Thursday, November 05, 2009

SkyWatch: Winged Sumac

A sumac seems like a short plant for a SkyWatch post, but it depends on one's perspective. Winged Sumac (Rhus copallinum) is one of several sumac species native in eastern North America. It is also known as shining sumac, flameleaf sumac, and dwarf sumac. Sumacs are early succession plants, common in old fields, waste areas, and highway medians. Winged sumac is especially common along New Jersey's shore, where its tolerance for dry, sandy soil and harsh conditions allow it to thrive.

Like other sumacs, winged sumac has compound leaves. In autumn the leaves turn bright red. This species gets its name from the narrow leaflets that grow along its leafstalk in between the larger leaflets.

In winter, sumacs drop their leafstalks along with the leaflets, leaving only the bare trunks and branches. At the top of each branch is a cluster of red berries, called drupes. These fruits provide a winter food source for birds and mammals. I have rarely seen birds eating sumac fruit, so I assume they eat it mainly in emergencies when little else is available.