The Eye of the Tiger Eyes

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.

sumac-tiger-eyes

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.

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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.

Rhus Tiger Eyes at the Haney Hillside by William CullinaI 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

images winter greenhousePutneypics (by creative commons), and William Cullina

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rodney eason

Rodney Eason - Director of Horticulture and Plant Curator at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, father of 4, husband to a Renaissance woman. I spent the first part of my life in North Carolina, the middle in Pennsylvania, and now I am determined to become a Mainer  while keeping my southern drawl. I consider the rhetorical question, "you're not from around here, are you?" a compliment. I love great gardens, beautiful plants, and inspiring architecture. Because of this, I am on a lifelong quest to find a garden that artistically combines beautiful plants while being centered around an evocative building. For me, this would be Beatrix Farrand's Dumbarton Oaks, with the plants of Lotusland and Chanticleer, around Fay Jones' Thorncrown Chapel. My wife and I are now making our new home and garden in a 130 year old New England house with a farmer's porch near the Damariscotta River in coastal Maine. When our kids get into college, we want to hike the Appalachian Trail as a family over a summer break. My likes (in random order): the smell of fresh basil and rosemary, bold foliage, India Pale Ale, good running shoes, Top Gear, the smell of New England in the fall (it reminds me a bit of English Leather, which my grandfather wore), and the sound of our family laughing together around the dinner table. I dream of one day owning an old Toyota 4X4 pick-up and seeing the Avett Brothers in concert.
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