavy-duty applications like highway landscaping. For large suburban properties it makes a good buffer plant for peripheral areas, where it provides not only summer privacy but food and habitat for animals as well; it makes an excellent "transitional plant" between tamed and wild areas.

With its size controlled by pruning and/or root confinement, cutleaf staghorn sumac can be used in manicured gardens. It can serve as a bolder, textured alternative to the ubiquitous dogwood and Japanese maple when planted off the corner of a structure to anchor a foundation planting. For hot outdoor plazas, it is a rugged survivor and makes a strong "statement."

For a mixed perennial border with a bold texture, try it as a specimen shrub to be cut back to the ground annually. Its wild appearance mixes especially well with grasses, and its spectacular fall color adds beautifully to any display of asters, chrysanthemums or goldenrod.
You can read the full article here.

(By the way, if you're wondering about the metal tower on the silo in the picture at the top, it's for our high-speed internet receiver. High-speed internet, can't live without it, right?)

*Three years on, spring 2009: We pulled that cutleaf sumac by the house out because it was taking over. The main plant was reaching everywhere and going under the patio with its amazing spreading root system. We've had to be vigilant to dig out all the bits all season long to keep at the ones we missed the first time. Lesson learned: this is a plant for the back 40!


  1. I planted staghorn sumac as a screen from my neighbors in my last garden. In three years, small seedlings less than a foot high had ascended to over 20 feet. This was in spite of annual attacks by deer. Quite quickly, the sumac formed a spectacular back drop to a 40-foot deep wild border of grasses, Joe Pye Weed, filipendula, and masses of other plants that peaked in the fall, along with the fiery sumac. I was drawn to your blog by the celebration of the visual joy of this neglected plant.

    I was also happy to see Piet Oudolf's name. When I first read Designing with Plants a few years ago, my whole approach to gardening changed. Now I look forward to every book written by Oudolf and his coauthors, especially Noel Kingsbury and Michael King. And I practice a naturalistic gardening style that's highly emotional, but doesn't suffer from a few tattered edges and a little neglect (I go with nature too).

    I think we share similar interests, and I look forward to seeing your future posts. If you check out my blog (, you may agree that, though we garden under very different conditions, we're members of a group with similar interests - a group whose members I'm still seeking.

    Jim Golden
    Stockton, New Jersey

  2. Beauiful sumac. I've seen this rhus in many nurseries this year. Thought to buy it but decided against it knowing how other sumacs grew. Very pretty tho.

  3. Anonymous3:48 PM

    any info about whether one should be concerned if they spread into your garden?

  4. May 2007 update: They are now spreading into other parts - and have spread to come out the other side of a stone step - but I think I can live with that for now. If they get really out of hand, we'll remove them.


  5. My home was build a year after a fire destroyed 3 out of 5 acres of beautiful old oaks and red pines. Now, 17 years later, I'm still trying to control the spread of Staghorn sumac in my raised beds. I believe in working with nature also. I would love to find a way from keeping the roots from invading my garden and flower beds. The rest are welcome to stay and feed the wildlife that visit my home every day.

  6. Hi there, I just purchased the cutleaf variety and my wife hates I need to move it somewhere else and I was thinking something similar to your corner bed application. Since that was a couple of years ago, how have you found that to be now? Many sites recommend pruning to near ground level...have you tried this? If so, how big does it come back that year? Thanks.

  7. June 2008 update:

    Hi Jeremy: It is now wandering from the corner where I planted it. I wouldn't recommend planting it in a similar spot. I see mine as a mistake. That said, I'm leaving it there for the moment. If you have space, plant it away from the house. That's my best advice. And, you know what, if your wife hates it, well, it doesn't have to live in your garden at all. After all, it's just a shrub. Hope that helps, Cheers, Yvonne

  8. Anonymous6:07 PM

    I have a question for anyone who can help. I have had my cutleaf staghorn sumac for 1 year. I bought it from a nursery. It grew quite well, but now all the leaves on one of the branches are really floppy and a part of it looks like it is dying. It also looks like there is a small split in the main branch that looks questionable. Some of the leaves in that area are turning yellow. Does anyone know what I should do?

  9. I don't think there's much you can do except to wait and see. Shrubs like this often send out new stems when old stems die off. I've had this happen with some of mine, and they are coming back nicely.

  10. I just found out that the tree in front of my house is a Staghorn Sumac. I love the colors and appearance, but I would recommend planting far from your house. Mine has gone under a driveway and aroun my entire house with suckers. After reading a little about it today, I now find out that cutting the saplings tends to increase their vigor and spread... lol. Wish I knew of a way to kill off the saplings without harming the main tree.

  11. Daphne K.9:55 AM

    We live in a subdivision and have a very small backyard. And ... we have three big, very active, dogs (thankfully there are a lot of conservation areas allowing for daily off leash hikes). No plants stand a chance back there, including grass. Still, I wanted some greenery and shade, so simply took a couple of the sucker roots of a sumac and shoved them in the "flower" bed. Voila, in one year, a "natural" garden. The first winter the dogs fanatically chewed down the sumac stems (vitamin C???) almost to the ground, but that sumac came right back. Three years later we've got a beautiful 8 ft high stand that provides snacks in the winter and shade in the summer. My only concern is that it could damage our neighbour's inground pool, which is approximately 15 ft from the sumac. I assume no, since the suckers seem to go around everything, but wanted to confirm. Thanks!

  12. It is unlikely to damage your neighbor's pool, but it could pop up in your neighbor's yard. This is a plant you need to be very careful with!


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-Yvonne, aka Country Gardener