Tiger-eye Sumac (Rhus typhina)

The Sumac itself is not a well-known variety for bonsai. The first reason is that most people act shocked when you mention Sumac because the first thing that comes to mind is Poison Sumac. While Poison Sumac is some nasty stuff the type of Sumac I used is not poisonous at all. Let me introduce you to “Tiger-Eye Sumac! Tiger-eye is very similar to its cousin Staghorn Sumac which is very abundant here in the Northeast United States. I suggest researching Staghorn Sumac or Smooth Sumac. You will be amazed to the number of uses for this tree such as making clothing dyes, medicinal uses, using the fruit to make a lemonade-like drink and so on.

Sumac trees tend to grow in clumps (usually propagates by root suckers), are leggy and don’t get standard branch ramification like you would on most other deciduous tree species. Typically they have a few main branches that are spaced out towards the crown of the tree and the leaf buds directly from the main branch and in a long alternate compound leaf structure. Unless the tree decides it needs a new branch in that area, once winter starts the tree will drop all those compound leaf stems and only have the few main branches. Because it drops the entire leaf stem at the axis along the branch, this is why it does not get a ramified branch structure like the average deciduous tree does. The Tiger-Eye Sumac is a cultivar of the Staghorn sumac mostly for its amazing leaf color. 

Now on to my tree!


Straight from the nursery! This tree was in the “sale” section for half price. It was only $17 however, I was blessed that I just so happened to be there with my parents and they decided to buy it for me :). So technically, a free tree.


Close up of the nebari. Not too bad at all! The opposite side is not as nice as this side but there are surface roots that will thicken up in time and balance the tree out.

The following 3 pics show the different stages of the bark maturity for the species.


Youngest growth at tips with buds. The young growth is brown and furry.


Middle aged growth starts to grey  and smooth over. You can still see small hairs on the bark.


Old mature growth is smooth, grey and no longer has the hairs.


The tree is tilting in the nursery pot so this shows the angle i want to re-plant it at. More or less at a simple upright angle.

The following 3 pics show old prune scars on the trunks. To give these trees shape and to control the growth, the “cut n grow” method is used. I will eventually try to clean these ares up so they are not as bad-looking. 





To keep the height of the tree where I want it, it’s as simple as just snipping off the tops and in the future just continue to cut back any new growth. There are 4 branches all cut to different heights.


Cut tops. They secrete a sticky white sap when cut. Could not find any info about the sap being poisonous (like a Ficus) or anything but some people may get irritated skin if touched. Just use caution in case you have sensitive skin.


Out of the nursery pot.


Close-up of the nebari.


Roots raked out. There was one big root that had to go. Sumac are hardy trees that respond very well to any pruning and root work. Pruning should be done in winter/late winter to reduce sap loss. They typically grow in elevated areas along roadsides so they are not picky about soil conditions.


Roots pruned.


Pot that I will be using for this tree. I think the red looks good against the grey bark and once the tree gets leaves it will look awesome do to the color of the leaves.


Potted in new pot with some good bonsai soil.


Close-up of the nebari on the trees right side in the new pot and soil.


Close-up of the nebari on the trees left side in the new pot and soil. As you can see the nebari isn’t as thick on this side but the spread and the potential is there. 


A little time goes by and the buds break open and the beginning of fresh leaves emerge. The top always buds first but there are plenty of other buds along the trunk that will open. Ones that are to low will be trimmed back.


Close-up of the amazing new leaves color. They start out as a reddish/green mix and once mature will be a bright green. The best part is the fall color. The leaves will turn yellow, orange, red and look like the tree top is on fire. Absolutely beautiful! You can count on an updated future post for this tree so everyone can see its beauty.

Thanks for reading:)

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19 thoughts on “Tiger-eye Sumac (Rhus typhina)”

  1. Your work is just awesome and I so enjoy following what u post thanks to my son..Sean telling me about u .And him and I both love…Bonsai trees! TKU u for what u do!

    1. Thanks so much for your comment! It’s comments like yours that give me the inspiration to do bonsai. Sean and I talk a good bit about bonsai and I’m glad to see that it extends beyond just work. Thanks for following my blog and don’t hesitate to ever comment or ask questions about any post I do. Thanks so much 🙂

  2. Wonderfull.

    Just arrived home after seeing one in a nursery but could’nt make up my mind till I saw your splendid blog.
    Now I MUST travell 20 miles and get my-self this splendid Tiger Eye Sumac and follow your example.

