Backyard Wildlife Habitat

Sumac, an Ecological Pioneer

Bonsai-like in its growth pattern sumac is a fixture in Missouri's fall landscape.  The burgundy-red berries catch one's attention at this time of year.

The berries are not a 'choice' food for wildlife, but once winter comes, some animals do rely on them.  The berries remain on sumac plants well into winter, when other wildlife foods are no longer available.  Game birds and songbirds rel on sumac berries and the seeds within for winter sustenance.  In sever weather, quail and other game birds stay near sumacs until they've eaten all the berries.  Rabbits and deer feed on the bark and twigs as well as on the berries.

Sumac is often seen growing along roadsides in Missouri.  When a field is abandoned and returns to forest, sumac is part of the succession plan.  The first invaders are grasses and annual plants; then follow the perennials.  Eventually, shrubs take over the area; this is the stage where sumac is seen throughout the fields.  Once shade-tolerant trees emerge, the sumac dies out; it prefers sunny open areas.

Considered an edible wild plant,, sumac berries are used to make a tart 'lemonade'.  An extract of sumac mixed with elderberry juice makes a delicious jelly.  When venturing to try an edible sumac, stick to the plants with the red berries; Smooth Sumac (Rhus glabra) is the species found in Missouri.  Steer clear of the white berries of poison sumac (Toxicodendron vernax).  It is a wetland species and is found in a completely different ecosystem. 

Sumac is too invasive to be a garden plant, but it is a vital part of Missouri's plant life.

 Article by LNC Naturalist Susan Macdonald Bray
(Photo Credits: Sumac thicket and sumac leaves, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources; Poison sumac, plants.usa.com)