Fall primer: Sumac setting the landscape on fire
Fall primer: Rhus typhina and Rhus glabra
Staghorn and smooth sumac
Another early source of fall color is sumac, genus Rhus. In SE Michigan it can be seen in the strips of ground between roads and cultivated fields, in the margins of woodlands, and in waste areas. Depending on the species, it may also be used in landscaping. It’s a wonderful, at times spectacular, source of reds and oranges, with a few hints of gold thrown in for good measure. Because the plant size varies so much, sumac affords the photographer opportunities for capturing both landscape impact and intimate details.
This poster includes shots of staghorn sumac and smooth sumac or some hybrid between the two. A companion poster (4b) features shining sumac, aka dwarf or winged sumac.
Amended 11-18-19: There are four types of native North American rhus in my area, each with a different ‘look’. Cut-leaf versions of some of them have been developed for landscaping purposes. (1) Staghorn, R. typhina, the most common type; (2) Shining, R. copallina, popular for landscaping; (3) Smooth, R. glabra, less common than the previous types; (4) Fragrant, R. aromatica, least common. I saw in 'in the wild' for the first time in 2019, but didn't immediately recognize it. Since I finally identified it, I realized I'd also seen in planted in Forest Hill Cemetery. R. typhina and R. glabra readily hybridize, and such hybrids may even outnumber the pure forms in some areas. Some of the plants I’ve photographed do seem to be such hybrids.
If you’re wondering about poison sumac, it’s a member of a different genus (Toxicodendron vernix). It’s a wetland plant that does turn pretty colors, but I avoid it, and have never photographed it.
Sumacs left to their own devices grow as large shrubs or as clusters of small trees with main trunks that are bare of limbs or leaves, but with the trunks packed so densely they appear from a distance like a large shrub. In cultivation, they can be pruned to bring out either aspect, tree or shrub. They have a growth habit of forming colonies from root suckers, which promotes a sort of domed appearance to the clusters, with younger, shorter members surrounding the older, taller ones.
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From Fall Primer of Plants with Seasonal Attractions