Wild Ideas: Sorting out the sumacs as summer subsides

Human uses of sumac

Humans also find sumac useful beyond adding visual variety to landscapes. According to “Eat the Weeds,” with the proper preparation, many parts of a sumac can be eaten. Native Americans made their own version of lemonade by soaking ripe sumac berries in warm water and then filtering out the pulp. Whole berries can be made into tea. Although tart, berries can also be eaten (sweetened or not), turned into jelly or dried and saved for later use. Peeled shoots can be eaten peeled raw or cooked. All parts of the staghorn sumac, except the roots, can be used as a natural dye; oil from the seeds can be made into candle wax and sap can be used as a varnish. The leaves, which have tannin, can be used to tan leather.

Throughout the Middle East and elsewhere, dried and ground sumac berries are used as a spice. According to one Australian website, sumac “has a pleasant tangy taste with a hint of citrus fruitiness and virtually no aroma.” Before the introduction of lemons, “the Romans used sumac as a souring agent,” the site adds. Sumac has also been used for a variety of medicinal purposes.

Sumacs spark a wide range of reactions, from love to loathing to confusion. The confusion comes mainly from trying to sort out the three larger, most common species here — the smooth, staghorn and winged sumacs, which can easily be confused with each other and with trees, including the dreaded ailanthus (tree of heaven).

Sumacs are in the Rhus genus of the Anacardiaceae plant family, which also includes cashews. Five sumac species are native to Virginia, the others being the fragrant sumac (R. aromatic), a low-growing shrub, and Michaux’s sumac (R. michauxii), native to the Coastal Plain region but listed as federally endangered since 1989.

What has commonly been known as “poison sumac,” originally classified as being in the Rhus genus, was recently determined to belong instead to the Toxicodendron genus, to which poison ivy also belongs. Poison sumac is uncommon in Virginia, growing only in a few spots with very wet or flooded soils in the Coastal Plain.

Considered shrubs or trees, depending on their size, these three sumacs have long, pinnate leaves (rows of leaflets on both sides), as do several native trees, including locusts and walnuts. So does ailanthus (Ailanthus altissima), an exotic invasive that is the bane of landowners and foresters. Some years ago, thinking sumac along U.S. 211 was ailanthus, the Virginia Department of Transportation sprayed it with herbicide and got a lot of blowback from some local residents because of it.

To add to the identification challenge among these pinnately leafed plants with similar growth habits, sumac, ailanthus and walnut often grow together. Although the two latter trees have allelopathic chemicals that discourage other plants from growing around them, sumacs are immune.

The staghorn sumac can be identified by its furry stems and clusters of velvety, scarlet fruit. Photo by Pam Owen.
The staghorn sumac can be identified by its furry stems and clusters of velvety, scarlet fruit. Photo by Pam Owen.

Fortunately, the ailanthus leaves have several traits that help in distinguishing them from sumac, most noticeably their skunky smell, which can be detected from even a few inches away. The leaflets of the ailanthus are also shorter at the base and end of the leaf than in the middle, giving the leaf an oblong appearance, while sumac leaflets narrow in size from the base to the end of the leaf, giving the leaf a more conical look. Another dead giveaway that a leaf belongs to an ailanthus is that each of the first set of leaflets at the base of the leaf has one or two slight protuberances, or “thumbs,” on each side of their bases.

When it comes to telling the sumacs apart from each other, it’s all in the name. Arguably the loveliest of the taller sumacs is the winged — aka shining, flameleaf, mountain or dwarf — sumac (R. copallina).

With its feathery flower clusters, shiny green leaves and lush growth habit, it is often used as an ornamental in landscaping. The two narrow, leaflike blades (or wings) running along the side of each winged sumac stem give the plant its name. The fruit of the winged sumac is also attractive. With their smooth skin and purplish color, they look a bit like clusters of tiny concord grapes.

The staghorn is the tallest among the three species, growing to 35-50 feet; the winged grows 20-35 feet, and smooth, 2-20 feet, but height doesn’t help much in sorting out sumacs when they’re young. The biggest clue is in the name — up to a point.

The staghorn and smooth sumacs both have curved, conical flower clusters that become bright-red berry clusters and look a bit like stag horns. But the staghorn’s fruit cluster looks like a stag’s horn in velvet. The younger stems of the staghorn also look furry, while the smooth sumac stem is, well, smooth.

Smooth sumac can start turning color as early as August, and by mid-October can take on a variety of hues, as with the smooth sumac above. Photo by Pam Owen.
Smooth sumac can start turning color as early as August, and by mid-October can take on a variety of hues, as with the smooth sumac above. Photo by Pam Owen.

And, although the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service characterizes the fruit clusters of the smooth sumac as “fuzzy,” in its excellent booklet “Native Plants for Wildlife Habitat and Conservation Landscaping — Chesapeake Bay Watershed” (downloadable from nativeplantcenter.net, or call 1-800-344-WILD for a hard copy), I find them less so than those of the staghorn’s. The staghorn’s fruit also looks brighter and more crimson than the smooth sumac’s duller, deeper-red clusters. The staghorn sumac is the first to fruit, in July, followed by the smooth in August and the winged in October.

The texture and color — from minty green to lavender — of the trunk and stems of the smooth sumac are, to me, its most attractive features. Trunks and branches of all three sumacs take on a woodier appearance as they mature.

Almost every type of habitat and soil in Virginia supports at least one sumac species, and most grow in full sun to partial shade. Whether or not they appeal to us humans, they are of “high value” to wildlife, according to the USFWS booklet. The fruit is particularly valuable. While it doesn’t tend to be the first choice on the menu for wildlife, it can last most or all of the winter, providing important nutrition, particularly to birds and small mammals, when other food sources are gone or under snow.

The winged sumac can be identified by the leaflike membranes growing along its stems and its smooth, purplish-hued fruit clusters. Photo by Pam Owen.
The winged sumac can be identified by the leaflike membranes growing along its stems and its smooth, purplish-hued fruit clusters. Photo by Pam Owen.

The staghorn also serves as a host to the red-banded hairstreak butterfly, and the smooth sumac offers value to other beneficial insects. Humans have also found parts of the sumac useful as food, medicine, and a variety of other purposes.

Single or pairs of what appear to be round, slightly flattened fruit, approximately one inch in diameter, often appear on sumacs by mid-summer. Rather than fruit, they are the galls of the sumac gall aphid (Melaphis rhois). An attractive green, red or both when new, they turn brown as fall approaches.

According to Georgia gardening expert Walter Reeve (walterreeve.com), in the summer, the females “lay their eggs on the leaf and cause leaf tissue to grow around them in a characteristic pattern.” The larvae feed on the sumac leaves when they hatch out.

What makes the sumac truly special in the landscape is that, as early as August, the leaves start turning red, ahead of most other native trees and shrubs. The color is not generally uniform and changes as the season progresses, usually starting a bit mottled and turning more-or-less red all over by the peak in mid-October. The staghorn’s leaves tend to be more orange as they turn. From a distance, the foliage of all three sumacs provide a bright accent to surrounding late-summer foliage and are a harbinger of the often spectacular fall leaf-turning in the weeks to come.

© 2014 Pam Owen

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Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 281 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”

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