Each September and October we marvel at the color of the various woody plants, sadly acknowledging that it is only a brief pleasure.
The fall coloring is the result of chemical processes in the leaves as the season changes from summer to winter, with many leaves turning before the first frost. Because of the decreasing daylight and lower average daily temperatures, leaves stop their food-making process. As they do, the chlorophyll breaks down, the green color disappears, and the yellow pigment that was covered up becomes visible.
At the same time other chemical changes occur and cause additional pigments such as red and purple.
Fall colors are coming on fast for the sumacs. They are showing much red, in many beautiful tones, and some yellows. The sumacs give off an orange glow. Between now and the first few days of October, sumacs are truly in their autumn splendor.
Although the sumac’s color display is impressive, the colonies within which it grows also tend to have a beautiful shape. Most are tall in the middle and slope off on the sides like a dome, because the younger, shorter plants grow out on every side from the “adult” plants in the middle. The process is called root suckering. We do see sumacs growing as single plants, too. Look for sumacs on woodland edges, along roadsides and railroad embankments.
In Minnesota, our two most common sumacs are staghorn and smooth. They are not poisonous. Both are native and grow as tall shrubs with crooked branched stems that often look like antlers. Staghorn sumac has fuzzy twigs and is common in southern Minnesota in the deciduous forest areas. Its colonial clusters reach 10 to 25 feet high. Smooth sumac is common throughout the state and has smooth twigs. Each leaf of both smooth and staghorn sumac is like a huge bird feather. These leaves are pinnately compound, 1 to 2 feet long, and have a central stalk with nine to 31 leaflets.
Sumacs provide food for wild animals. Rabbits and deer browse the twigs, and at least several dozen bird species eat the fruit. The bright red clusters of fuzzy fruits remain on the plants far into winter and are widely available when more desirable foods are scarce.
American robins, eastern bluebirds, wild turkeys and ring-necked pheasants rely on sumac fruit as a winter or early spring food.
Meanwhile, a few late migrating ruby-throated hummingbirds can still be expected at sugar water feeders. Keep those feeders up until you’re certain the hummers have all left; that could be into October. Ruby-throats usually migrate by day, but they also travel at night.
Jim Gilbert taught and worked as a naturalist for 50 years.