Remember that song, “Eye of the Tiger?” Oh, how we never grew tired of listening to it during the summers of our teen years, thinking that somehow, like Rocky Balboa, we would be able to conjure up the eye of the tiger in any situation. Even if we faced the biggest challenge of our life, which in the case of this song and Rocky III, happened to be the impenetrable Mr. T.
In that respect, I believe there could not be a more appropriate name for the chartreuse leaved selection of our native staghorn sumac but “Tiger Eyes.” If you are about to throw in the towel on growing anything other than yews and hosta, jump back in the ring and give this plant a try. The true name of this beauty is Rhus typhina ‘Bailtiger.’ The cultivar is a patented name and Tiger Eyes is the trademark name.
I first came across Rhus typhina or staghorn sumac while in college. It seemed to be the perfect plant. Staghorn sumac would grow almost anywhere but usually best in partial sun. The plant has beautiful, tropical-like, compound leaves and fuzzy stems that are more pronounced after the leaves drop in the fall. These fuzzy stems are reminiscent of deer antlers, thus the inspiration for the common name. The staghorn sumac usually tops out around 6 feet tall and wide. Another wonderful characteristic is the orange-red fall color.
So, what is not to love about this small tree? Well, I soon found out a couple of years after I planted one at my mother’s home. When staghorn sumac is happy, let’s just say, it makes it self at home. It can run in loose soil and I saw plants 5 feet away from the original plant within 3 years. Staghorn sumac spreads by stolons so it is best to keep it in a container or enclosed planting bed. But, if you are looking for a native plant that is a fighter, this is a great plant to consider.
I had always liked this plant but its reputation to put up a fight had gotten on the street so very few people would consider it anymore for the garden. Then, Tiger Eyes came into the scene and allowed staghorn sumac to make a comeback. The first plant I saw was in a container at Longwood Gardens. The gardener had beautifully combined Tiger Eyes sumac with other native plants for a striking container combination. When set against a darker colored backdrop such as an evergreen tree or dark house, the chartreuse foliage on Tiger Eyes comes to life like Rocky after a pep talk from his trainer, Mickey. We have a massing of this plant on the Haney Hillside Garden at Coastal Maine Botanical Garden. The color and texture of the foliage is echoed by Amsonia hubrichtii planted en masse in the foreground. - Rodney