Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

January 6, 2010

Sumac Surety

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:30 pm

Some animal/plant names evoke word associations that are joined at the hip.  For instance, it is near impossible to say “mammoth” without automatically saying “woolly mammoth” or “gull” without forging the word “sea” onto it. In truth, not all mammoths were of the woolly type and there are no birds actually called seagulls. It’s an easy verbal habit to slip into and a hard one to break. This laxity is not criminal, but it does tend to deny the wonderful concept of diversity. There have always been multiple models, or species, of every life form on earth. This concept is what makes life interesting.

For instance, in our neck of the Ice Age world, Jefferson Mammoths (not to be confused with Jefferson Airplanes) ruled the plains. These elephantine beasts were probably not all that hairy. Wooly Mammoths were the hairy ones. They were the ones who roamed the northern tundra, leaving their fuzzy frozen carcasses for us to examine. There are dozens of gull species (herring, ring-billed, ivory, etc.) and not one of them is technically a seagull. If you consider the actuality that seagulls are gulls living near the sea, then these same birds could also be called lakegulls, pondgulls, McDonaldgulls, and bagels depending on where they were at any given time. Come to think of it, a flying gull could become all of the above over the course of a single flight. That same gull, however, would remain a Herring Gull no matter how far it flew or what landscape feature it happened to go near. Hopefully you see my point – there’s no use beating a long dead elephant here.

I bring this topic up because I once was guilty of automatically labeling all sumacs as Staghorn Sumacs. Now that I have confessed to this misdeed, I must do penance and explain that there are actually dozens of sumac species, but only two of them are common in southern Michigan. These are the pair which I had previously lumped into one. One of them is a Staghorn and the other is not. The other species is called the Smooth Sumac.

Fortunately, sumacs are easily identified in the wintertime. These spindly medium sized shrubs grow in small clusters along woodlot edges or in scrub lots. The naked winter stems exhibit distinctive red berry clusters that look like fuzzy candelabras.  Beyond the commonalities between them, the key to separating the Staghorn and Smooth type is similar to telling the difference between the Jefferson Mammoth and the Wooly Mammoth – it’s in the fur. Staghorns have fuzzy stems and berry clusters and Smooths, true to their name, have smooth stems and berries.

Staghorn Sumac stems look almost mammalian in their density of light brown “hairs” (see above ). This feature, because it resembles a stag – or deer antler- in velvet, is responsible for the common name. Of course, this growth is not really fur but the resemblance is remarkable. Note also that the berry clusters are fuzzy as well (see beginning photo and here). So, Staghorns are the Woolly Mammoths of the plant world.

Smooth Sumac stems are relatively hairless (see above) and represent, in my forced effort at comparison, the Jefferson Mammoths. Their berry clusters are also red, but hairless (see below).

These two species separate themselves in other ways. Habitatwise, Smooth Sumacs prefer dry upland soils and the Staghorns seek wetter soils. In a continental view, the Smooth Sumac is found all over the United States. One reference even states that it is the only American shrub native to all the 48 contiguous states. The Staghorn, on the other hand, restricts itself to the N.E. states.

Now that I’ve taken great pains to separate these two plants, I must conclude by saying that our ancestors made no such effort. Native Americans have long combined the leaves and bark of this shrub with tobacco for smoking purposes. Natives and settlers alike have used the tannin rich components as a dye material for cloth. Depending on what part is used, a black, red, or tan color can be produced. The hollow stems were also used as maple syrup spiles. There was no differentiation as to species.

Knowing this, you can now put this information in your pipe and smoke it, put it in your pants and wear it, or put it in your mind and remember it.


  1. Beautiful sumacs! Many folks consider them pretty weedy, but I love them in every season. And so do the birds. Can you make a citrusy tasting drink from the smooth berries as you can from the fuzzy ones (make sure you strain it!)? Out here in northeastern NY we also have Shining Sumac (Rhus copallina) with shiny leaves that have winglike projections between the leaflets — it turns the most beautiful glossy red in autumn.

    Comment by Jackie Donnelly — January 7, 2010 @ 12:53 am

  2. You forgot an important gull variety – the landfill gull!

    I love sumacs, partly because, as Jackie pointed out, the birds so love them. They’re pretty too. And they do make a good lemonadey sort of drink.

    Comment by Holly — January 7, 2010 @ 6:36 pm

  3. Jackie:
    Yes, apparently you can make the drink using the seed heads of both types. As you probably know, you need to give them a long soak in a pitcher of water then filter the liquid through some cheesecloth. Apart from getting the hairs out, another reason for straining the liquid is to remove all the insects that live (lived) within the confines of the berry clusters! Their dead little bodies may add a bit of flavor, but their texture is an unwelcome additive in the finished drink. I’ve noticed Chickadees & Downy Woodpeckers make it a winter habit to pick though the sumac heads looking for hibernating spiders and other such munchies.

    Comment by Gerry Wykes — January 7, 2010 @ 10:24 pm

  4. Greetings!

    I am interested in knowing if anyone has information on the nutritional values of Sumac velvet – is it a substitute for Deer Antler Velvet?/ Thec reason for the question is this: I was told to eat it by a couple of women, i met as a child, although i never followed-up on the advice?

    Comment by shilowales — January 20, 2010 @ 7:34 am

  5. Greetings!

    I am interested in knowing if anyone has information on the nutritional values of Sumac velvet – is it a substitute for Deer Antler Velvet?/ Thec reason for the question is this: I was told to eat it by a couple of women, i met as a child, although i never followed-up on the advice?

    Reply to

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