Wild Ones   Green Gables: An American Landscape Designed With Nature in Mind: Sumac & Raspberries. Part 6  
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.

Staghorn sumac
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

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 appealing 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.

Its 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 outside.

As for the fear of staghorn sumac getting out of control and taking over one’s 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.

Prairie rose
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

Prairie rose (Rosa setigera) is an enthusiastic climber, colorful, and perfumed. Photo © 2002 Steven J. Baskauf.

Unfortunately, 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 doesn’t necessarily include every plant that can be found growing somewhere in the good old USA.

Black raspberry
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

Black raspberry (Rhubus occidentalis). Photo © 2004 Steven J. Baskauf.

The patch, 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.

Here 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 architect.

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Updated: Jul 28, 2009.