Council Vice President James Kaechele has been walking past this pollinator garden along the Queensboro Bridge for four years. It’s a garden in which staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) is functioning as a beautiful mid-sized tree, providing stature and shading other plants. Photos by James Kaechele
“I’ve got to say, they impress me,” James says. “The Rhus typhina of my childhood grew on the side of the highway in compacted, poor, shallow soils. But here, it’s being used very much intentionally. Rhus typhina is an underappreciated and underutilized eastern North American native that urban foresters and other landscape managers should include more often: It’s tough and can easily grow in exposed and drought-prone sites, in sun or part shade. The spires of red fruits shown here dazzle in the afternoon light, and they’ll stay that vibrant through the rest of the summer.”
The fruit of staghorn sumac is borne in a cone-shaped cluster of tiny drupes that are covered in velvety red hairs (hairs that bring to mind a stag’s horn). Deer and rabbits will browse sumac but it usually responds vigorously to such “trimming.” It’s not the favorite fruit of songbirds, but some species like cedar waxwings, chickadees, and nuthatches will eat it in the winter, when there’s little else left.
Staghorn sumac at the terminus of the pollinator garden by the Queensboro Bridge. This small tree or large shrub can get 15 to 25 feet tall in cities. It can be expected to sucker and form groves, or colonies; here the spread of the colony is limited by hardscape. Staghorn sumac has no serious disease or insect problems. It is said to tolerate juglone from nearby black walnut trees. Importantly for urban settings, it tolerates road salt spray. Rhus typhina is cold-hardy to Zone 3b.
Staghorn sumac fall color can be a showy progression of yellow to orange and red. Sometimes folks confuse staghorn sumac with tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima), but sumac’s leaves have serrated margins, while tree of heaven’s leaves have smooth margins.