Nature Bulletin No. 197-A September 11, 1965
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Seymour Simon, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation
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
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
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
As a little boy wonderingly said this summer, "Every place you look,
there's something to see !"
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Update: June 2012