Sumac, A Misunderstood Plant

Our native sumacs are misunderstood plants that often have a bad reputation for closely resembling the “tree-of-heaven,” or ailanthus tree. Sumac are most often found in open, recently disturbed sites where ailanthus is also located, leading to further confusion. In one of the common names of ailanthus is “sumac,” but these plants are quite different from each other.

Staghorn Sumac

Credit: - Mike Kay

There are three common species of sumac in Maryland: the smooth, staghorn, and winged sumac. All of the sumacs have separate male and female plants (dioecious); and only the female plants bear the distinctive seed pods. The smooth sumac, Rhus glabra, is a medium-sized shrub that has multiple short, crooked stems. This variety grows throughout the United States and Canada. Smooth sumac prefers drier sites, and can not tolerate wet conditions. The leaves are long and toothed, with many smaller leaflets attached to the main stem. The fruit of the smooth sumac are red berries that are arranged in pyramidal clusters that can persist throughout the winter. (These fruit clusters are a good way to tell the sumac apart from the ailanthus tree.) Smooth sumac have a smooth stem, from which they get their name. They spread from underground rhizomes, so that a new plant can grow from the root system, enabling them to form dense thickets. They are considered to be a native invasive plant in some circles, and may not be a good choice to plant in a flower bed. This dense growth pattern and ability to thrive in poor soils makes smooth sumac a good choice for planting in strip mines or erosion control projects. Smooth sumac also provides good escape, nesting, and winter cover for many kinds of wildlife. The beautiful fall coloration turns a deep crimson red, and retains this color for a few weeks during the autumn. Some of the wildlife that feeds on the sumac berries in the winter include bobwhite quail, wild turkey, mourning doves, cardinals, bluebirds, brown thrashers, chipmunks, rabbits, and deer. There are a number of moths and butterflies that feed on the sumac plant throughout the year, as well. The smooth sumac has been used for a number of products including dyes, leather tanning, antiseptics, and a drink that tastes like lemonade.

The staghorn sumac, Rhus typhina, looks very much like a smooth sumac, except that the staghorn has a hairy stem and the underside of the leaves have small hairs on them. Staghorn sumac is found in the northeast, extending south throughout the Appalachian Mountains. This variety is a fire-dependent species, often one of the first plants to reclaim areas that were impacted by a destructive forest fire. Native Americans often mixed staghorn sumac berries with tobacco as flavoring.

The winged sumac is a small plant, rarely exceeding 10 feet in height. This plant is distributed throughout the eastern part of the United States and Canada. The winged sumac has small “wings” along the leaf stalk, with very shiny, dark green foliage that turns bright orange in the fall before leaf drop. Fox squirrels are very fond of winged sumac bark.

Two additional, less common varieties of sumac that are found in Maryland, include the fragrant sumac, Rhus aromatica, and poison sumac, Toxicodendron vernix. The fragrant sumac is a short growing shrub that rarely grows taller than five feet. It has three leaves per stem that look a lot like poison ivy leaves. The leaves have a sweet, spicy smell, and the fall foliage is a bright orange-red. The berries of this plant are red drupes, but they are not arranged in pyramidal clusters like the more common varieties. The fragrant sumac is grown as an ornamental, and more likely found in a landscaped situation than growing out in the wild. Poison sumac are found in wetland areas like swamps, bogs, and especially fens. This shrubby plant can grow to a height of about 10-15 feet. The leaves of the poison sumac are smooth, and not toothed like the more common varieties. These have a white/grey berry that is not borne in clusters. The poison sumac contains high concentrations of urushiol which causes severe skin rashes and boils. This plant is much more poisonous than poison ivy or poison oak. Fortunately, it is not very common. If you spot a sumac-like plant in a wetland with white berries, stay away from it!

Most sumacs are found in the Middle East, North Africa, and North America. Sumac seeds are widely used in Middle East cuisine and lend a lemony flavor to food.

Article by FCFCDB

Nature note for 3/13/2021