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Staghorn tree – amazing in spring, fall and winter

Sumac tree

Staghorn sumac, also called vinegar sumac, is a short tree that grows in a roundish shape.

Key staghorn tree facts:

Name: Rhus typhina
Family: Anacardiaceae
Type: shrub

Height: 16 feet (5 m)
Exposure: full sun
Soil: ordinary

Foliage: deciduous  –  Flowering: June to August

It’s found very appealing for its fuzzy red fruit clusters, but sometimes becomes problematic because it spreads very fast.

How to plant staghorn sumac

Staghorn sumac leaves in fallIt doesn’t make any difference whether your staghorn tree is planted in spring or fall.

  • Favor a sunny spot, and don’t worry about the soil type: it’s not an important criteria.
  • Water well after planting.
  • Staghorn sumac grows extremely fast, make sure you’ve given it enough space to spread out.
  • Follow our advice on planting shrubs

Propagation through root cuttings in fall, but you can also just wait for it to send shoots up from the running roots and dig those out.

  • Note that roots have highly irritating sap, so wear gloves when preparing cuttings.

Pruning staghorn sumac

Pruning Staghorn sumacStaghorn sumac can turn out to be rather invasive, both because its seeds sprout easily and because underground roots send up shoots. In pruning, your goal is to keep the tree as a single, balanced tree.

  • Indeed, if left to its own devices, it’ll turn into a dense thicket within less than a decade.

→ Before pruning your staghorn sumac, slip on a pair of gloves, because the sap is a bit sticky (and, for some people, highly irritating).

  • Pruning actually isn’t a requirement.
  • If you wish to reshape your sumac or balance the branches somewhat, prune in fall.
  • Eliminate suckers and shoots that pop up out of the soil as soon as you notice them. This will help you control the shrub and keep it from spreading too much.

Staghorn sumac has rather brittle wood that can’t cope very well with windstorms. Never climb into the tree to prune it, and don’t even think of hanging a swingset from it.

Can I cut staghorn sumac back by a lot?

Staghorn sumac will bounce back from even the hardest pruning. If you cut it down to a stump, new shoots will reappear in the following spring from the vigorous root system. It’s as strong a grower as bay in this respect.

Hatracking, or cutting back completely just to shorten the tree, is strongly discouraged. Indeed, new branches would come out that are only weakly connected to the tree. On a staghorn tree, these branches would very easily break off if it gets windy. Dangerous if people walk nearby. Not a problem if you contain growth to less than 6-8 feet (2-2.5 meters).

That being said, it’s best to simply shorten the longest branches by cutting them back to a junction. For example, if a branch splits into two smaller branches, cut the longer of the two back to the junction. If the tree still feels too large, go for a second round. Best do this in fall, after leaves have fallen.

Learn more about staghorn sumac

staghorn-sumac-fruitA very beautiful shrub with a spectacular summer blooming, sumac is also remarkable in fall, when its foliage rolls over to flamboyant hues before falling off.

It is definitely among the most beautiful ornamental shrubs from September to December.

This easy to care for shrub will produce the nicest impact as a standalone, because as years go by it tends to grow wide instead of tall.

Staghorn sumac fruits

Staghorn sumac fruits can be used to prepare lemonade, all that has to be done is to prepare a decoction from the fruits. It’s a relative of both cashew and pistachio nut trees.

The tangy, acidic taste gave the tree its other common name: the vinegar tree. Its fruits contain high doses of vitamin C and tannin compounds.

Is staghorn sumac poisonous?

Staghorn sumac poisonousWhile very common, staghorn sumac isn’t dangerous to most people. Other species that share common ancestors, like poison sumac (Toxicodendron vernix, formerly Rhus vernix) and the Chinese lacquer tree (Toxicodendron vernicifluum, formerly Rhus vernicifera) are very poisonous for most humans and pets. For those two, the entire plant is poisonous, as the sap is what contains the toxic compounds.

However, especially after repeated contact,  some people turn out to be vulnerable to staghorn sumac’s sap.

Too much exposure to that white, milky sap called latex might trigger an allergic reaction.

This usually isn’t anything more than dermatosis, rashes or swelling on the hands and forearms, but in some cases it may lead to severe anaphylactic shock, where the blood pressure drops to the point of losing consciousness and swelling of tissues in the throat and mouth area can lead to choking.

Read also on the topic of shrubs:

Smart tip about staghorn sumac

Planting this unique tree in your garden will bring lots of color to your garden!

Staghorn sumac leaves will gradually shift from spring green to carmine red, with shades of daffodil yellow and lush orange.

Images: Pixabay: Alicja Juskowiak, Hans Braxmeier, Marion Beraudias, Marc Benedetti
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  • Mary F Green wrote on 9 October 2022 at 22 h 04 min

    I was gifted with 3 Staghorn Sumacs 4 yrs ago. They are now 18 – 20 ft tall no blooms . I would like to cut down this Fall to try to have them bush out – is that possible. Will they ever produce fruit?

    • Gaspard wrote on 10 October 2022 at 5 h 03 min

      Hi Mary! There’s a bit more information on pruning staghorn sumac in the article now.
      It’s a good idea to cut them back this fall. They will definitely bush out well. Note that they might also send up new growth/shoots from the ground in spring. You should remove most of them, or else you’re going to end up with a thicket that’s impossible to control later on.
      For the blooming/fruiting, yes they will certainly start producing that soon; possibly even next year if you prune them this fall. Indeed, pruning tends to trigger fruiting on most types of tree. I’ve had a sumac start bearing flowers the year after I pruned it, it was late compared to its “siblings” because it had too much shade. The pruning did the trick for this one!

  • Randy wrote on 23 September 2021 at 21 h 03 min

    This article should be updated. Rhus toxicodendron and Rhus vernicifera are now recognized as part of the Toxicodendron genus rather than Rhus. They might be confused with each other at certain times of year, but they are noticeably different plants.

    • Gaspard wrote on 15 October 2021 at 3 h 36 min

      Hi Randy, you’re right – I was able to find a few genetic analysis studies that corroborate that fact. Though it does seem that establishing lineage for all these plants is particularly difficult, since sometimes results are conflicting even nowadays. I updated the article now to reflect this for the two species you mentioned. Thanks a lot!

  • Avril Lydiate wrote on 28 August 2021 at 11 h 14 min

    Good morning, we have a beautiful stagshorn sumac tree with stunning red candles, I decided to trim lower branches off so I could get the mower underneath. Ten to fifteen minutes later I started to get a red stinging rash on my face lips and neck, my pulse shot up-to 138, I had vomiting, diarrhea and then blacked out, my partner had to call an ambulance ,I was told I had experienced a severe allergic reaction to the tree.
    I know this tree is not generally known to be toxic so we were baffled. However we did manage to find a few people who had suffered the same reaction as me. So I was thinking when selling this beautiful tree to the public it might be worth mentioning that some people could have a severe allergic reaction to the sap. I know that the poisonous sumac is very poisonous, but I was very surprised to know that the stagshorn is also poisonous. Avril

    • Gaspard wrote on 2 September 2021 at 4 h 52 min

      Hello Avril, that’s a very important insight and I thank you a lot for sharing it. It turns out that the sap of the plant does trigger allergies, and the probability increases with how often a person comes in contact with the substance. How serious the allergy becomes, though, depends on the person: some will only experience minor discomfort while others risk dangerous allergic shock reactions.