Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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The Sumacs
Nature Bulletin No. 197-A   September 11, 1965
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Seymour Simon, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

THE SUMACS
Jack Frost has been experimenting along the roadsides, fencerows and woodland borders, dabbing the sumacs here and there with bright colors -- some orange, some scarlet, some crimson, and some a deep maroon. Soon there will be solid clumps of these shrubs, the largest almost small trees, conspicuous among their plant neighbors as masses of glorious hue.

Sumacs (pronounced "shoe-macks") have distinction at all times. In winter, their branches and thick blunt-tipped stems, held at characteristic angles, stand out against the snow as stiffly and precisely as formal wallpaper patterns. Very late in spring, their cottony buds put out long feathery fronds of compound leaves, rich green above and silvery beneath. In summer they are bedecked with many large erect greenish-yellow clusters of small blossoms, followed in August by compact cones of rusty-red fruit upheld like candles. Incidentally, their tart little berries are relished by many birds and can be used to make "Indian lemonade" or chewed to slake your thirst on a long hike.

Of the several hundred species in the sumac family, mostly found in warm or tropical regions, six kinds are common in the Middle West. Surprisingly, one of them is Poison Ivy which, although it has the habits of a vine and seldom becomes a shrub, is not an ivy. It has gray- white or ivory fruit instead of red, and has three leaves instead of long compound leaves with many leaflets. Another is the Poison Sumac, a large shrub or small tree found only in bog areas, with compound leaves resembling those of a white ash tree but with the leaflets in opposite pairs along a reddish stalk. Its poisonous effect, causing an itching rash and watery blisters upon many people, is the same but usually more severe than that of poison ivy.

The largest of our native sumacs is the Staghorn, which sometimes grows 30 feet tall with a diameter of 8 inches, so-called because its branches are covered with fuzz and, when bare, look like a deer's antlers "in the velvet". Widely distributed, its soft wood is seldom used although very beautiful: a golden yellow with streaks of brown and green.

The smaller Smooth Sumac is most common, most likely to grow in large colonies, and therefore most notable for its wondrous coloring in autumn. The Shining or Dwarf Sumac is smaller, similar in appearance and found in similar places, but its leaves have peculiar wing-like extensions on the central stalk that bears the leaflets. The Fragrant Sumac, common on dry ridges and rocky bluffs, also has red fruit but it has only three leaflets like poison ivy. However, these leaflets are very hairy and very fragrant when crushed.

The stems and branches of the smooth and staghorn sumacs have large pith centers which can be punched out to make popguns, peashooters, and the spiles inserted into sugar maple trees to draw off the sap. Their leaves and bark contain formerly used to tan leather and make ink, but, in winter, rabbits will nibble sumac bark in preference to that of other trees and shrubs. The saps of these two sumacs is clear, turning black and hard when exposed to the air, like that of its relative, the Japanese lacquer-tree.

As a little boy wonderingly said this summer, "Every place you look, there's something to see !"


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