Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
New England
November, 2010
Regional Report

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Tiger Eyes cutleaf staghorn sumac adds brilliant colors to the fall landscape.

So Much for Sumac

More years ago than I care to admit, back in what I refer to as my "Euell Gibbons phase," I spent many hours roaming fields and woods, foraging for wild foods. With Mr. Gibbon's book, Stalking the Wild Asparagus, for guidance, I collected acorns, leached the tannin out and ground them to make bread; waded into swamps to collect cattail roots to dry and grind into flour; picked wild grapes for homemade wine (the less said about that experiment, the better); and, yes, even harvested wild asparagus. But my favorite wild food was sumac lemonade. I collected the red berries that form the large, conical seedheads of staghorn sumac, crushed them and let them sit in water for several hours, strained the resulting brew through cheesecloth, then sweetened the tart pink "lemonade" for a refreshing drink.

My days of wild food stalking are past, but I still retain a fondness for certain sumacs. The one I harvested berries from, the staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina), is a familiar plant to many in the northeastern U.S. and southeastern Canada and is one of the glories of the fall landscape. Its tropical-looking, compound leaves end the year in a blaze of vivid reds, yellows and oranges. A small tree or large shrub, it spreads by rhizomes to form large stands. The new growth is covered with velvety hairs (hence the "staghorn") and the large, upright, conical clusters of fuzzy red berries that appear in late summer on the female plants are distinctive. But in spite of its stunning fall color, it's too much of a wildling and spreads too vigorously to make it a good candidate for most home gardens.

Fortunately, breeders have developed a smaller, better-behaved cultivar that makes a fine addition to the landscape. Tiger Eyes cutleaf staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina 'Bailtiger') grows only about 6 feet tall and wide. During the growing season, the ferny, bright gold leaves droop down from rosy-colored stems, changing in the fall to an eye-catching mix of yellow, orange and scarlet. Like the species, Tiger Eyes is low maintenance, drought tolerant and adaptable to many soils. It's hardy in USDA zones 4-8.

But my favorite sumac for landscape use is 'Gro-Low' fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica 'Gro-Low'). This fast, dense spreader is great as a groundcover, especially on slopes that are hard to mow. Tough as nails, it tolerates dry, infertile soil. Its glossy green foliage is attractive in summer and changes to scarlet and orange in fall, although later in the season than staghorn sumac, and is most vivid when plants are grown in full sun. The cultivar 'Gro-Low' gets only about 2 feet tall, but each plant spreads by suckers to 6 to 8 feet. I have read that this is a female clone that produces red berries attractive to birds, but I have had a big bank of 'Gro-Low' for many years and have seen nary a one- maybe there are no male cultivars or wild plants near enough to provide pollen for fertilization. Hardy in zones 3-9, this low-maintenance native works well in a naturalized landscape design. Plus its easy care will leave you time to sit back and enjoy a cool glass of (sumac) lemonade!

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