Native sumacs often confused

Smooth sumac is the most common species of sumac found in Maryland. The fruit is a red-colored berry borne in pyramidal clusters that can persist throughout the winter; in fact, these fruit clusters are a good way to tell the sumac apart from the ailanthus tree.

Courtesy Photo

Native sumacs are misunderstood plants that have an undeservedly bad reputation. They resemble and are often mistaken for the tree of heaven, or ailanthus tree, a highly invasive non-native from China. Adding to the confusion, both species grow together in open, recently disturbed sites. The reality is that these plants are quite different from each other.

Maryland has several species of sumac, of which the most common are the smooth, staghorn and winged sumac. All sumacs are dioecious, meaning they have separate male and female plants, but only the female plants bear the distinctive seed pods. In North Africa and the Middle East, where other species of sumac are found, these seeds are used to impart a lemony flavor to food.

The most common of the native sumacs is smooth sumac, a medium-sized shrub with a smooth-barked, multi-stemmed habit and short, crooked branches. It grows throughout the United States and Canada on dry sites and does not tolerate wet soils. The leaves are long and toothed, and many smaller leaflets are attached to the main stem. The fruit is a red-colored berry borne in pyramidal clusters that can persist throughout the winter; in fact, these fruit clusters are a good way to tell the sumac apart from the ailanthus tree.

Smooth sumac sends up new sprouts from roots known as rhizomes. This growth habit enables sumac to form dense thickets and, as such, is considered invasive in some areas. While not the best choice for a flower bed, its dense growth habit and ability to thrive on poor soils makes smooth sumac a good choice for planting in strip mine reclamation or erosion control projects. In industry, smooth sumac has been used for a number of products including dyes, leather tanning, antiseptics and a lemonade-like drink.

In the backyard, smooth sumac attracts many kinds of wildlife due to its excellent nesting and cover habitat. Many birds, including quail, turkey and bluebirds, as well as chipmunks, rabbits and deer browse the berries in winter, and a number of moths and butterflies feed on the plant at other times of the year. In the fall, smooth sumac turns a deep crimson red for several weeks.

Early bud break

The warm weather has stimulated flowering in some early-season flowering plants. The red and silver maple are in bloom throughout much of the county and many cherry varieties are beginning to flower as well. Can the forsythia be far behind?

According to a recent news release from the University of Maryland Extension IPM Report, bloom development appears to be three weeks ahead of the normal schedule and cite the relatively mild winter and recent warm weather as reason for this early flowering. You might also notice that stink bugs are again becoming active.

Nature Notes for 3/18/2012