Cutleaf Staghorn Sumac—A Sophisticated Cultivar

Long in cultivation but grown only by an appreciative few, Rhus typhina 'Laciniata', the cutleaf staghorn sumac, along with many of its sumac kindred, may soon see a full flowering of garden popularity. A large shrub or small tree with long, fernlike leaves, cutleaf staghorn sumac fits many of the wants and needs of a new generation of gardeners. It is native; it is tough as nails; it has a bold, architectural quality. Possibly too bold for some tastes, but undeniably drought tolerant, pest resistant, friendly to wildlife and never boring in the garden.

The real challenge of this plant is its size and growth habit. Rhus typhina can grow over 20 feet high but is more a gigantic shrub than a tree. It spreads laterally by vigorous suckering, forming dense multi-stemmed thickets. It is an impressive plant to build a garden around, but never try to garden under it.

sumac

Rhus typhina 'Laciniata'

The cultivar 'Laciniata' is an unusual cutleaf form of Rhus typhina, the staghorn sumac, which was selected from the wild population and propagated for garden use. 'Laciniata' resembles the wild form in all parts except its leaves which, like all leaves in this species, are pinnately compound—that is, leaflets are arranged in pairs along a central stalk. However, unlike ordinary Rhus typhina, 'Laciniata' leaflets are finely "cut," giving a textured, feathery look.

The common name staghorn sumac refers to the antler-like curve of the stems as well as the reddish-brown velvety fuzz covering the younger (upper) stems. This pubescence is reminiscent of the velvet-covered new horns of the stag or male deer. The pubescent stems of Rhus typhina distinguish it from Rhus glabra, the smooth sumac, which is a dead ringer to the untrained eye, except for the lack of fuzz.

Easy to Grow

The species Rhus typhina is widely distributed throughout the northeastern U.S. and southeastern Canada. It is found occasionally in wild places throughout the New York City area. Like other sumacs, it thrives in places where the soil is too thin or too dry for larger forest trees: natural openings in our native oak forests, wind-swept coastal shrublands and barren, rocky hilltops. It is also found in disturbed environments such as old fields, highway cuts, and along railroads.

As you might already have guessed about a plant that enjoys growing next to the railroad tracks, staghorn sumac is not fussy. Used as a garden plant, staghorn sumac and its cutleaf variety thrive in full sun or light shade with little or no watering, once established. Pest problems are rare. It grows in the poorest soil, as long as its roots are not waterlogged, and appears to be tolerant of the reflected heat, dust, and smoke of city gardens.

The cutleaf staghorn sumac, like the wild form, is variable in size, but has the potential to grow over 20 feet with an even greater spread. It gradually forms a large dense grove—an excellent shelter for wildlife. However, its size and spread can be controlled. One method involves pruning; cut some or all of the stems to ground level in early spring before growth begins. Regrowth is vigorous. Encircling plants with metal root barriers is an effective alternative to regular pruning. The enclosure not only fences in the sucker shoots but causes a "pot-bound" condition that dwarfs the entire plant—until it eventually goes into a noticeable decline or breaks free of the barrier, at which time it becomes necessary to tear the shrub out, repropagate from suckers and begin again.

Propagation

Seedlings of 'Laciniata' do not have the cut-leafed trait, and so it is necessary to propagate the cut-leaf form vegetatively. Grow new plants from root cuttings, or by digging up some of the abundantly produced "suckers" (new shoots emerging at ground level) complete with roots.

Seasonal Traits

The overall appearance and "feel" of this plant changes radically with the seasons. It is unusually fine-textured, even fernlike in leaf, but unusually coarse in winter, when the naked stems with their stout fuzzy twigs, topped with dried-out fruit clusters, look something like an assembly of giant hat racks in the landscape. Most people prefer this plant with its clothes on.

The two-foot-long compound leaves are held up at an angle not quite horizontal but slightly upswept. This creates a pattern of slanted green lines, repeated at intervals because of the multistemmed habit, giving the plant a distinctive profile in leaf—a bit like a big rambling house with a complex gabled roof.

Flower clusters appear in June. By midsummer they resemble 6-inch-long lopsided cones of tightly bunched velvety red buttons. Each cone-shaped inflorescence is positioned at a branch tip and is the culmination of the season's growth. Observed from a great enough distance, the flower clusters look like those of the plume-type cockscomb.

By late summer the flower clusters ripen into bunches of fuzzy, cranberrylike fruits. Most will remain on the sumac well into winter. Although edible, they are very sour and apparently not the first choice of birds and foraging animals. Later in winter as the pickings get slimmer and the berries lose their tartness, they are eaten. Some wild-food connoisseurs and adventurous gardeners steep the fruits in hot water, making a sour lemonadelike concoction.

By far the glory of sumacs is fall color, and the cutleaf staghorn sumac is one of the best of the bunch. Its autumn show starts earlier and lasts longer than most other kinds of trees; the leaves blaze intensely in fiery shades of orange, red, and gold.

How to Use It

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.

Where to See It

Brooklyn Botanic Garden has two specimens of cutleaf staghorn sumac. Because the two sumacs grow in very different areas, they received very different treatment at planting time and look very different today.

Our first specimen—on the Flatbush Avenue border mound, a wild, low-use, low-maintenance area—has been given little or no irrigation or fertilizer but allowed to run free. After 25 years it has formed an impressive erosion-stopping thicket, about 15 feet high and 25 feet across.

Our second specimen—in the Cashew Family section of the Plant Family Collection on a sloping manicured lawn below the Tropical Pavilion—has grown for 9 years within the confines of a foot-deep aluminum root barrier. Despite annual fertilization and weekly watering, it has grown only as wide as the barrier has permitted and at 8 feet is barely taller than it was at planting time.


