I am not a good contestant in trivia games. Add me to your team for the local trivia quiz night, and I can guarantee that I shall disappoint you for, although I seem to be possessed of the most amazing collection of inconsequential facts which I can sprinkle into any conversation, my mind becomes a total blank the moment the question master poses his trivial question. “Name the only animal which is born with horns.” Em … aah … emmm … the snail? And in the selfsame instant that I stammer that word ‘snail’ I realise, ahead of the audience, that this is an idiotic suggestion. The quizmaster struggles not to join the audience in some scarcely-suppressed giggling as he replies, “The correct answer is the giraffe.” Or what about, “Which is the only species of male deer which does not … I repeat … does NOT have antlers?” And while you are thinking about that, I shall make myself a cup of coffee.
Of course, even before I had reached for the kettle you had responded, “The Chinese Water Deer.” And, while everyone recognises antlers when they see them, I am indebted to Wikipedia for this technical description of antlers. “Antlers grow as highly vascular spongy tissue covered in a skin called velvet. Before the beginning of a species’ mating season, the antlers calcify under the velvet and become hard bone. The velvet is then rubbed off leaving dead bone which forms the hard antlers.” And the next question might very well be, “What, if anything, has this got to do with gardening?” ‘Sumach,’ I can reply with confidence, knowing that the most common variety of sumach sold in Scottish garden centres is called Stag’s Horn Sumach because … have you guessed? … its appearance is reminiscent of antlers.
Rhus typhina, to give the tree its botanical name, is a native of the eastern states and provinces of North America. The typhina part of the name actually means ‘like Typha’, Typha being the Greek name for the plant we would usually call Reed-mace; and Rhus is the Latin name for the tree, which gets its common name … Stag’s Horn … not only because it has branches that grow into the same shapes as that animal’s horns but also because these branches have bark which is similar in appearance to the velvet covering that protects the deer’s antlers until they have hardened. The Stag’s Horn Sumach is a tough deciduous tree that grows to something between three metres and ten metres in height … say, ten feet to thirty feet in old money … and spreads to similar sizes; so it’s not a particularly large tree as trees go. Its best season is the autumn, when its large leaves change colour, becoming variously brilliant scarlet, purple, gold or orange … and the colours really are brilliant. There are both male and female trees, and the female is even more spectacular than the male as summer draws to a close, for her bright red cones complement her leaves and have been known to stay on the tree for much of the winter. It is not fussy about where it will thrive and will do well in virtually any garden soil though, if you wish to pander to it, it will do even better in full sun. It is hardy, as you would expect from a plant which grows very happily in the eastern provinces of Canada and has been grown in the United Kingdom for 350 years.
But, as is so often the case, this gift to the gardener who fancies attractive trees comes complete with problems. It spreads by using the seeds from its cones and by throwing out rhizomes … roots from which new shoots spring so that even a single tree can soon become a clump of trees if these rhizomes are not ruthlessly cut off. The Stag’s Horn Sumach also needs to be pruned hard every year, for if it is left unattended the branches become very long, straggly and unattractive. But, if you are minded to give the tree the attention it needs to keep it in good order, you, too, can have a plant imitation of Bambi in your garden.
Sandy Simpson, Polmont Horticultural Society