Tree of the Month, February 2024

Staghorn Sumac, Velvet Sumac (Rhus typhina)

by Martin (Mort) Schmidt for Simply Living

Staghorn Sumac fruits. Photo by Mort Schmidt.

Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina) is typically more of a shrub than a tree, and it’s generally too small to provide useful wood. But it occasionally does achieve tree status, which, according to the U.S. Forestry Service definition, is: 

  • At least 13 feet high at maturity
  • At least 3 inches in diameter at breast height
  • Made of woody material, and
  • Has a single trunk. 

Staghorn Sumac has little commercial value and is often regarded as a weed, but its distinctive red berries and brilliant fall color are admirable. 

Staghorn Sumac has pinnately-compound leaves 12 to 24 inches long, with 11 to 31 leaflets. Compound leaves have multiple leaflets sharing a stem, all of which die and fall off at the end of the year, at least in deciduous trees. Pinnately-compound leaves are feather-like, and have leaflets attached at multiple points on a longish stem. Palmately-compound leaves are hand-like and have leaflets attached at a single point on the stem. 

Left – pinnately, right – palmately-compound leaves. Drawings by Mort Schmidt.

Staghorn Sumac’s compound leaves are alternately arranged, which means that they are not attached to the tree directly across from each other, but are staggered, left, right, left, right along twigs and branches.

Left – alternate, right – opposite arrangements. Drawings by Mort Schmidt.

The leaflets of Rhus typhina are 2 to 4 inches long, lance-shaped, and pointed. Staghorn Sumac leaflets also have teeth. This is a very important feature to help distinguish Staghorn Sumac and its close relative, Smooth Sumac (R. glabra) from Poison Sumac (Toxicoendron vernix, formerly classified as Rhus vernix), which has untoothed leaflets. Staghorn leaves are a striking red in the fall, and they would surely make Staghorn one of our favorite autumn trees if not for its small size.

Left – Alternate leaf arrangement in Staghorn Sumac. Right – Staghorn Sumac leaves. Photos by Mort Schmidt.

Staghorn Sumac bark is dark brown and smooth to scaly. But its most distinctive feature is a covering of fine hair, especially on smaller, younger branches. The hair looks like the velvet of a deer’s antlers – the source of the name “Staghorn”. In the spring, the small yellow-green flowers are packed together into 8-inch clusters. R. typhina is usually dioecious, i.e., the male and female flowers are present on separate trees, but both flowers are sometimes on the same tree. The more-or-less conical fruits contain numerous small red berries that remain on the tree into winter. However, the USDA Forest Service describes Staghorn Sumac as “highly rhizomatous”, so it can reproduce from roots, without flowers or fruit. Accordingly, colonies are often single-sexed, formed from a single, suckering parent. 

Staghorn Sumac flowers and fruits. Photos by Mort Schmidt.

Staghorn Sumac is the largest of the Ohio sumacs, but even so, it’s typically more of a shrub. No State Champion Staghorn Sumac is listed on Ohio’s database, but it reportedly grows as high as 33 feet with a trunk diameter up to 10 or 12 inches. 

Several other sumacs are found in Ohio, including Smooth Sumac (R. glabra), Shining Sumac (aka Winged Sumac, R. copallina) and Poison Sumac (Toxicoendron vernix, formerly classified as Rhus vernix). Smooth Sumac is similar to Staghorn, but lacks the velvet covering on twigs. Shining Sumac has very shiny, untoothed leaves and it has thin blades or “wings” on its stems. Poison Sumac has only 7 to 15 untoothed leaflets, white berries, and is primarily limited to swamps. Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans, formerly Rhus radicans) is another sumac relative, but of course, it has 3 leaflets. All belong to the family Anacardiaceae, as do cashews and mangos. Some sources indicate that people who are highly allergic to Poison Ivy should avoid contact with all sumacs.                                                          

Staghorn Sumac thrives in dry, poor soil, and is often seen growing in road cuts, prairies, and fence rows. R. typhina is recognizable by its brilliant red fall colors. Lucy Braun’s The Woody Plants of Ohio indicates that Staghorn Sumac is present in over half of the counties in Ohio, while Smooth Sumac is present in nearly all of them. Shining Sumac is also found in roughly half of Ohio’s counties, but mostly the southeastern ones, which are unglaciated, and therefore, more rugged. Braun’s range maps show that Poison Sumac, fortunately, is the least widely distributed sumac in Ohio. 

Range maps for several species of sumac, clockwise from upper left – Staghorn, Smooth, Shining (Winged), and Poison Sumac. Images from U.S. Geological Survey.

Staghorn Sumac wood has a Janka hardness of 680 lbf and a density of 0.53 g/cc, according to the Wood Database, compared to the median of my list of 73 Ohio trees of 1,075 lbf and 0.64 g/cc. The boards are too small for most applications, but hobbyists like its yellow-green color and use it to make small specialty items, carvings, turned objects, and inlay. Staghorn Sumac is one of the few woods that fluoresce under ultraviolet light. 

Staghorn Sumac berries are edible, as are several other sumacs. The berries are used to make jelly and a lemon-like drink, but the liquid should be strained before drinking to remove fine hairs. Some sumac berries (Rhus coriaria, not R. typhina) are used for seasoning Mediterranean foods. 

Sumac berries sold for food seasoning. Photo by Mort Schmidt.

Sumac leaves and bark are high in tannins, and they were once used for tanning leather. The berries are now used as a nutritional supplement for their antioxidant properties and as a cold remedy. Early settlers smoked sumac leaves to cure headaches and asthma, and they boiled sumac leaves to make a beer to treat stomach ailments. 

According to the Native American Ethnobotany Database, a number of Indian tribes used Staghorn Sumac to treat respiratory ailments, including the Algonquin, Malecite, Mohegan, Ojibwa, Potawatomi, and Potawatomi. Many others used Staghorn Sumac to make yellow, orange, red, or black dyes, depending, at least in part, on the decoction’s concentration, including;

  • Cherokee – red or black dye, 
  • Menominee – yellow dye, 
  • Ojibwa – orange dye. 

The Meskwaki and Potawatomi used Staghorn Sumac to rid themselves of worms. Many Native groups, like the settlers who followed, used the fruits to make a lemonade-like drink, and some mixed sumac leaves with tobacco for smoking. 

Staghorn Sumac berries are a preferred food for many birds, including ruffed grouse, eastern phoebes, crows, northern mockingbirds, gray catbirds, robins, and wood thrushes. Other birds use sumac berries as an emergency food during times of scarcity. Bees, flies, and wasps visit sumac flowers for pollen, and carpenter bees sometimes burrow into the stems. A number of butterfly and moth caterpillars eat sumac foliage. Cottontail rabbits and white-tailed deer browse on sumac foliage and twigs. 

Staghorn Sumac has very little commercial value, but its beautiful flowers and fruits, attractive fall foliage, and its usefulness to wildlife make it worthy of admiration. 

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The Franklin Soil and Water Conservation District has kicked off its Annual Plant Sale. This is a great opportunity to acquire native plants at a low price. I’ve planted many trees and shrubs, including Bald Cypress, American Hornbeam (Musclewood), Sycamore, Pawpaw, River Birch, Spicebush, Elderberry, and others with great success. Native plants are well adapted to survive the Central Ohio environment and they provide the best environment for birds, butterflies, and other native creatures. The sale ends on March 24. 

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You can also listen to my talks on Ohio Broadleaf Tree Identification on YouTube, Part 1 and Part 2

Staghorn Sumac leaves in fall. Photo by Mort Schmidt.

One Comment

  1. I enjoyed this very much. Thank you