A Much Maligned and Misunderstood Shrub

The velvet flower stalk is deep red. The pinnate compound leaves have almost an architectural quality in shape and form. Fuzzy branches, a hair like structure that grows on the branch and are called Trichomes in the botanical world, make the branches resemble deer antlers in velvet and hence lend to the common name staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina). This sumac is in full bloom now and decorates the edge of fields with brilliant red colors and bright green foliage. It is, indeed, a monarch of the shrub family both in form and in all of its glory.

For decades this beautiful plant was eradicated from our landscape. Considered a weed my many and often confused with its cousin poison sumac it was cut, burned, dug, and generally weeded out of our edge habitat ecosystems. The idea that one of our most beautiful plants and one that holds important wildlife habitat was put in such disregard is nearly incomprehensible. When I was but a pint of a boy I remember my grandfather trimming around sumac shrubs. They grew at the edge of his compost heap. A lover of birds he loved and taught me about their ability to feed birds in the late winter. A fact that I have carried with me since the age of four.

The fuzzy stem is distinct to staghorn sumac.

In my early homesteading days there was an older woman who lived nearby that had spent her entire life living off of the land. She was full of life, kept to herself but was more than friendly to those who approached her, and she was full to the brim with country lore and wisdom. I met her through a girlfriend that I lived with at the time and we became good acquaintances. One hot afternoon when I stopped by after scything a nearby field for some fresh hay for our goats she offered me some “mac tea”. Curious I asked her what it was.

Come over here!” she said pointing to a corner of her porch that received full sunlight in the afternoon.

See that big jar?” she said.

I looked and there was a clear glass jar full of water and the bright red seed heads of a staghorn sumac.

The water had turned red from the sumac flowers. I took off the lid of the jar and the water was warm to the touch.

That’s yer mac tea!” she said, “ I collect sumac flowers when their at their ripest in the morning. Then I put them in a gallon jar of cold spring water. I set it over there in the sun for three or four hours. In the evening I drain the water through a cheese cloth into a pitcher. I usually add a sprig of mint from the garden over there or a tablespoon of maple syrup. You’ll see I have a cold pitcher of each in the refrigerator!”

She reached into the old electric fridge that stood on four upright legs and had a white door that opened like a large bank safe. She took out two ceramic pitchers; one decorated with a hummingbird and jewelweed and the other with a decorative bunch of blueberries.

What’ll it be Bill, mint or maple?” she inquired pointing at the two pitchers on the table.

Maple, please!” I responded.

I’ll have the mint.” she replied and poured two glasses of mac tea into jelly jars filled with ice.

The tea was incredibly refreshing. It reminded me of lemon aid with a hint of rose hips and it was slightly sweet from last spring’s maple syrup. I drank it down quickly. The old woman poured me a second glass without asking. This time she poured it from the mint flavored mac tea pitcher. Although quite different in flavor I enjoyed the menthol taste in the second glass immensely.

Pretty good?” she asked.

Pretty darned good!” I replied.

We both laughed at my enthusiastic reply.

And such was the introduction to many years of sumac tea or “mac tea” as it is often called locally. It is also called sumac-ade in some local areas, a knock off of the lemonade name to be sure.

The staghorn sumac grows in colonies and can cover large areas along the edge of fields.

The flower and seeds of the sumac are prized by wildlife. The seed heads stay on the plant through the winter and well into the next growing season. The seeds are generally not utilized until late winter. Some believe that this is because they are not palatable until they are frozen for a period. Others think they are not preferred until everything else has been consumed because they really don’t taste that good. It really makes no difference. One of their great values is that they are a valid food source when very little else is available at the tail end of winter and during the cold early beginnings of spring. Dozens of of song and game birds consume the seed for nutrition as do squirrels, field mice, and other small mammals when food supplies are at their yearly low.

This is one compound pinnate leaf comprised of a stem and many parallel leaflets. The entire structure drops off as one unit in the autumn.

It was Native Americans that first used staghorn sumac in water for a drink. They also used this plant medicinally. And the plant had structural utility in the life of Native Americans as well. The staghorn branch has within its interior a soft pith. When a section of branch is cut clean on both ends the light brown pith can be removed by jamming a stout but narrow and straight stick up through the center of the branch. Once the pith is removed the “stick” becomes a hollow tube. These tubes were used by our aboriginal ancestors for many purposes most of them relating to liquids. One such use was in gathering sap from sugar maples. The wooden device constructed out of the sumac serves as a tap delivering sap from the tree into a collecting vessel; buckets constructed out of birch bark by my Abenaki ancestors.

For a couple of years in my early homesteading days I made all of my own sumac taps. I selected branches that were just about three quarters of an inch in diameter and cut them to seven inch lengths. I then peeled all of the bark off of the branch segments. After I jammed the pith our of the center of the branch (I used an unraveled metal coat hanger) I kept one end blunt and cut the other end at a forty five degree angle. I made these in the fall when the branches were still supple and easy to work.

The first year I used them I used a three quarters inch auger bit to tap the tree. When I went to tap the sumac taps into the hole I found out that the wood had shrunk and the tap fit loosely into the hole. I was concerned that the intersection of the tap and hole would leak thereby wasting valuable sap. I left the taps in the tree but thought I’d have to make some new taps the next day that had a slightly wider diameter. I chalked this up to a new learning experience and went to bed that night preparing myself mentally to make 48 new taps the next day.

