Name: Stagshorn sumac
Botanical name: Rhus typhina is part of the Anacardiaceae family, largely tropical and unable to grow here because the temperatures are too low, but rhus can.
The sumac is an old garden favourite, very common around the country and widely grown in cottage-style and rural gardens as well as town gardens.
In autumn each year its foliage colour is a distinctive feature of many gardens.
It is so common that we largely take it for granted, and like many plants that suffer from over-familiarity, some people dismiss it as uninteresting.
The branches are relatively thick and there are not so many branches on the tree. The leaf colour is very good, fading from green to purplish red and later to brilliant red and yellow. The colour show lasts for many weeks and makes this plant one of the very best autumn colour plants for gardens. It has the facility to grow, and to show colour, on any kind of soil and since most good autumn colour plants prefer acid soil. So it is really valuable plant for limy soil areas. It is also true that some plants disappoint with very little autumn colour.
Very often this is just a question of age – the older plants colour best, the young ones seeming to have a lot of vigour and not colouring so well. The soil type also matters. Heavy soil tends to make the sumac quite leafy and vigorous and then lack autumn colour. An application of potash each spring for three years should help with this because it will reduce the vigour of the tree and bring the soil nutrients more into balance.
After the foliage has fallen, the flower heads remain. These are wine-coloured and velvety, cone-shaped and held upright at the tips of the branches. As winter progresses, the flower heads crumble with the effects of weather and eventually fall off. The reason for the “stagshorn” part of the name becomes more obvious when the leaves fall, revealing a dense, velvet-like coating of fine wine-red hairs along the youngest branches. Because the young branches have an upward sweep, reminiscent of a stag’s antlers, the name seems even more appropriate. When weeding near the tree, do not allow the fine hairs to get into the eyes.
The great popularity and widespread planting of this tree over many decades is easily explained by its tendency to throw suckers. When the roots come near the surface, the extra oxygen tends to trigger the formation of buds that sprout to make a sucker. When these are established a few years, they are easily lifted and moved to new ground. In this way, the plant was passed on by generations of gardeners, and plants that cost nothing have a habit of becoming popular!
New style of planting
The stagshorn sumac is being cast in a new role by some modern garden designers who are using plants in a more natural way. The major movement in this, in recent years, has been the use of prairie-style planting, which has brought about new interest in prairie flowers, such as rudbeckia and cone flower, and grasses. The stagshorn sumac has also been brought into this style. Native of North America, it often borders woodland or scrubby areas where flowering grassland finishes. It makes a lovely picture with its ferny foliage and the sturdy, bright flowers nearby.
It is ideal to use it as a backing for perennial prairie flowers, or for any semi-natural flowering grass areas. And this is why it could be very useful for use in country gardens. While the suckering tendency is sometimes a nuisance in a carefully ordered flower border, the haphazard spread of suckers in a semi-natural setting can lend great charm to the planting. If there is an area available, fairly large, about 200sq m or so, that consists of rough grass and perhaps a ditch or woodland behind, it could be planted with a few stagshorn sumac, which would be allowed to ‘go native’ and sucker.
If you have bought the spring bulbs, go out and plant them without delay. It is amazing how often people do not get around to planting bulbs, leaving them to wither in brown bags. If you have not bought any bulbs, there is still time. Most garden centres still have stock. The choice might not be as good now, but there might be some clearance bargains available. The ideal time for planting is September and October, so time is pushing on but they can still be planted. Bulbs add such a great extra dimension to the garden in spring.
Bedding flowers in containers of all kinds are finished and can be replaced now with some winter and spring bedding, and small bulbs. Begin dividing perennial flowers, except grasses which prefer a spring move, or planting new plants from pots.
There is still time to sow a new lawn, but conditions will not be as good in coming weeks as the weather gets cooler. Apply lawn mosskiller now if necessary, particularly in shaded areas, but not on wildflower lawn. Continue mowing.
Trees shrubs and roses
Plant evergreen trees and shrubs of all kinds, either from pots or as root-balled plants. All kinds of pot-grown trees and shrubs can be planted too. Check that young trees are securely staked if they need it. Prune rambler roses.
Greenhouse and house plants
Pick tomatoes as they ripen, do not leave them hang on the plant. Keep the greenhouse tidy and ventilated. Do not overwater, or splash water about, to reduce the risk of grey mould disease. Remove summer shading, if not already done.
Fruit vegetables and herbs
Plant spring cabbage plants without delay. Remove old vegetables as soon as they are finished and do not allow weeds to grow and go to seed. Lift and store potatoes and carrots now for winter use. Prune raspberries, blackcurrants and gooseberries.