I Love Sumac!

Now that’s not an opinion you don’t hear very often. I try to get my clients to love it too or, if they can’t enjoy Smooth Sumac for its unusual beauty, to at least appreciate the shrub for the myriad species of wildlife that it supports.

American Robins Eating Sumac ©Kim Smith 2014American Robin Flock Eating Smooth Sumac (Rhus glabra) Berries

Yesterday while walking through Halibut Reservation with daughter Liv, we encountered a very large flock of robins devouring seeds of sumac. The beautiful clump of sumac, with its bare crooked, leaning trunks and raspberry pink furry seedheads made a striking combination of shapes and textures against the windswept ocean vista. We disturbed the robin feast, but then Liv walked further down the path to photograph the Atlantic and I stayed behind, half hidden by an evergreen tree. The robins quickly returned to the ripened seedheads and I got to snap away until the next walker came along.

Smooth Sumac (Rhus glabra) is a shrub that naturally forms colonies; it can also be grown as a beautiful single-trunk tree. The yellowy-green flowers on female plants give way to deep rusty red berries held in erect, pyramidal clusters. What makes sumac so invaluable to wildlife? The fruits persist through the winter, providing nourishment for many, many species of birds and small mammals. Additionally, the foliage is a larval host plant for the Coral Hairstreak Butterfly!

robinarrivalsAmerican Robin and Winterberry photo submitted by Jacqueline Bennett. Thanks Jacqueline for sharing your beautiful photo!

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Liv submits apparition from Halibut Point

17 comments

  • There were 15 to 20 robins in my backyard about 10 days back, and I don’t have any sumac. I’d love to know what they arrived for, so that I can make sure that it’s present, year in and year out. Any ideas? We grew kale, tomatoes, and herbs, and have a perennial garden. But all of these were, to my eyes, well buried by snow.

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    • You are right–they are not there for the summer veggies that you grow. What trees and shrubs do you have nearby Sarah? If not sure, send a photo and we’ll try to figure it out.

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  • No Robins on Annapolis ~ we still have the red birds and blues birds when those big pesky black birds don’t chase them away. A couple of beautiful small woodpeckers have appeard ~ causing us all to check our houses for rotten wood! The snow does provide a beautiful backdrop for watching the birds while waiting for spring ~

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    • You have bluebirds in your yard-I love it! Is it the starlings that are chasing the bluebirds? European Starlings compete directly with bluebirds.

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      • Yes ~ when the blue birds and red birds are together it’s the jackpot ~ smaller black birds with yellow are a treat as well. I have a neighbor throwing out 3 foot rounds of feed in the tree line of the wooded area after the 100 or so black birds have their fill they venture to our yards and chasing the smaller birds away. However it is interesting to watch the black birds take their turns feeding and send out scouts or guards to neighboring trees.

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  • I had a flock of robins in my crabapple (persistent) tree this morning. Even if they are winter
    robins it was great to see them.

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    • Crabapples are great for robins, especially the species, such as ‘Sargent’s’ crabapple, that bear smaller fruits, which are easier for the birds to eat. Spring is only a few short weeks away Wendy, and after this snowiest of winters, I think we’ll all be dancing in the streets!

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  • Very nice article and pictures – growing up that way we were taught what to look for in the berries color (Sumac-good vs bad along with the coaster favorite Posion Ivy (green to white berries and Posion sumac white berries….Need the music also :-) Beautiful foliage in fall color and birds know whcih berries also.
    The Coasters – Poison Ivy (Original)

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  • Sumac also makes a subtle and refreshing tea, very fine in summer when iced as well.

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    • I have read that and always wanted to try. How exactly do you make yours, if you have a few minutes?

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      • I always keep a stash handy. You can dry and grind them to get a finer tea, or just dry them out and put them in a loose-tea strainer. I made a decent Sumac tea with white pine (Pinus strobus) and Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) needles on the fly one morning on the trail. High in Vitamin C and the Sumac covers up the bitter of the pine. I have a few other cool combos with it too if you are curious.

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  • Well you caught me out, Kim, because I have heard of it being drunk in the winter, but personally I have only had it in in the summer. It’s sometimes called Indian Lemonade, and it couldn’t be easier to make. For the strongest flavor, pick the berries in July and August when they are darkest. Put four or five clusters in a pitcher and let it sit for a while (two hours?) to infuse. Some folks add sugar or honey, but I like the tang. One might add a crushed mint leaf or two.

    BTW, I think lots of people are afraid of sumac because of its poisonous cousin, but that has white berries.
    OK, back to work.

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