Staghorn sumac (photo: Sharon Clark)

Love it or hate it

The Nature of PEI | by Gary Schneider

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There are native plants that people have developed a strong dislike for. The reasons behind these attitudes are many.

Sometimes it is physical—the long spikes of hawthorns can do damage to both humans and tires, while poison ivy is not a plant with which to get up close and personal. I remember being on snowshoes one winter working on a management plan and walking in circles through a young balsam fir thicket and thinking I might not find my way out. And just try forcing your way through a patch of wild roses when you’re wearing shorts!

In other cases, it is because the plants are hard to control. If you try to get keep alders or bayberries out of a blueberry field, they treat your mowing like a haircut and keep coming back. If you use wild roses, sweet fern, or ostrich fern in landscaping, you inevitably will have more plants than you started with. For some of us, that is a lovely bonus, but for more orderly gardeners, it can be a challenge.

Staghorn sumac is one of the plants that some people love to hate. It is one of our loveliest native plants, with large, exotic compound leaves and clusters of deep red fuzzy seeds. It is called “staghorn” sumac because the soft bristles on the new growth feel like the velvet on a deer’s antler. For fall colours, it can’t be beat. As much as I love red maple, sugar maple and white ash, the colourful sumac is really unmatched, with leaves mixing and matching greens, yellows, oranges, reds and purples. It is simply breathtaking.

Before the European settlers arrived, sumac would have been mainly confined to some of the offshore Islands. The combination of dry, sandy soils and lots of sun would have been perfect for sumac. The rest of PEI would have been heavily treed, outside of the wetlands. The lack of sun in the forests or the excess of water in the marshes and bogs would have prevented sumac from ever really getting established.

With the coming of Europeans and the clearing of land, the Island became a lot more hospitable for sumac. In addition, people began using sumac as a landscape plant. This is a great idea as long as you are prepared to deal with its habit of spreading like crazy through its root system. Within a few years after planting, new shoots are popping up around the original plant, and if left unchecked, soon you will have a forest of sumac. I’ve seen one abandoned homestead where the yard and much of the house was almost completely covered in sumac bushes.

The sumac root suckers can be easily pulled when young, and dug up if they are older. But this has to be done regularly. Mowing works well and keeps the plants under control. And planting them against a forest is also effective (at least on the forested side), as sumac crave sun and will not venture far into wooded areas.

Besides being beautiful, the red sumac seeds are also used to make a lemonade-like drink. In the Middle East, sumac seeds are used as a condiment, ground up and sprinkled on everything from hummus to yoghurt. The seeds are particularly hard, but are eaten during the winter by ruffed grouse.

As a landscape plant, sumac has a lot going for it. Regularly mowing around the plant, or pulling up root suckers, is a small price to pay for this showy plant that is has something on display throughout the year.

Gary SchneiderThe Nature of PEI