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Appreciating sumac from Carolina to Maine

2007 August 30

Maine Island deck-level Sumac. Photo by Ken Moore

strong>By Ken Moore
Flora Columnist

I was not looking forward to the long drive to visit cousins in New England, but the tediousness and hazards of highway travels can be pleasantly calmed by viewing roadside vegetation along the way.

Like any wild botanist, I’m most content when identifying plants at 60-plus miles per hour. That’s why my wife prefers to drive. That’s fine with me, and she remains much calmer.

Along the way we enjoyed many patches of sumac. In some states, mowing crews had left the patches; sadly, in others, similar patches had been mowed or killed by herbicide application.

It was like the sumac at our Carrboro mailbox followed us all the way to the edge of our cousin’s island cottage deck. The smooth-stemmed Smooth Sumac, Rhus glabra, grows throughout the Eastern states and overlaps with its hairy-stemmed bigger cousin, Staghorn Sumac, Rhus typhina, in the Northern states and our Carolina mountains. Sumac patches add dramatic landscape effect along roadsides through all the seasons. Green foliage layers during spring and summer, red seed cone accents in late summer, brilliant red/orange foliage in the fall and red cone-topped bare stems during the winter months – truly a plant for all seasons!!

I was thankful for the sumac that volunteered along our wild front bank. It took just a couple of years to establish colonies up and down on both sides of the drive and now it’s moving across the waist-high lawn toward the house. I don’t mind hacking it down where I prefer some other wild plant to locate itself. A more controlling gardener will have less patience with the exuberance of sumac. I have both male and female patches. The males will not produce those red seed cones. For the first time this year I enjoyed observing the dramatic closing of the open branches of little yellow female flowers to form those tight conical seed heads. Wow, always something new to discover!

Sumacs are a popular plant for fall color in English gardens and there are several notable cut-leaf cultivars, such as R. glabra laciniata and R. typhina laciniata for fashion-conscious gardeners.

Sumacs are valued for more than their beauty. Daniel Moerman’s Native American Ethnobotany devotes several pages to a rich medicinal heritage. A refreshing tea concocted from the crushed berries is enjoyed by many. Food uses are engagingly described in Euell Gibbons’ Stalking the Wild Asparagus, Tom Brown’s Field Guide to Wild Edible and Medicinal Plants and James Duke’s Handbook of Edible Weeds.

Sumacs are members of the Cashew plant family, Anacardiaceae, which provides us with the popular cashews, pistachios and mangos. Be aware, however, that parts of some of the plants in this family contain poisonous components. Fortunately, most of us are not allergic to these edibles and the safe sumacs, but most all of us must avoid contact with the closely related poison ivy, Rhus radicans, poison oak, Rhus toxicodendron and poison sumac, Rhus vernix. Visit the Botanical Garden to see all three of these ones to be avoided and please make every opportunity to appreciate and enjoy our several “safe” native Sumacs.

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Find more Ken Moore Citizen columns at The Annotated Flora

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