    Thanks again

    Dave (South East England)

    1. Thanks for reading my blog! Sorry to make you travel 20 miles back to the nursery but I think it will be worth it. Although its not a typical species for bonsai due to its growth patterns I think the foliage and its color make up for it. Thanks again for reading and best wishes on your tiger eye sumac bonsai adventure 🙂

      1. I have read that post before. I use a similar product for my soil since Tesco is not available in my area. It is the same clay but a slightly harder version. Its sold as an industrial oil-dry. It has worked well with my Tiger Eye. I’m sure with some sweet talking your wife will drive you back out there. LOL

      2. Hi Erick,

        Not sure if you welcome general chat and follow up on last posts or dose it clutter up the pages?


      3. The comments on my posts are hidden until clicked on to read so it does not clutter up the post. I am more than welcome too chat since that is how we spread info and ideas about bonsai. If I didn’t want the chat I would simply remove the ability to comment from my blog. So feel free to comment as much as u want but I would appreciate if the chat would be somewhat related to the post that the comments will be displayed on. At any point feel free to also contact me by email at eschmidt1979@clear.net. Maybe i will create a separate page on my blog for general chat like a forum… thanks for the idea! Thanks for reading!

  3. Thank you for the nice blog. I would like to ask, perhaps advise on few issues:
    First thing I notice about this tree is that it forms knobs where two branches grow near by.
    Second, is you did not trim your tree properly. You need to shorten those branches a lot more. There is one guide line that says: follow the line of a trunk/branch with your finger, and where you see that it looses movement and tapper, You chop it. And chop it on time so You dont waste time later re chopping it.
    I would have chopped the right branch, few cm above that tiny first bend from the trunk. The middle branch shorter, and the left one, few cm after the fork.
    Good luck and happy bonsaing!

    1. I actually did a lot more root work than what I showed in the photos so I was hesitant with doing to much trunk chopping. Next spring I do plan on chopping the trunks back a good bit more to shorten them. Thanks for your advice 🙂

      1. Yes, that is a good idea. Health of the tree comes first. Consider wiring some roots in the future, while they are small. Some time I wire them in such a manner that the roots get cut by the wire later, similar to ground layering. I like the roots to start forking as near to the trunks as possible. Then You get similar to those dinner plate Japanese nebari.

  4. I have a Tiger – Eye in my garden that I’ve been keeping at about 3′-4′, but had moved in with my Mom to care for her for the past 2 years. I’m home now and the Tiger has grown to a good 6′-7′ and really needs a good pruning…but I don’t know how much (and when) I can cut back without killing it and would greatly appreciate any advice you have. Thank you!

    1. In early spring wait to prune it back at the earliest moment you see the buds starting to swell. Get an idea of what height you want to prune it back to and find at least 2 buds within that area that are swelling. In between those 2 buds is where you can cut it. Make certain you have a couple buds below where you cut because if not you risk the chance and that stem dying. The cut will slowly heal over and the the new bud towards the top will most likely take over as the growing point. Do you have a pic of your tiger you can send me? That way I can see exactly what your seeing and give you anymore pointers? My email is eschmidt1979@clear.net if you would like to send me pics. Feel free to reach out to me if you have any other questions 🙂

      1. Thanks for the quick response! I had tried to send this but couldn’t.

        All truths are easy to understand once they are discovered; the point is to discover them. Galileo Galilei


  5. hi there, I am so excited ! I have 3 pots of rhus typhina growing very well after just one winter. I dug these shoots out from the mother tree in my neighbors garden (she was asking me to take lots since they are shooting up everywhere in her lawn). My plan was to actually plant at least one in my garden next year when we re-landscape but learning from her *problem* to put in a root shield (like those for bamboos) so that the roots stay within the dedicated area. Or to keep them in pots forever and place them strategically around the outside of the house (we are rebuilding).

    Now having seen your bonsai I am keen to try this out and am wondering if I can do this at an early age, they are about 30cm tall now and the special thing about mine are that their leaves are filigree unlike the usual rhus typhina. BTW I live in Germany and these are called Essigbaum commonly, directly translated to Vinegar tree – still figuring this out. Is there any possibility of me sending you images of mine please ? Would really appreciate hearing from you, thank you for such an interesting post. Warm greetings from Germany ! Babe (yep real name)

    1. Hi nice to meet you Babe from Germany! Rhus Typhina “sumac” is everywhere here in the United States because it is so hardy but also invasive. It can easily take over a landscape and the roots are very rigorous similar to bamboo. I would suggest that if putting in a landscape potentially using a root guard of some sort to control the spread. As far as for bonsai you can definitely use what you have now. Since they are smaller you have the ability to grow and shape them how you want as they mature. Feel free to send me pics at eschmidt1979@gmail.com. Thanks for viewing my site and I look forward to your reply and photos!

      Erick Schmidt

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