Friday, March 6, 2009

Sumac's Red Jewels

The story goes that someone once asked George Bernard Shaw if he knew that there were only two words in the English language that began with "su" and pronounced as "shu" -- sugar and sumac (the British pronounce this "shumac.") He replied, "Are you sure?"

Speaking of sumac. On the way to the snowshoe hare tracks of yesterday's post there is a broad, open clump of staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) growing along the field edge still holding its red fruits.

We have two species of sumac that grow into abandoned fields or edges of lawns. The staghorn has hairy twigs (photo at left), from a distance it looks like the velvet on a deer or stag's antlers (a post for another day - the difference between horns and antlers). Smooth sumac (Rhus glabra), has, as you guessed, smooth twigs.

Both produce small, crimson red seeds that grow together in dense upright clusters. These persist into winter and offer a bit of emergency food to robins, jays, crows, and other fruit-eaters. The smooth sumac clusters droop in the fall and appear more open and less fuzzy than the dense staghorn clusters. The two are shown below.

This native shrub or small tree that grows in full sun needs little care and has few pests. It spreads by root sprouts so some consider it a weedy woody plant. Yet, it offers a colorful green thicket in summer, turning a brilliant orange-red in the fall, and bedecked with its red jewels through fall and winter.

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