Field Guide

This hardy and beau­ti­ful rhi­zome shrub brings colour to a snowy win­ter world

Canadian Wildlife - - CONTENTS - By Mel Wal­wyn

The staghorn su­mac is a hardy and beau­ti­ful rhi­zome shrub that brings colour to a snowy win­ter world

Every end of year, as win­ter ar­rives, there are cer­tain plants that move to the top of my favourites list: Canada holly, of course, and inkberry, but above all I love the staghorn su­mac

(Rhus ty­phina). This hiver­nal charmer brings colour and dash to a black-and-white world, of­fer­ing lively splashes of life in count­less frozen tableaux through­out Eastern Canada. Its name, drawn from the way the vel­vety branches re­sem­ble antlers, sum­mons vi­sions of rein­deer, a wholly apt sea­sonal ref­er­ence. But it is so much more.

Su­macs are present on every con­ti­nent but South Amer­ica. Part of the Anac­ar­diaceae fam­ily en­com­pass­ing more than four score gen­era and 860 species, su­mac are thus re­lated to the marula tree (African ele­phants’ favourites) as well as cashew, pis­ta­chio and mango. I as­so­ciate the flavour of su­mac pri­mar­ily with the Fer­tile Cres­cent and the Le­vant and my trav­els there, par­tic­u­larly in the cui­sine of vir­tu­ally every na­tion stretch­ing from In­dia and Pak­istan to Turkey and Azer­bai­jan. The name “su­mac” is from a 2,000-year-old di­alect of Ara­maic called Syr­iac, from the word that means “red.”

Dif­fer­ent re­gions of Canada boast sev­eral types of su­mac in ad­di­tion to staghorn su­mac: fra­grant su­mac (R. aro­mat­ica) from Al­berta to Que­bec; smooth su­mac (R. glabra) in B.C., Man­i­toba, and south­ern reaches of On­tario and Que­bec; Western Canada’s skunkbush (R. trilo­bata); and shin­ing or dwarf su­mac (R. co­pal­lina) in south­ern On­tario. An un­pleas­ant (al­beit dis­tant) rel­a­tive in south­most parts of On­tario and Que­bec is poi­son su­mac (Tox­i­co­den­dron vernix) which has all the charm of poi­son ivy.

A large de­cid­u­ous shrub that can grow to five me­tres high and six across, staghorn su­mac bears vel­vety branches with long ser­rated com­pound leaves that turn fiery in the au­tumn. The fruit of the tree, blood-red berries cov­ered by tiny hairs, form clus­ters of red­dish dru­pes to­gether form­ing vivid cones. Th­ese up­right con­i­cal bursts of colour are what en­liven snow-cov­ered gar­dens, of­ten last­ing through to spring. The rea­son they last is, al­though they are a food source for birds such as gros­beaks, cardinals and ruffed grouse, they are eaten “only as a last re­sort,” ac­cord­ing to the CWF web­site. They are also pop­u­lar with moose and deer and but­ter­flies and bees.

Hu­mans too have found uses for the plant: the leaves, filled with tan­nic acid, have long been used for tan­ning leather while the tough cane-like stems can be wo­ven into durable bas­kets; and bee­keep­ers burn dried bobs for their smok­ers. There are many recipes for pink lemon­ade-like “rhus juice,” made by soak­ing the berries for hours be­fore rub­bing and strain­ing, then sweet­en­ing to taste. Maple syrup added makes a fine and very Cana­dian bev­er­age, hot or cold. But re­mem­ber, make cer­tain you are us­ing a non-poi­sonous va­ri­etal. If you aren't sure, do not con­sume!

A rhi­zome with creep­ing root­stalks, the ma­ture plant can col­o­nize an area quickly by sprout­ing shoots from its hor­i­zon­tal roots. It thrives in poor soil con­di­tions, likes in­tense sun, and re­sists pests and dis­eases, so can thrive in and dom­i­nate road­sides, dis­turbed ar­eas and clear­ings. Due to its rapid pro­lif­er­a­tion, be care­ful about us­ing it in a cul­ti­vated area: it will soon spread and is very hard to root out once in full ex­pan­sion mode. As a re­sult, while th­ese plants are na­tive, they are ter­ri­bly in­va­sive. De­spite this gnarly side, the staghorn su­mac, flash­ing red against the white snow, is a most Cana­dian sight.

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