The Washington Times-Herald
---- — Some of the most common small shrubs found in Indiana are the four species of sumacs. At least one variety can be found in every Hoosier county. During the summer months they may be overlooked, but come fall it is hard to miss their vivid red foliage. Often one of the first plants to turn, the sumacs, if given enough sunlight, can indeed live up to their nickname of the “King of Color.”
All of our sumacs have compound leaves and fruiting heads that are full of small, very oily seeds. These are tightly-packed heads that are also hard to overlook. In Indiana the most common sumac is the smooth sumac. It is found all across the state and in all of the lower 48 United States.
It has deep red fruit that are only one-eighth of an inch in diameter. While small they are so densely packed together that they appear much larger than they really are. These clusters may be as much as eight inches in length. They can last all winter and can provide food for both birds and some mammals.
The shining sumac, also known as winged and dwarf, is found across most of southern Indiana and a few northern counties, but is not found in most sections of central Hoosierland. As with all of the sumacs, it has flowers that have a disk that is full of nectar. Bees, as well as insects, love to visit these flowers.
While sometimes called dwarf sumac, it can reach a height of up to 18 feet, but is usually much shorter. The smooth variety can grow to 20 feet tall while the staghorn sumac is the champion as it can reach a height of as much as 30 feet.
The staghorn sumac receives its name due to the dense, long brown hairs that cover its twigs and branches. They do look like deer antlers in its velvet stage, thus the name staghorn.
Sad to say this large plant that has very bright red fruit is only found in northern Indiana. Thus we who live in the southern section of our state do not have the opportunity of seeing this “king of the sumacs” unless we travel to the northern segment of Indiana.
The fragrant sumac is not common in Indiana. It only occurs in a few northern and southeastern Hoosier counties. It is said to produce the most fragrant nectar, thus its name. The fragrant is most common on the sand dunes of northern Indiana, but in other areas can be found on rocky bluffs and ravines.
The shining sumac loves a location around lakes and bogs, but also can be found on some bluffs and ridges and in gravelly, sandy sites.
The smooth sumac will grow in about any location. It is often very common along roadsides, fences and in areas that have been disturbed.
While the red leaves and fruit in the fall are what usually attracts us to the sumacs, people who like to feast on plants also find them of interest. A form of lemonade can be concocted from the fruit of the sumac. It takes some time and effort, but it does create what looks like pink lemonade.
I have tried it a few times and found it rather tasty, but time consuming. Pick ripe berries which have many acidic hairs. Rub to bruise the fruit, then soak them in cold water for 15 minutes. Next take the berries out of the water and pour the juice from the fruit, which will be pink, through cheesecloth. This will take out the loose hairs and any berries that remain. Chill and sweeten to taste and consume. Some people love this sumac lemonade, others don’t find it to their liking.
One tip. Get the berries before a hard rain as a lot of water can wash out most of the acid that gives it the lemonade taste. One of our most common shrubs can be a joy in the fall as it puts on one of nature’s most radiant floral displays.