Sumac: A Forest Scout, a Bird Food, a Spice, a Dye, a Medicine, a Pipe, a Smoke…

by Barbara Walvoord.  For Lamp Post, October 23, 2014

If you walk along the edges of woods and fields at Lathrop these autumn days, you will see small trees with large red spikes–our native Sumac. These plants are not poisonous (the poisonous kind do not have the red spikes). There are about 35 species ; one that we see at Lathrop is Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhena).

Sumac is an early colonizer of open land, so you will see it at wood edges and in unmowed fields. On the east campus, there’s a beautiful stand of it along the fire lane at the end of Mulberry Lane and another stand on the path between the Huckleberry Lane houses and the wetland. That area used to be open all the way to the wetland, long-time residents tell me. But now, like all dry land in our area, it wants to be a woods. Sumac, creeping out toward the path, is the scout. That area is quite heavily invaded by Multiflora Rose, invasive Honeysuckle, Oriental Bittersweet vines, and Buckthorn, so we are happy to see this native plant that nourishes our insects and wildlife much better than the alien invasives. Sharon and I have been moving along that hedge, hacking away the tangle of invasives, so the stand of sumac is a lovely respite.

Sumac is an important wintertime food for wildlife. Look on the ground or on the snow under the sumacs to find the scattered red “bobs” of sumac, where birds, squirrels, or other animals have strewn them about while feasting.

Those bobs contain the seeds. Sumac cleverly spreads itself when animals and birds eat the seeds and then deposit them out the other end, with a nice little blob of fertilizer. The photo, by Sharon Grace, shows a bluebird in Sumac in October, 2014. Sumac also spreads underground, which is why you see the plants in clumps.

People, too, eat sumac. You can buy the ground bobs online and use them to flavor hummus, salads, or meats.

“Sumac” means “red” in many ancient languages, and it grows in many parts of the world. For centuries, people have been figuring out that it can be a medicine, a dye, and, if the soft inner core is hollowed out, a pipe. You can smoke it, too. Native Americans mixed it with tobacco.

But for us here at Lathrop, it’s probably enough just to enjoy its beauty as part of our familiar Fall landscape, and to be grateful for the presence of this native plant that nourishes our land and its creatures.

Paths to walk:

East campus: Easy: Walk to the east end of Mulberry Lane and follow the mowed, dirt road until you come to the chain that marks the end of Lathrop’s property. Enjoy the sumac along the way.

More difficult: Walk to the far end of the vegetable garden and follow the mowed path around the field to the northwest of the garden. The ground is quite flat, but a bit rough underfoot. Notice sumac coming in around the edges of the field.

North campus: Easy: Walk the path to the vegetable garden and notice the plants that are trying to make that property into a woods. I’ve not been there recently, but there might be sumac coming in.

More difficult: Follow your woods path until you hit a dirt road. Turn left and follow the road to Fitzgerald Lake, a wonderful conservation area with many more paths.

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