Life Gardens

Wednesday 12 December 2018

Staghorn's fiery delight can set autumn ablaze

Staghorn Sumach
Staghorn Sumach

Gerry Daly

The staghorn sumac has been such a delight this autumn, along with many other trees, and bits of it remain in sheltered spots. Not only does it colour well in autumn, but it shows interesting stem colour right through winter, its spreading stag antlers are distinctive, forming a bush or small tree with spreading angular branches.

The common name referring to a stag's horn is descriptive and can be clearly seen when the leaves fall and the branches are bare. The branches are relatively thick and there are not so many branches on the tree. Instead the large leaves act almost like twigs. The leaves dived into two rows of leaflets.

Starting to turn quite early, the leaf colour is almost always good, fading from green to purplish red and later to brilliant red and yellow. Older plants colour best, the fast-growing younger ones not colouring so well. Heavy soil tends to make the sumac quite leafy and vigorous, and lacking autumn colour.

Plant it in a spot with well-drained soil and a good sunny position. The best colour is provided on soils of reasonable fertility. If the soil is dry and poor in nutrients, the show of colour can be good but it will be short-lived. Some potash fertilizer will help autumn colouring on soils that are heavy.

It grows well on acidic or limy soils, and shows good colour on any kind of soil - most trees with good autumn colour prefer acid soil. After the foliage has fallen, the flower heads remain. These are wine-coloured and velvety, cone-shaped. Sumac has oozing, thick yellow sap. A related Japanese species was used to make varnish for lacquer work. The flower heads eventually fall off.

Native of North America, sumac often borders woodland or scrub at the edge of flowering grassland. It is a quick grower and colonises bare ground quickly. When bigger trees grow, sumac gets shaded out as it does not like shade. It is ideal to use it as a backing for perennial flowers, or for any semi-natural grassy area with flowers.

It suckers readily and the suckering can be a nuisance in a well-kept flower border. The only way to control suckers is to take them out with a spade when still small and firm the soil hard where they were cut. However, the suckering in a semi-natural setting can be decorative, if there is space available.

You can plant grasses and complementary flowers between young trees, but not so close that they will provide competition in early years. A run over with a brushwood cutter in spring will help tidy up before new growth.

Sunday Independent

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