The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, November 8, 2002


Staghorn Sumac

The Biodiversity Corner has just reached its one-year anniversary. It quacked its way into existence last year on November 9 with the Wood Frog. In total it has documented 37 non-tax-paying species in the town, including one amphibian, one arachnid, nine birds, seven fungi, four insects, one lichen, four mammals (two rodents), three plants, three wildflowers, three reptiles and one tree.

Name: Staghorn Sumac or Rhus typhina, a member of the cashew family.

Where seen: Can be seen from the road on the east side of Lowell Street near the Chelmsford border.

Distinguishing characteristics: Staghorn Sumac is a small, open-crowned tree very easily recognized this time of year by the upright clusters of hairy red fruit which remain through the winter. It has compound leaves up to two feet long made up of 11 to 31 lance-shaped, saw-toothed leaflets. The leaves turn scarlet to maroon in the fall except this year when most of the leaves dried up and dropped off due to the drought. The current-year twigs have a dense covering of brown hairs giving them a velvety look and hence the name Staghorn. Twigs exude a milky, sticky sap when cut. The flowers are greenish and appear early in the summer.

Habitat: Staghorn Sumac likes well-drained sites in full sun. It is often found on abandoned farmland, along fencerows, and roadsides. There are large stands of it along parts of Route 495 and Route 2.

Other family members: From a distance the Smooth Sumac (Rhus glabra) and the Staghorn Sumac could be mistaken for each other since both have the same growth pattern, the upright clusters of red fruit, and the same arrangement of leaves. But the smooth species is famous for saying, "Behold my brother Staghorn is a hairy tree, and I am a smooth tree." The Poison-sumac is distinguishable by its smooth-edged leaflets and whitish fruit in drooping clusters. The Shining Sumac (Rhus copallina) is distinguishable by its watery sap.

Suckers: Staghorn Sumac and its smooth brother propagate prolifically — there's one born every minute. They spread by root suckers and can so quickly form large thickets that many people consider them weed trees. I planted one in my garden and find the suckers are very easy to remove.

Usefulness: Every good Boy Scout knows that you can make "lemonade" from sumac berries of either the Smooth or Staghorn varieties. This is best done earlier in the season when the berries are juicier — right now they are dry and seedy. The wild forager Steve Brill suggests making a very concentrated Sumac berry extract and using it as a lemon or lime juice substitute in recipes like Sumacado Vinaigrette and Sumac ice cream. All the details are in his book, which is in the Gleason Library. The Staghorn Sumac is also useful for soil conservation on steep banks and in poor soil where other plants may not grow. Since it is salt-tolerant, it can be used for protection along shorelines and roadsides. The berries are a source of food for more than 30 species of birds including the eastern phoebe, wood thrush, hermit thrush and eastern bluebird.

References: Audubon Field Guide to North American Trees (Eastern Region); The Wild Vegetarian Cookbook, by Steve Brill.

Submissions for the Biodiversity Corner are encouraged. Send a note, a photo, an idea or the whole column to Kay Fairweather at 392 School St, Carlisle MA 01741 or to

2002 The Carlisle Mosquito