This hardy and beautiful rhizome shrub brings colour to a snowy winter world
The staghorn sumac is a hardy and beautiful rhizome shrub that brings colour to a snowy winter world
Every end of year, as winter arrives, there are certain plants that move to the top of my favourites list: Canada holly, of course, and inkberry, but above all I love the staghorn sumac
(Rhus typhina). This hivernal charmer brings colour and dash to a black-and-white world, offering lively splashes of life in countless frozen tableaux throughout Eastern Canada. Its name, drawn from the way the velvety branches resemble antlers, summons visions of reindeer, a wholly apt seasonal reference. But it is so much more.
Sumacs are present on every continent but South America. Part of the Anacardiaceae family encompassing more than four score genera and 860 species, sumac are thus related to the marula tree (African elephants’ favourites) as well as cashew, pistachio and mango. I associate the flavour of sumac primarily with the Fertile Crescent and the Levant and my travels there, particularly in the cuisine of virtually every nation stretching from India and Pakistan to Turkey and Azerbaijan. The name “sumac” is from a 2,000-year-old dialect of Aramaic called Syriac, from the word that means “red.”
Different regions of Canada boast several types of sumac in addition to staghorn sumac: fragrant sumac (R. aromatica) from Alberta to Quebec; smooth sumac (R. glabra) in B.C., Manitoba, and southern reaches of Ontario and Quebec; Western Canada’s skunkbush (R. trilobata); and shining or dwarf sumac (R. copallina) in southern Ontario. An unpleasant (albeit distant) relative in southmost parts of Ontario and Quebec is poison sumac (Toxicodendron vernix) which has all the charm of poison ivy.
A large deciduous shrub that can grow to five metres high and six across, staghorn sumac bears velvety branches with long serrated compound leaves that turn fiery in the autumn. The fruit of the tree, blood-red berries covered by tiny hairs, form clusters of reddish drupes together forming vivid cones. These upright conical bursts of colour are what enliven snow-covered gardens, often lasting through to spring. The reason they last is, although they are a food source for birds such as grosbeaks, cardinals and ruffed grouse, they are eaten “only as a last resort,” according to the CWF website. They are also popular with moose and deer and butterflies and bees.
Humans too have found uses for the plant: the leaves, filled with tannic acid, have long been used for tanning leather while the tough cane-like stems can be woven into durable baskets; and beekeepers burn dried bobs for their smokers. There are many recipes for pink lemonade-like “rhus juice,” made by soaking the berries for hours before rubbing and straining, then sweetening to taste. Maple syrup added makes a fine and very Canadian beverage, hot or cold. But remember, make certain you are using a non-poisonous varietal. If you aren't sure, do not consume!
A rhizome with creeping rootstalks, the mature plant can colonize an area quickly by sprouting shoots from its horizontal roots. It thrives in poor soil conditions, likes intense sun, and resists pests and diseases, so can thrive in and dominate roadsides, disturbed areas and clearings. Due to its rapid proliferation, be careful about using it in a cultivated area: it will soon spread and is very hard to root out once in full expansion mode. As a result, while these plants are native, they are terribly invasive. Despite this gnarly side, the staghorn sumac, flashing red against the white snow, is a most Canadian sight.