Fuzzy Drupes and Dr. Seuss: Staghorn Sumac

Staghorn Sumac,  Rhus typhina,  Anacardiaceae, part of a rather infamous plant family.

Staghorn Sumac, Rhus typhina, Anacardiaceae, part of a rather infamous plant family.

Doctor Seuss was definitely consulted when this plant was created.

From the fluffy, alien looking fruits, to the scraggly antler-like fuzzy branches, this plant is straight out of the Lorax.
Its also one of our more charismatic New England plants, and makes one of my favorite teas for hot weather.

Staghorn Sumac in winter, with its distinctively persistent fruits.

Staghorn Sumac in winter, with its distinctively persistent fruits.










Rowdy Relations.

We all have family members who are a bit less ‘appropriate’ than others.  They are the ones that fascinate the younger folk, and who inevitably provoke widened eyes and comments like “oh god, now what are they doing …”.
Well, perhaps Sumac feels about some of its cousins. Poison ivy, poison sumac, and poison oak are all in the same family. These vine-y creatures can cause a fantastic amount of itchiness and discomfort, mainly through the production of an oil called urishiol.

But more on that in my upcoming article on poison ivy:). 

Poison Ivy leaflets

The raucous cousin of Staghorn Sumac, Toxicodendron radicans, also known as Poison Ivy. Along with poison sumac and poison oak, these family members rub many folks the wrong way.

The oil urushiol is mainly responsible for this, and though far more concentrated in the above species, some other members do contain small amounts of this itch-making substance.

Mango Fruit


Mango fruit, a more popular member of the Anacardiaceae family. A sweet fruit, it also has a hint of sour, similar to our Staghorn sumac.

Also similar to the staghorn, some folks can be a little irritated by this fruit, so best to approach both with moderation at first:)





Don't Shut-out the Stag!

In fact, staghorn and other types of edible sumac often get a bad rap just for having a similar name (“oh, you're part of that family…”).  

But to balance out those rather rowdy relatives are some rather delightfully edible plants. Cashews and mango are both in this family, as well as pistachios.
So just because this plant has ‘sumac’ in the name, don’t be discouraged from trying it-you’ll miss out on a great summer time tea!*

*It should be noted that if you have sensitivities to mango, cashews, or pistachios that you may want to be wary around this particular herb. Best to try small amounts as first. If you're super allergic to mango and whatnot...well, maybe skip ingesting this particular plant and just enjoy the beauty:)

Staghorn branch

The distinctive fuzz-covered branch tip that gives Staghorn Sumac it's name (that soft texture was thought to look similar to deers antlers in velvet).

It also helps distinguish staghorn sumac from another common species,
Rhus glabra (glabrous = smooth in botanical geek-speak:).




Stag’s Horns and Fuzzy Drupes

The common name of this plant comes not from its showy fruits, but from it’s subtly fuzzy branches. Before the first leaves are even on this shrubby tree, it comes out with simple branches of a velvety texture similar to the newly grown antlers of a deer.

These same hairs also cover the fruits of staghorns sumac. These little red fuzzballs, technically called drupes, are clustered together at the end of branches. This is the part you’re going for if you’d like to make tea or spices (which of course, you do.)

Sumac fruit-up close

Up close and personal with the fuzzy fruits of Rhus typhina, staghorn sumac.

These are technically
drupes, fleshy fruits with stony pits covering their seeds (cherries, peaches, and apricots are also drupes).





Pithy and Pinnate

Other notable characteristics of staghorn sumac are it’s pinnate leaves (pinnate = feather-like), and pithy stalks.

In this case, pithy refers not to a succinct bit of repartee, but rather to the substance that fills up sumac stems. You’ll find pith in many non-woody plants actually. It plays a major role in nutrient transport and storage.

Sumac Leaf-pinnate

The distinctive leaves of staghorn sumac. Their pinnate nature makes them appear oddly tropical, as though a palm tree has decided to send some of it's leaves north.

Also note the pinky-purple mid-stem, another characteristic most obvious in the younger leaves.


Staghorn sumac pith small image.jpg


The pithy stalk of staghorn sumac, with a bit picked out for closer observation.

The spongy white pith in here acts both as both storage unit and transportation, providing nutrients to the whole plant.

It also has a slightly sweet aroma that mimics the fruits, and a sticky sap that needs seriously vigorous washing to remove (didn't figure out
that one until just recently-while taking the above pictures in fact:)



Next Time...

For more on the tea, as well as when and where to pick this Seuss-ian beauty, check out our next post.

Should give you plenty of time to find the nearest patch of these neat little things!

How to Learn More

Wild Edible and Medicinal Plant walks and the the Introduction to Herbal Medicine classes through Meet the Green.


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