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Trees With Flowers Or Fruits - The Sumacs

( Originally Published 1927 )



The sumach family contains more than fifty genera, confined for the most part to the warmer regions of the globe. Two fruit trees within this family are the mango and the pistachio nut tree. Commercially important also is the turpentine tree of southern Europe. The Japanese lacquer tree yields the black varnish used in all lacquered wares. The cultivated sumachs of southern Europe are important in the tanning industry, their leaves containing from twenty-five to thirty per cent. of tannic acid.

In the flora of the United States three genera of the family have tree representatives. The genus Rhus, with a total of one hundred and twenty species, stands first. Most of these belong to South Africa; sixteen to North America where their distribution covers practically the entire continent. Of these, four attain the habit of small trees.

Fleshy roots, pithy branchlets, and milky, or sometimes caustic or watery juice, belong to the sumachs, which are oftenest seen as roadside thickets or fringing the borders of woods. The foliage is fernlike, odd-pinnate, rarely simple. The flowers are conspicuous by their crowding into terminal or axillary panicles, followed by bony fruits, densely crowded like the flowers.

The Staghorn Sumach

Rhus hirta, Sudw.

The staghorn sumach is named for the densely hairy, forking branchlets, which look much like the horns of a stag "in the velvet." The foliage and fruit are also densely clothed with stiff pale hairs, usually red or bright yellow.

The leaves reach two feet in length, with twenty or thirty oblong, often sickle-shaped leaflets, set opposite on the stem, and terminating in a single odd leaflet. Bright yellow-green until half grown, dark green and dull above when mature, often nearly white on the under surface, these leaves turn in autumn to bright scarlet, shading into purple, crimson, and orange. No sunset was ever more changeful and glorious than a patch of staghorn sumach that covers the ugliness of a railroad siding in October. After the leaves have fallen, the dull red fuzzy fruits persist, offering food to belated bird migrants and gradually fading to browns before spring.

The maximum height of this largest of northern. sumachs is thirty-five feet. The wood of such large specimens is sometimes used for walking-sticks and for tabou-rets and such fancy work as inlaying. Coarse, soft, and brittle, it is satiny when polished, and attractively streaked with orange and green. The young shoots are cut and their pith contents removed to make pipes for drawing. maple sap from the trees in sugaring time.

But the best use of the tree is for ornamental planting. In summer, the ugliness of the most unsightly bank is covered where this tree is allowed to run wild and throw up its root suckers unchecked. The mass effect of its fern-like foliage in spring is superb, when the green is lightened by the fine clusters of pink blossoms. No tree carries its autumn foliage longer nor blazes with greater splendor in the soft sunshine of the late year. The hairy staghorn branches, bared of leaves, hold aloft their fruits like lighted candelabra far into the waning winter. For screens and border shrubs this sumach may become objectionable, by reason of its habit of spreading by suckers as well as seed.

Its choice of situations is broken uplands and dry, gravelly banks. Its range extends from New Brunswick to Minnesota and southward through the Northern states, and along the mountains to the Gulf states. In cultivation, it is found in the Middle West and on the Atlantic seaboard, and is a favorite in central and northern Europe.

The Dwarf

Sumach R. copallina, Linn.

The black dwarf, or mountain sumach, is smaller, with softer, closer velvet coating its twigs and lining its leaves, than the burly staghorn sumach wears. It grows all over the eastern half of the United States, even to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, and rises to thirty feet in height above a short, stout trunk in the mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina. Its leaves are the most beautiful in the sumach family. They are six to eight inches long, the central stalk bearing nine to twenty-one dark green leaflets, lustrous above, lined with silvery pubescence. A striking peculiarity is that the central leaf-stem is winged on each side with a leafy frill between the pairs of leaflets. In autumn, the foliage mass changes to varying shades of scarlet and crimson. The flower clusters are copious and loose, and the heavy fruits nod from their great weight and show the most beautiful shades, ranging from yellow to dull red. Sterile soil is often covered by extensive growths of this charming shrubby tree which spreads by underground root-stocks. It is the latest of all the sumachs to bloom.

In the South the leaves are sometimes gathered in summer to be dried and pulverized for use in tanning leather. A yellow dyestuff is also extracted from them. It is a favorite sumach for ornamental planting in this country and in Europe,

The Poison Sumach

R. Vernix, Linn."

The poison sumach is a small tree with slender drooping branches, smooth, reddish brown, dotted on the twigs with orange-colored breathing holes, becoming orange-brown and gray as the bark thickens. The trunk is often somewhat fluted under a smooth gray rind. This is one of the most brilliant and beautiful of all the sumachs, but unfortunately it is deadly poisonous, more to be dreaded than the poison ivy of our woods, and the poisonwood of Florida, both of which are near relatives. By certain traits we may always know, with absolute certainty, a poison sumach when we find it. Look at the berries. If they droop and are grayish white, avoid touching the tree, no matter how alluring the wonderful scarlet foliage is. Poison sumachs grow only in the swamps. We should suspect any sumach that stands with its feet in the water, whether it bears flowers and fruit or not. The temptation is strongest when one is in the woods gathering brilliant foliage for decoration of the home for the holidays. The bitter poisonous juice that exudes from broken stems turns black almost at once. This warning comes late, however, for as it dries upon the hands it poisons the skin. Handled with care, this juice becomes a black, lustrous, durable varnish, but it is not in general use.

The Smooth Sumach

R. glabra, Linn.

The smooth sumach (see illustrations, pages 150-151) is quite as familiar as the staghorn, as a roadside shrub. It forms thickets in exactly the same way, and its foliage, flowers and fruit make it most desirable for decorative planting, especially for glorious autumnal effects. The stems are smooth and coated with a pale bluish bloom. This is the distinguishing mark, at any season, of the sumach that often equals the other species in height, but does not be-long in this book, for the reason that it never attains the stature of a tree.



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