Robert Newgarden is a gardener at Brooklyn Botanic Garden. He tends the Cashew Plant Family bed—home to five different sumacs—and other plant families in the Plant Family Collection. He also cares for the Herb Garden.


Comments

April 2, 2012
josina smith

Do I remove the old cones when I prune my sumac tree?


September 27, 2012
Julie Pezzetti

I purchased a cutleaf staghorn sumac and loved it. It seemed to thrive at first, then when the summer got hot, the leaves started to shrivel and die. There are very few leaves left on the tree at this time. I have it in a large container. It’s about 2.5 feet tall at this time; branches and bark seem to be okay— just the leaves keep drying. I water it regularly and really don’t want to lose it. What can be the problem?


October 2, 2012
Kathleen

I have a golden cutleaf sumac. Its one of my favourites. My question is, when I planted it last summer (2011),  it looked fine, but now I have two pretty large suckers on the ground. Can they take the life from the tree? The tree looks like it is dying, but the suckers are beautiful. I would appreciate any comments you might have. Thank you.


October 26, 2012
BBG Staff

We are not sure what is causing the problem with your staghorn sumac. Since the sumac, a root-prolific plant, is in a container, drainage may be an issue. If the soil has become soggy in the bottom of the container, the plant may have root rot to some degree, causing the dieback. You may wish to monitor the moisture level at the bottom of the container or repot to improve drainage. (On the other hand, drought is a common cause of plants losing leaves earlier in the season than usual.)  Another set of symptoms to look for: drooping leaf stems, yellow patches on leaves changing to brown, and discoloring of interior stems. This suggests verticillium wilt, a common occurrence during cooler weather. It is not curable, but transplanting to a container with sterile soil may help. If the skin of the sumac has been damaged, you may notice a sticky substance on the stems. Wounds to the skin of the sumac often promote the suckers with which the plant in times of stress repropagates itself. You may wish to use a sucker to start a new plant.


April 27, 2013
deb girardi

I am looking for a sumac that can survive winter at Crowsnest Pass in the Canadian Rockies. I believe this is in Zone 3. I do want something that will give a good display of candles. Can you help me?


June 6, 2013
Patty

My large, treelike staghorn sumac has been beautiful for several years. I keep the suckers out as it is my focal specimen in the perennial rock garden. But so far it’s not leafing out at all and the number of suckers is more than in previous years. Do they just get to a point where they stop growing? We’re in SW Colorado…Zone 3/4 and we had a less-than-normal snowfall and no rain this spring. I hate to cut it down. Any hope just getting the suckers out? Any suggestions?


June 8, 2013
Nicole

I bought a cutleaf sumac last summer. I ended up putting it into a large container last summer but moved it into the garden this spring, feeling very hopeful to see little leaf buds sprouting from the wood. The container seemed very moist when I removed, a detail that worried me a little. It is now in a sandy, well-drained area with 3 to 4 hours of full sun. Now, in early June, the buds, (still very alive) have not grown even the teeniest little bit. It’s like it has stopped growing as it looks the same as it did over a month ago. What should I do, and what is wrong with it?


June 13, 2013
BBG Library Staff

Hi, Deb: The following sumacs grow in Zone 3 (linked to descriptions by the Missouri Botanical Garden):
Rhus glabra, Rhus typhina, and Rhus aromatica (which has less showy seedpods than R. typhina and R. glabra.


June 22, 2013
Karen

We have had a staghorn sumac in our backyard landscape for 12 years, beautiful and thriving here in Pennsylvania.  LIke Patty said, this year the tree looks like it is dying. The leaves that have formed are all wilted, though there are plenty of healthy looking suckers all over the yard. I would really like to save it somehow as it is in a perfect spot and looks great covered in snow in the winter. If I cut it back to the ground, will it regrow?


July 30, 2013
jo farrington

My staghorn was looking really healthy and formed cones, which were light in color. This morning I noticed the little seeds on the cones are rapidly dropping off, leaving just the skeletal stem-like twigs that supported the seeds. Does anyone have any idea what is going wrong here?


August 23, 2013
BBG Library Staff

Hi, Jo: Trees sometimes drop fruit naturally in order to prepare for a better fruit crop later in the season, but early fruit drop can also be a response to disease, drought, or waterlogging due to poor drainage. However, without any other evidence of disease or pest symptoms,  we can’t be sure why the fruit (called drupes) of your healthy sumac is dropping earlier in the season. 

Sumac drupes this time of year are unripe and quite sour, so birds and other animals normally wait until late fall or winter to feast. In our urban environment, there is also the possibility of humans stripping the fruit if it is within reach.


November 3, 2013
judy anderson

I purchased a Rhus typhina ‘Laciniata’ in summer 2012. The tag claimed it “turns a beautiful orange and scarlet red in fall,” but a year later it is a light green in November in Minneapolis, and I am a little disappointed. The only thing it does not get is full sun, but it does get 7 to 8 hours of full sun a day. What can I do?


July 13, 2014
nancy hernandez

My nephew cut my plant down. Now the branches are fuzzy and it looks like it might be dying, but the branches are not drying up. I was wondering if the plant might be in shock or is it dying?


July 16, 2014
jblackburn

Sumac can usually tolerate severe pruning, so it very well may survive your nephew’s handiwork. The branches are naturally fuzzy, and if they start to develop new leaf buds, the plant should come back. Keep an eye out for new shoots coming up near the original plant’s base, which are also signs the sumac will recover. Make sure it has adequate water in the heat of the summer.


October 17, 2014
Petula

I have moved into a new house, and to the front of my garden they have planted a little staghorn. The lower branch has lovely colorful leaves on it, but the higher two don’t seem to be growing at all. Is this common and will they grow eventually?



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