While I have many favorite plants, there are only a few that can be used almost anywhere, especially in a really tough location. Rhus typhina, staghorn sumac, is not only beautiful but fits this description. Many have seen this native plant without realizing its uses in the modern landscape. Naturally growing and colonizing in open areas give some insight into its tough characteristics.
Called staghorn sumac because its stems and branches are densely hairy, in the winter when all the leaves have dropped, they remind us of deer antlers covered in velvet. In the summer it is covered in huge compound leaves that can be up to two feet long. This large leaf can give it a very tropical feel. The leaves in fall have the most incredible fall color: yellow and orange to red can be found on every plant. If you have ever seen a natural planting in peak fall color you would remember it, and the fall color alone would fuel your desire to plant one in your garden.
Guilty by association, the staghorn sumac has the reputation of being undesirable or weedy due to its ability to colonize tough environments. In the past it would have never been considered a specimen plant, but it can easily be pruned into tree form. The well-trained, single-trunked specimen makes a dramatic statement and is quite beautiful in the right location.
Staghorn sumac is large compared to most other varieties of sumac. It can grow to 25 feet tall or more in the wild but is generally smaller in cultivation, 15 to 20 feet tall and equally wide. This true four-season plant also has attractive flowers and fruit, adding to its rustic appeal. Blooming in June, cone-shaped pods form, which turn pink in late summer and burgundy for the fall. These also persist well into the winter. The pods and the velvety stems make winter identification a breeze.
Even the toughest plants have their limits and for the staghorn sumac, wet soils are a problem. This is the only situation that will cause certain failure. The staghorn sumac grows successfully in all other locations from full sun to shade, hot, extremely dry sites, compacted soils, and even in containers on a porch or near a swimming pool.
A cultivated variety of staghorn sumac, Laciniata has leaflets that are deeply divided, giving it a much finer textured leaf and appearance. Dissecta, another cultivated variety, is very similar but has leaves that are even more finely dissected and has a ferny quality about it. These two are hard to tell apart, but both have equally brilliant fall color and beautiful pods for the winter.
Fragrant sumac, Rhus aromatica, is quite a bit smaller, growing 4 to 6 feet tall and, as with most sumacs, equally wide. This plant is better suited for the small yard and can be used as a large deciduous groundcover. The cultivated variety Gro-low is even smaller, growing 2 to 4 feet tall and is becoming quite popular for use in the landscape.