|By Richard J. Ehrenberg
As seen out the windows of the lake room,
the architecture of the trunks
of sumac is interesting. The high-growing
leaves shade the window. Photo
by Richard J. Ehrenberg.
Three distinctive shrubs are part
of the visual landscape in our
yard at Green Gables. One was selected
primarily for its beauty and history.
All were chosen to fulfill a function.
When beauty and function are combined it is
the essence of good planning and design.
The selection of staghorn
sumac (Rhus typhina), to replace a concrete
patio located just outside and
adjacent to our family /living
room turned out to be a perfect
solution for what I considered a major eyesore
for one who likes to look out a window and
see nature. When we first moved in, the primary
view out the only window in the room, a large
glass sliding door, other than a great expanse
of lawn, was a twelve-foot by eighteen-foot
squarish, grey slab of concrete edged by a
two-foot wide linear planter for annuals, and
outlined with decaying railroad ties. Not even
a hint of anything natural.
The concrete and
railroad ties were removed as soon
as I could find a person with a
jackhammer. After a year of construction repair
work around the house, six staghorn
sumac were planted along the south
wall of the “lake room,” so
named since it faces Trippe Lake.
Later, three large windows replaced
the sliding door in order to provide a full
view of the prairie garden, the lake, the trees
and shrubs by the lake, wildlife roaming the
yard, birds at the feeder, and people strolling
on the paths.
Staghorn sumac (Rhus
typhinea). Photo © 2003
Steven J. Baskauf.
Sumacs produce additional plants
(clones) through sprouting from their
expanding root systems. Over the
years the original six five-foot
tall plants have grown to twelve
and fifteen feet in height. Some
have died due to expanding shade,
while new ones sprouted where sun
became more available. Presently,
there are eighteen mature and maturing
plants, with sixteen young ones starting to
fill in where needed. Viewed from outside the
house, they look like one large shrub. They
are not sheared into geometric shapes or prevented
from intermingling with each other.
Their distinctive, large compound leaves create
an exotic impression of tropical forest plants.
The artistic, sculptured branching habit, and
the beautiful fall colors of oranges and reds
are outstanding. The fuzzy, red clusters of
seed are also showy, and provide food for early
spring birds, especially robins.
as their beauty is, the main reason
for selecting staghorn sumac was
to provide filtered shade for the
lake room during the hot humid days of summer.
This they do admirably well. In fact, when
the plants were only eight-feet to
ten-feet tall it was necessary
to selectively prune out some of
the large leaves so that we could see the back
yard. Now that the sumac clone has grown tall
enough to leaf out above the level of the windows,
pruning is only required for the
younger plants, and the windows are shaded.
love for a sunny location makes
it ideal for planting on the south
side of a house where heat mitigation
is often desirable. Because sumac leafs out
late and drops leaves early, sun is allowed
into the lake room not only during the extreme
cold of winter, but also during the
cool days of spring and fall. Its
open branching habit allows pruning
to permit one to see through from inside the
house, yet its south-facing, large, shading
leaves can provide visual privacy from the
As for the fear of staghorn sumac getting
out of control and taking over
yard, put that notion aside. Yes,
in a natural setting these shrubs
will keep spreading and will grow
into large masses. In so doing they shade out
grasses and prairie plants to provide a protective
habitat for forest trees to sprout
and evolve. That is part of their function
in the natural world. However, if one plans
to do even a minimal amount of yard maintenance,
sumac is very easy to control. Tender green
shoots appear annually in my crushed stone
path and are pinched off with fingers, on my
way to the garage. Shoots sprout in the small
lawn area east of the house and are cut off
weekly by the lawnmower. Shoots sprout in the
prairie garden and are allowed to grow the
first season. Their three-foot to four-foot
growth during their first season provides bright
fall color to the prairie garden. The single
stems are also allowed to remain through winter
for added interest, and are cut off at the
ground in spring. New shoots will provide color
for the coming year.
One prairie rose (Rosa
setigera) was planted in
a corner where the path from the lake intersects
with the path to the garage. As a specimen
shrub it acts as an obstacle both
visually, lending mystery to the
destination of the path, and functionally,
against would-be shortcuts. The size
of this rose is grand – eight
feet tall by eighteen feet wide.
Its hundreds of blooms with single
pink petals and yellow centers
are at their peak on July 4th to
help celebrate American Independence Day; quite
appropriate for a Midwestern native.
Prairie rose (Rosa
setigera) is an enthusiastic
climber, colorful, and perfumed.
Photo © 2002 Steven J. Baskauf.
the first old-fashioned hard winter
of 2007-2008, since planting the
prairie rose in 1996, caused severe die-back – we’ll
see how much it recovers. This illustrates
what is meant by “locally native plants.” The
prairie rose is native in the Midwest,
as far north as Illinois, Indiana,
and Ohio. During the ten previous
years of mild winters here in southeastern
Wisconsin, the rose suffered no winter
kill. Planting a natural, native landscape
necessarily include every plant that
can be found growing somewhere in
the good old USA.
A black raspberry patch (Rubus
occidentalis), at Green Gables
not only represents one of the
prolific native plants still found
in the countryside, it also is an edible
delight that represents the rhythms of nature’s
cycles. Late June and early July
has us going for a walk to the lake
in order to enjoy a handful of fresh
black raspberries, which we planted along
the path for easy access. A special Wisconsin
author, Barbara Fitz Vroman, who writes about
human experiences, made me aware that eating
raspberries from one’s
back yard is more than just the enjoyment
of food, “you are tasting summer, childhood,
family continuity,” and I would like
to add, in our own native landscape
we are also tasting “history.” Kim
and I actually experience what Native
Americans tasted and how they would
have gathered this ephemeral fruit
as they walked through a savanna.
Black raspberry (Rhubus
© 2004 Steven J. Baskauf.
which is approximately fifteen feet
by forty feet, started with three
volunteers (probably bird-planted)
which over time spread quickly. Their six-foot
canes arch over, and when the tips touch soil,
roots and a new plant sprouts. Their ability
to thrive on dry or moist soil and
in full sun or partial shade makes
them easy to place almost anywhere.
are three versatile, (one edible),
native plants which could be included
in most any landscape, yet they are not usually
available in or promoted by garden centers.
We can do our part to promote these beauties
by planting them, and sharing our extra
ones with friends and neighbors when
our patches grow too large.
Richard J. Ehernberg, of the Madison
(WI) Chapter, is a landscape
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