Luckily I checked the taps the next morning before I set about making new ones. Much to my surprise the taps, moistened by flowing sap, had swollen tightly into the full diameter of the hole drilled with the auger bit. They were snug and once swollen did not leak a drop. And for the first time it occurred to me that I could sweeten my “mac tea” with maple syrup next summer. Maple syrup that had been made from sap delivered to my buckets via sumac taps.

If you’ve ever spent any time around a colony of staghorn sumac you may have noticed that in the summer they grow these large unusually shaped sacks in the later summer months. These sacks are actually galls that hold larvae to the green sumac gall aphid (Melaphis rhois). The galls resemble green and red seed pods but are actually formed when a hormone or enzyme that is injected into the stem that likely incites rapid cell division and forms a gall that will host the larvae. The adult aphid feeds on the sumac leaves for most of the summer; an activity that may result in many leaves being filled with holes, turning brown, and dropping off of the main plant early. By no coincidence our native squirrels have learned that these galls are a terrific food supply. In early September both red and gray squirrels can be found in staghorn sumac colonies feeding on the galls. They both consume the galls on the stem and carry them off to eat elsewhere and perhaps at a later date. They consume the gall voraciously much like I would dig into a bowl of cherry ice cream.

If you look closely you can see an "apple-like" sumac gall (left center) under the sumac leaf.

We’re lucky on our homestead to have staghorn sumacs growing right off of our second story deck. We can gather the flowers in the summer for mac tea, watch squirrels foraging on a late summer snack right from the comfort of our deck, and observe birds and mammals in winter eating the ripe seed. And just taking in their sheer beauty in the autumn as the leaves turn to a beautiful red and purple color that blends into the beauty of the rest of our glorious autumn deciduous forest is inspirational!

And to think this plant was (and is still) much maligned by many people.

Humans can be pretty misinformed and silly.

Sumac seeds in winter.

Written for www.wildramblings.com in July of 2013

  • Montucky

    Fascinating, Bill! I’ve heard of this plant but we don’t have it here. Now I wish we did!.

  • Montucky

    Fascinating, Bill! I’ve heard of this plant but we don’t have it here. Now I wish we did!.

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    You do have its first cousin, Smooth Sumac (Rhus glabra), which has smaller blossoms and seed heads, smooth bark, the same pinnate compound leaf, and is beautiful. Also has a soft pith so it can be hollowed out.

  • Teresa Evangeline

    And here I’ve just been collecting them for a bouquet in the house! I have a rather large one back by the woodshed, and am so happy to hear of all the wildlife it feeds. I had no idea of the tea nor the possible use for maple sugar taps. I love this post!

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    You have to harvest the blossoms for tea only when in full bloom determined by the bright color shown above in the photos. And, yes, its wildlife habitat potential is wonderful. You would be on the extreme outer edge of where Rhus typhina is known to occur. Rhus glabra, smooth sumac occurs right across almost all of the northern US from east to west. Check the bark. If its fuzzy its staghorn, if its smooth is smooth sumac.

    Native Americans made breathing tubes out of the hollowed out stems. They could hide underwater and stick the tube out of the water and still breath for short periods. It must have been used for hiding from enemies. I can think of no other use.

    Anyways, yes, a very cool plant and one that deserves to be revered.

  • Annie

    What a great plant. From what I can see we don’t have it this far south in the west. Will have to watch for it next time I’m in the northern areas. Very interesting that the squirrels eat the galls. We have oak galls but the squirrels don’t eat them that I know of. But then if I could eat my fill of acorns why would I eat the pithy galls.

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    You may not have any sumacs (Rhus) in southern CA. There is a shining sumac (Malosma laurina) but I’m not sure that its even distantly related. I suspect that the galls provide squirrels with protein from the aphid larvae as well as some carbs. Of course acorns are full of carbs and have a little protein as well. They need the high carbs to build up fat reserves for winter as to other mammals like deer and bear.

  • Emily Brisse

    So interesting. Although I never considered using it for a drink, I’ve appreciated the look of sumac for a long time. It reminds me most of autumn, though, and as I’m not quite ready to say goodbye to summer, I will come back and admire your photos even more so in a month or two. :)

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    I’m a year round sumac guy. Has interesting qualities and beauty in all seasons. Summer has many great advantages as does each season. I’ll take and enjoy each one as it presents itself. Thanks for stopping by!

  • http://everyday-adventurer.blogspot.com/ Ratty

    A nature park I used to go to had these all over. I used to go to a few places in the park just to look at all the red mixed in with the green. It was a beautiful sight in the morning when the sun was coming up. I’m glad I know more about them now.

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    It’s so nice that you have personally appreciated and enjoyed this plant. Like so many other plants it holds mystery, beauty, and peeks the imagination.

  • Ellen Sousa

    I’m so glad you highlighted this awesome shrub Bill! I just had my first taste of sumac-ade this summer on a wild edibles hike with Russ Cohen. It was chilled and it hit the spot on a very very hot day! I’ve been encouraging sumac to grow in a couple of areas on our property – in the right spot it can be quite magnificent with its fall foliage and winter fruits dusted with show. I’ve had to yank it where it grew near the house foundation though – just too big for a foundation planting! I’ve seen it growing locally as a large “island” in a large area of lawn connecting 2 properties – very effective as a boundary and year-round wildlife habitat!

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    It actually is a terrific boundary marker because it can be a good screen from abutters. It’s not a long lasting shrub, perhaps 30 yrs, but will regenerate new generations in nearby areas. Yes, magnificent. How did you like Russ’s hike?

  • Ellen Sousa

    It was great – learned a lot of good stuff! I’m popping wood sorrel leaves into my mouth like candy all the time now :)

Nature Blog Network