New England Flora
Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina), is a New England native that's easiest to recognize by its clusters of dark red fruit that ripen in late summer and persist through the winter. A dye, as well as a fixative, can be made from them. The fruit is edible and tart, and can be made into a tea, "pink lemonade", or can be dried, separated from the seeds, and powdered for use as a spice. Although one of its Eurasian counterparts, Rhus coriaria, is what's typically used, our native variety works too! In the fall, its leaves turn a striking bright red.
Staghorn Sumac can also be identified by its pinnately compound leaves, distinguishable from Tree-of -Heaven because they lack both the "teeth" at the base of each of that tree's leaflets, and that tree's notoriously unpleasant smell. Also unlike Tree-of-Heaven, Staghorn Sumac is more likely to be found near beaches, riverbanks, and sunny hilltops than right in the middle of dense urban areas. Despite this, it can grow in rocky or sandy soil, and is relatively hardy to the city.
Because it comes to mind when most of us hear "sumac", it's important to note that, in another case of common names being worse than useless, this plant is not in the same genus as poison sumac. Otherwise known as Toxicodendron vernix (a Latin nod to the broader family's production of a liquid which can be used as a varnish), the poison variety is closely related to poison ivy, and also produces urishiol (see my post on poison ivy for more!). While both grow as a large shrub or small tree (up to 30 feet), and both have pinnately compound leaves, this is where the similarities end - poison sumac produces clusters of white or grey flattened-looking berries, not red drupes; has leaflets that look more like poison ivy leaves than staghorn sumac leaflets; and grows almost exclusively in swamps and bogs. Although they aren't in the same genus, poison and Staghorn sumac are in the same family - Anacardiaceae, the sumac or cashew family, along with cashews, pistachios, mangos, and poison ivy. This family is endlessly fascinating and I hope to have more to say about it soon!
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