Between all the gray and white and evergreen of the winter landscape, nature provides the occasional little pop of colour. The deep red of sumac berries is one of my favourites. These particular sumac trees were photographed at the Rouge, but really the tree is so common you could find it just about anywhere. It favours scrubby, disturbed and edge habitats, so it’s usually associated with young fields, and woodlot and road edges. The main criteria are lots of sun and well-drained (not swampy or regularly flooded) soil.
There are several species of sumac in North America (and many more through the rest of the world), but the one that grows in abundance here in the northeast is the Staghorn Sumac. It is so named because the velvety texture of the young branches resembles the newly-grown antlers of a male deer (stag). Despite that I associate this feature with sumacs, not all species have hairy twigs.
For most people, probably what comes to mind when they think of sumacs is the brilliant displays they put on in the fall. The leaves change colour most commonly to a brilliant red or red-orange, but can run the gamut from yellow to purple.
Interestingly, individual sumacs are either male or female, but not both on a single tree as is the case with many tree species. Only the female sumacs form berries at the end of the summer, males drop their flowers and then remain bare. While flowering, male plants have greenish-yellow flowers, while those of females are pinkish and much more tightly clustered. This page by Brian Johnston provides an excellent reference to telling the two genders apart.
A grove of sumacs is actually many stems growing from a single root system, and are, as a result, a single plant. Once germinated, a sumac will continue to put out new shoots through “suckers”, long underground roots that pop up a new stem some distance away from the original. Any given stem may last a couple decades, but a root system as a whole can last much longer. New stems can grow up to 15 feet from the mother plant, so sumacs have the ability to spread over a large area of ground, and don’t always respect boundaries like property fences. They spread like crazy, and within ten years can completely take over what used to be an open area (the hill I used to toboggan down as a kid is now completely choked with sumac). A grove forms a nearly continuous canopy that often prevents other plants from growing in the dense shade beneath it.
Sumacs have been used historically in a number of ways. Native Americans would harvest leaves in their fall colours and dry them, then smoke them, often in combination with tobacco. The stems were used to make pipes. The ripe berries, picked at the end of summer, can be soaked in hot or cold water to make a tangy tea-like drink, or as a gargle to soothe a sore throat. The roots can also be made into a tea that was used to stop bleeding. The berries can be used to make dyes. The bark and leaves are full of tannins that have been used in tanning processes.
The berries are rich in fats and vitamins, and are an excellent food source for hungry animals, especially migrating birds. For some reason, however, they’re not a favourite, and berries may remain on trees until spring, when most other food sources have been depleted. Perhaps it’s due to the fuzzy skin? In any case, these spring berry caches can be an important diet item for spring migrants. For this reason sumac would make a great addition to a bird-friendly backyard, but you need to have enough space for them to spread a bit (and for you to have both male and female trees, to get berries), or you’ll be spending a lot of time cutting back saplings! If you have the inclination to try, the trees can be easily propagated from a cutting taken from the root system of a mature tree in late fall, once the tree goes dormant, or by transplanting a young seedling.