The Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina), also known as the Velvet Sumac, is a 4.5-9 meter tall, dense, colony-forming, deciduous shrub or small tree with crooked, leaning trunks, velvety twigs, and forked branches that resemble stag’s antlers. The leaves are lemon-scented, a break of the stout twigs exudes a white sap, and the ripened red fruit have a tangy, clean flavor. Despite the similar name, Staghorn is not closely related to Poison Sumac (Toxicodendron vernix), which bears white, not red, fruit clusters; and sumac is botanically related to cashews and mangoes, so those with allergies to these foods should avoid it.
The Staghorn is native to Southeastern Canada and the Northeastern, Midwestern, and Appalachian regions of the United States. They are fast-growing, generally pest- and disease-free, and drought-tolerant. Staghorn is an ornamental plant that boosts the vitality of the natural landscape, benefits native birds and beneficial insect species, serves as important winter food for wildlife, and provides pollen, nectar, and nesting areas.
The dark red fruit of the sumac has a hint of acid, creating a sour flavor. As a spice, sumac (there are 250 varieties in this family) is used both in traditional and modern world cuisine. Most of the sumac available in the United States is imported from Turkey, originating from a different species than Staghorn sumac. The Turkish product has a different taste profile, much stronger and more vinegary than the American variety. It is the indigenous American sumac that brings a complex mild flavor all of its own: tart, with cherry and toasty notes, less astringent and better as a finishing spice.
Native Americans used the fruit for many medicinal uses, including an astringent, control for vomiting, and a tempering agent for fever, stomach pains, urinary ailments, and sore throats. The root was chewed to ease swollen and infected gums; sumac compresses were applied to burns, cuts, bleeding, and swelling; and it was smoked in a tobacco blend. Most of all, the fruit was used by the Algonquin in Quebec, the Menominee, the Cherokee, the Ojibwa, and the Potawatomi fresh or dried for winter storage to create a lemonade-like beverage, made by submerging the fruit cluster in a bowl of water, letting it steep, wringing it by hand, and straining it to remove residue, for a refreshing, Vitamin C-rich tonic with antioxidants.
Sumac can also be used as a natural dye, provides tanneries with a natural tanning agent, and is a popular ornamental choice in landscape design because of its year-round vitality, whether in an urban or suburban setting, industrial or on the edge of the forest. Where the soil is thin and too dry for larger trees, the Staghorn is resilient even when exposed to pollution. The Staghorn spreads well, stabilizing and rehabilitating disturbed habitats. Along with herbaceous annuals and perennials, the Staghorn can re-vegetate mined, industrialized, and stripped sites.
Because of Staghorn’s reputation of very rapid spread, municipalities, farmers, and landowners have tried to either eradicate or control Staghorn sites with chemical herbicides–a misaligned use of both money and labor. Another factor pushing the eradication of Staghorn Sumac is its misidentification as an invasive plant named the Tree of Heaven (Simaroubaceae). The Tree of Heaven is a non-native broadleaf deciduous plant that releases chemicals into the soil that inhibit the growth of other plants, and it grows so prolifically that it reduces light to the plants growing underneath. The Tree of Heaven shares habitats with Staghorn Sumac and has indirectly, through misidentification, led to serious attacks on Staghorn Sumac populations.