Sumac Chronicles

An explosion of autumn color!

An explosion of autumn color!

From what I’m told, and from evidence on the ridges around here and at a few of the nearby state parks, sumac is considered an invasive species. At Glacial Lakes and areas of Big Stone State Parks, the hills are rife with the reddish leaves and seed clusters, or drupes among scientists. For we laypeople, the clusters are more commonly called “bobs.”

All that color, from the bright reds and yellows of fall to the purplish bobs, attracts the eye of a photographer, especially this one. Recently at a visit to Glacial Lakes, the sumac in the late afternoon sun was reminiscent of a wild fire ravishing the hills of native grasses. A vivid bright red hugged the brown prairie grasses like a grandmother’s quilt in the low and late afternoon sun. Even around here, growing up the nearby hills along Big Stone Lake, patches of sumac are as common as deer and wild turkey. Sumac is found from the town of Ortonville all along the lower hillsides to Browns Valley, and are particularly prominent in the Bonanza area of Big Stone State Park.

The hills at Glacial Lakes State Park are rife with the fall color of sumac.

The hills at Glacial Lakes State Park are rife with the fall color of sumac.

Taken while lying on my back, the red leaves look stark against the blue of the sky.

Taken while lying on my back, the red leaves look stark against the blue of the sky.

Along the highway spindly stalks rise from the ground, gnarly and poetically. Most common to Minnesota is the staghorn, which is rather appropriate considering the shapes of the trunks. The stalks reach skyward from the shorter outside plants to those quite tall in the midst of a cluster. The tallest can reach as high as 30 feet, although I doubt if I’ve seen them more than 12 feet in height. The huge leaves, spirally arranged and usually pinnately compound, bring a crimson to purple celebration to a prairie autumn, and come winter, the purplish bobs collect snow and hungry, overwintering birds.

In many parts of the country, sumac is sold as an ornamental. In areas of New England the plant is sold as a rival to the beauty of the larger maple species, bringing the same lush color to the autumn scene.

A study in contrast from the shaded sumac to those in the bright sun.

A study in contrast from the shaded sumac to those in the bright sun.

You may blame the birds, in part, for the invasiveness, for their droppings provide an instant fertility for the seeds. Once sprouted, though, sumac becomes entrenched, spreading by runner-roots or rhizomes. If you should wish to witness the richness of rhizome colonies, a visit to Glacial Lakes is the place to go … especially in the autumn.

A background of sumac and prairie grasses give this image almost a stained glass effect.

A background of sumac and prairie grasses give this image almost a stained glass effect.

What I didn’t know is that in areas of the Mideast the bobs are ground into a spice or served in a tea. The spice, which is also sold by Penzy’s and other spice companies, has a tart, lemony taste. When I bought this up with Rebecca, she remembered that as a child in Vermont that they one time collected and ground the seeds. “It’s easier to just find a lemon,” she said, smiling at the memory.

Bobs against the brown of the Bonanza prairie grasses.

Bobs against the brown of the Bonanza prairie grasses.

Perhaps she won’t be convinced to try it again here at Listening Stones Farm. “I remember it being hard to find seeds good enough to grind. I remember that there wasn’t a lot of good, solid seeds.”

A cluster of staghorn sumac near us in an earlier, early-morning fog shows off the gnarly, deer-antler like shapes.

A cluster of staghorn sumac near us in an earlier, early-morning fog shows off the gnarly, deer-antler like shapes.

All of which makes me want to revisit the writing of Euell Gibbons, who I met not long after he published his book, “Stalking the Wild Asparagus.” It would be interesting to see if Gibbons wrote about sumac, and if so, what his impression might have been.

Sumac shines in the early morning sun.

Sumac shines in the early morning sun.

It’s highly doubtful we’ll get around to collecting some bobs for grinding into a spice. Meanwhile, I’ll continue to stalk the wild sumac  with my camera. Perhaps you’ll enjoy what I’ve captured so far.

In winter, the bobs provide food for deer and many bird species.

In winter, the bobs provide food for deer and many bird species.

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About John G. White

Somewhat retired after a long award-winning career in newspapers (Wisconsin State Journal, Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, Denver Post and a country weekly, the Clara City Herald). Free lance photographer and writer with credits in more than 70 magazines. Editor with various Webb Publishing magazines in St. Paul, and a five year stint as editorial director at Miller Meester Advertising.

3 thoughts on “Sumac Chronicles

  1. Well, my eyes have always adored the color and perseverance of sumac. We bought and had a bush years ago that somehow died. I miss the bright spot it produced. It may be invasive, and that may be bad for many things…..but good for those who love colors other than green and gold!. Blame the wild artist in me!

  2. Beautiful photos here, John.
    I have collected the bobs, rub them, then sift out the red powder from the actual seeds. It’s the powder that is so delightfully citric, great with (middle eastern style) chicken. (For future reference:) In our bioregion where citrus doesn’t grow, it’s important to identify plants that can bring that kind of zest to meals like wood sorrel, sorrel, seaberry, sumac.

  3. Gibbons did write about sumac; he described making a lemonade-like beverage from the fruit. He said his son got tired of pounding and squeezing it, so he put a large amount in a washing machine, ran the cycle, and captured the liquid that came out. Supposedly, it worked fine, though if you had previously been washing clothes in it you might want to do something to get rid of any detergent residue first!

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