The mere word "sumac" can cause fear. Nongardeners put "poison" before the word, and their skins begins to creep and itch. Gardeners preface the word with "staghorn," which calls to mind a plant that spreads fast and furiously by shoots from the spreading roots and by seeds.
But take a look at staghorn sumac this time of year. Clusters of fuzzy, warm, red fruits cap stout stems like arrowheads and the crimson leaves help fuel autumn's fiery show. Add the bold, winter skeleton and summer's fine-textured leaves and you have a worthwhile landscape plant, maybe even one worth planting.
The fine texture in summer comes from the plant's compound leaves, with anywhere from a half-dozen to even two dozen leaflets lined up along each leaf stalk. For a frillier staghorn sumac, you could plant the cultivated variety Dissecta or Laciniata, whose individual leaflets are cut like lace.
Hold on before planting any staghorn sumac, though. For all its ornamental qualities, it is still an invasive plant. Plant it only where it can be given room to spread, such as in a semi-wild setting. Poor soils and dry, rocky banks suit it fine, but it does need sun.
"Staghorn" and "poison" are not all one can say about sumac. There are a half-dozen or so other native ones that are worthwhile to consider planting. Similar to staghorn sumac is shining sumac, except the leaves of shining sumac are lustrous and dark green, and the stems are less coarse. Smooth sumac is also similar to staghorn sumac, except that its stems are smooth, lacking the fine hairs of staghorn sumac.
Fragrant sumac is yet another sumac, one that fits well even into smaller gardens. The variety Gro-Low keeps its head beneath four feet. The leaflets are blue-green, glossy, and fragrant when crushed. This species sports panicles of yellowish flowers in spring.
Like staghorn sumac, all these other sumacs make pretty landscape plants. Stout branches give them coarse, bold texture in winter; compound leaves make the texture finer in summer. All have stunning fall color and are tough plants that grow fast and tolerate poor soils.
Even poison sumac shows off many of these qualities. Whatever its beauty, though, the plant does have that same irritating oil found in its also beautiful cousin, poison ivy.
But no need to incriminate all the sumacs because of their wayward relative. Look more kindly on the sumacs.