Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Sumac Saga

When I moved here 15 summers ago, the front acre was a long, sloping lawn with young conifers planted along the eastern boundary. I decided to let it go wild, just planting more trees and shrubs to fill in the boundary, making a mixed hedgerow. Now it is at an old-field stage, filled with milkweed, goldenrod and asters and young ash, mulberry, and red-cedar saplings.

About 10 years ago Steve planted a staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina L.) fruit in a coffee can and left it on his back porch. Two years later, it sprouted and we transplanted it into the hedgerow where it thrived. I really thought this was a good idea at the time. It’s native, and the sumac I’d seen along roadsides grew in small groups with an attractive, open, antler-like form.

Unfortunately though, despite the annual beating it takes from the deer, it has formed a dense clonal thicket and is marching tumor-like across my field. None of my guide books mentioned this tendency (although I have recently found this information online) and I had a bad moment a few years ago of thinking we had planted tree-of-heaven by mistake. But no, sumac it is.

It’s beautiful in the fall, and the wildlife does make use of it, but nothing else grows within it’s boundary.

I’ve read that it can be controlled by cutting it back in July and August, but that the sap can produce a poison ivy-like rash. I don’t want to eradicate it entirely, but I’m not sure how taxing it would be to have to cut it back each year. The clones are apparently relatively short-lived and it will not thrive in shade, should the saplings manage to top it. But for now it’s joined in the battle among the other invasives in this field--multiflora rose, Canadian thistle, and teasel competing for this space.

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