Staghorn Sumac: Small Tree but BIG Benefits to the Landscape

mixed flock in Staghorn sumac 2014 (PARKE)As I watch the birds consume the berries of the Staghorn Sumac trees over the cold snow covered landscape, I thought to myself how this tree is often thought of as a “weed” of roadside and urban areas. I also thought how many times I have had folks mistake it for its cousin Poison Sumac, or the non-native invasive look-a-like Tree-of-Heaven. It is with this information in mind that I present to you Staghorn Sumac: a very underrated and important native plant to NJ’s landscape.

The largest of the North American sumacs, Staghorn Sumac is wide spread in the northeastern US. Resembling a small tree, Staghorn Sumac is very fast growing and forms “thicket colonies” in the wild via self-seeding and root suckering. These sumac “tree colonies” also provide nesting and shelter sites for many bird species. Staghorn sumac is generally pest-disease free, it’s drought tolerant and does very well in full sun to partial shade and in average, dry to medium moisture, well-drained soils. They are very tolerant of a wide range of soils, except for wetland type soils (i.e., poorly drained).

Staghorn Sumac is very important to habitat restoration because of its ability to grow in harsh conditions, especially on dry nutrient poor soil areas, thin soils, embankments and impossible slopes where even red cedar struggles. It is a very valuable plant for soil erosion control because of its shallow red-banned hairstreak (PARKE)spreading root system and therefore is frequently used in mine reclamation sites, landfills, buffer strips to waterways in agricultural fields and windbreaks on farm fields that are on slopes.

What many people don’t know about Staghorn Sumac is the tiny greenish-yellow flowers which bloom in the spring are very important source of nectar for several butterfly species, including banded and striped hairstreaks. It is also a larval host of spring azure butterfly. According to the The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, Staghorn Sumac is rated as a plant of “Special Value to Native Bees”. In fact, it is recognized by pollination ecologists as attracting large numbers of native bees for its pollen and nectar as well as the plant provides nesting materials/structure for native bees Furthermore, Staghorn Sumac encourages biological control as it attracts predatory or parasitoid insects that prey upon pest insects.

Staghorn sumac (PARKE)But by far it is the fruits of the Staghorn Sumac that really make it special! The red cone-shaped cluster panicles of hairy berries ripen in autumn and gradually turn dark red as they lastRobin on snow eating sumac and black haw (PARKE) through the winter. These berries offer exceptional food for wildlife, especially in winter. American Crow, Northern Mockingbird, American Robin, Eastern Bluebird, and approximately 300 other species of songbirds incorporate the Staghorn Sumac fruit into their diet. It is also known to be important winter forage for game birds such as Ruffed Grouse, Ring-necked Pheasant, Northern Bobwhite, and Wild Turkey. Squirrels and cottontail rabbits will also consume the berries, but will also eat sumac bark.

NJ Audubon promotes the use of native plants for landscaping and wildlife habitat restoration, but we also promote the use of native plants in connection with agricultural practices and farming. According to a 2014 United Nations report Agriculture takes up 1/3 of the land on earth and 38% of that arable land has become degraded. Land is a finite resource, we need to become more efficient in the ways we produce, supply and consume." With this concept in mind NJ Audubon supports our friend Ms. Tama Matsuoka-Wong’s efforts of creating a “Wild Farm” using Staghorn Sumac as a test crop. For more information about Tama’s “Wild Farm” project please see https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/421744326/the-wild-farm-producing-local-sumac-spices