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Saturday, August 6, 2011



We have staghorn sumacs in our yard.  When we first moved here, they constantly suckered in from the neighbour’s property.  We cut them back and treated them like invasive weeds, hacking easily through their soft hairy stems with garden hand-shears.

After two years of fighting with them, and watching how they grew and looked in the neighbour’s yard, we became wiser.  We gained respect for these showy undemanding shrubs, with their ability to grow well in average soil on a sloping hillside.

Since much of our property fits that description, we decided to allow two staghorn sumacs to naturalize in this yard.  It is easy to keep them from suckering by mowing around them.  Four years later, we have small trees with “picturesque branching habits which resemble deer’s antlers.”  They have thick velvety plush stems, glossy green summer foliage and brilliant red-orange fall colour.

For me, the most striking feature is the velvety red fruit which appears at this time of year; upright cones that look and feel like lush, rich crimson cushions with tiny seeds.  Lois Hole says that the fruit “can be used to make a pink lemonade drink by bruising the fruit in water, straining and adding sugar.”  We haven’t tried that yet.

We do, however, enjoy the visual pleasure of the strikingly vivid scarlet fruit, and must do so each day, as it will soon disappear.  Once it fully ripens, flocks of grackles will descend and feast, stripping the fruit from the sumacs.

For us, living here has been about learning to give up control with this yard, and learning to make peace with what wants to grow and where it wants to grow.

We’ve made friends with the staghorn sumacs; have grown to love their striking colour-changes from dark greens to brilliant orange-red in the autumn, their wild and exotic-looking ruby fruit, and their sensual velvet touch.

Quotes and reference information are taken from Lois Hole’s Favourite Trees & Shrubs (Lone Pine Publishing, 1997, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada).

All photos are mine.


Gwen Buchanan said...

Hi Carol.. I love sumacs.. we used to have a small grove of them in our yard when I was a kid. and when I learned to spin I used the sumac cones to dye with.. it was quite a while ago now but I remember they gave the loveliest soft shades of gray and the colour was quite permanent.
I have one little sumac tree just starting to take hold in the back yard.. hope it survives...

Carol Steel said...

Thanks for your comment, Gwen. I've grown to really love the sumacs in our yard...visually they are very appealing and sensuously, they are ripely lovely to touch.

I didn't know you could make dye with the cones; how intriguing. Thanks for sharing that too.

Crafty Green Poet said...

what a great post! It's so wonderful to be able to find peace with what seem like difficult plants and then find all the benefits of having them around. i lve the red fruit of the sumac!

Carol Steel said...

You are wise; I am learning to be so. What wants to be in our yard is what does well in our yard; simple lesson that has taken me some time to acquire.

Thank you for your comment.