Sumacs common, but extraordinary

Mike RaykoviczHere it is early September and bow season is set to begin in just a few weeks. I don’t need to be reminded of how close we are to fall because the morning fog on the river and the flaming sumac along the road remind me better than any calendar.

Cool morning air and warm water produce the fog, but the Staghorn sumac is the first shrub or tree around here to herald the arrival of fall by shedding its summer green color and turning bright yellow, orange or crimson red.

Staghorn sumac is easily identified by its hairy stem and branches and jagged leaves, and some say the conical clusters of fruit resemble deer antlers. Sumac can attain a height of about 18 to 34 feet and the plant is highly adaptable and grows almost anywhere.

We’ve all seen sumac growing along roads and hillsides all over the state and, but how many people really pay attention to it? Sumac is an aggressive growing plant and may be considered a nuisance on some property, but in truth the shrub provides valuable forage for wildlife and has a long history of human use in North America.

It been said native Americans steeped its berries to form a sort of tea, which they used to treat many common maladies, including sore throats and even diarrhea, while its bark, leaves and roots were used to make a brown or yellow dye.

Various forms of wildlife are particularly attracted to sumac because it offers winter forage by providing berries when other food sources are gone. About 300 songbird species eat the fruit and these include pheasants, ruffled grouse and wild turkeys. Deer particularly like the fruit, while in deep snow cottontails nibble the bark.  Sumac is particularly favored by bucks for rubbing their antlers in the fall and it’s a rare grove of sumac shrubs that isn’t marked by numerous deer rubs.

So if you come upon a grove of fiery red bushes growing along the road or on a hillside, pay some attention to one of the most beautiful and vivid fall colors you are likely to see. Sumacs may be common but their colors are extraordinary.  

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