The Photogenic Sumacs

by Carl Strang

(Note: this entry first was posted as a Nature Note on the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County’s Observe Your Preserve website). Staghorn sumacs are in bloom, and as I lined up the camera on a pyramid of male flowers it occurred to me that this is a relatively photogenic plant for a good part of the year.

The sun speckles diminish this photo, but not the interesting shape of the inflorescence.

These shrubs expand through the roots, and have the genders separated on different plants, so that a given cluster is in fact a male or female clone colony.

Female flower clusters likewise have a pyramidal shape, but develop into fuzzy bright red fruits that contrast against the green compound leaves.

Autumn brings change to the sumac, the leaves showing brilliant reds and oranges unmatched by our other woody plants.

Isolated stems stand out.

Larger colonies collectively form a pyramid, the taller older plants in the middle and their progressively younger, shorter offshoots arrayed in concentric rings outward.

These examples all are from Mayslake Forest Preserve.

Though staghorn sumacs are featured here, the same comments would apply to the smooth sumac. The latter species is similar, but has stems that are smooth rather than hairy like those of staghorn sumac. The smooth sumac is more adapted to prairies, and historically is regarded as more clearly native to DuPage County. The staghorn sumac may or may not be native to the county, but if not it spread from populations a little farther east. (Note: In an interesting coincidence, yesterday after posting this as a Nature Note, I found a male colony of smooth sumac at Mayslake, so both species are there.)

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1 Comment

  1. jomegat said,

    June 15, 2012 at 8:31 am

    I didn’t know the colonies spread by roots or that they were unisexual clones. That’s neat. I had noticed that they form pyramids – though I would describe one colony as forming a dome. When I noticed it, I assume it propagating from the inside out, but I had also assumed it was by dropping seeds (much the way some mushrooms form “fairy circles”).


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