The Native Staghorn Sumac

The staghorn sumac is a small deciduous tree that grows in the northeastern United States and southeastern Canada. Some folks mistakenly confuse it with poison sumac, which is a small shrubby plant similar to poison ivy — to which it is not even remotely related. Others consider it an invasive species but it is indeed a native plant. The velvety texture and forking pattern of its branches — somewhat comparable in appearance to a deer’s antlers in velvet — is where the “staghorn” moniker came from.

The reason that it may be considered invasive is because staghorn sumac grows in colonies and spreads aggressively. The plant multiplies by seeds and rhizomes, a meandering root system that sends out rootlets and shoots from underground nodes to form clumps or colonies. The oldest trees are located in the center of the grove and the younger plants radiate outward. The species grows to a maximum height of 15 feet or so.

Growing from the tips of its branches, the cone-shaped fruit of the staghorn sumac is one of its identifying characteristics. The plant flowers between May and July and the fruit ripens and hardens in late summer, turning a scarlet red when ripe. The compound leaves, which are among the first of any species to change color in the fall, turn into flaming hues of red, yellow and orange. And the dark red fruit clusters, which contain its seeds, remain on the otherwise bare tree throughout the winter.

There are a couple of small clumps of sumac growing along the edge of the woods that surround my yard — and indeed, small seedlings begin to appear in my lawn during late spring and early summer every year. They disappear after mowing the lawn a time or two and don’t really present any other problems beyond that.

I tolerate the larger sumacs for the reason shown in the photo above. They provide food for a wide variety of birds during the winter, including this male downy woodpecker, which I photographed through a window and a screen. I’ve also watched goldfinches, migrating robins, and even gray squirrels pull at the pods in order to dislodge some of the tightly-clustered seeds for a little wintertime nourishment when times are tough.

Story and Photo by John Adamski