When we think of New England fall foliage, maple trees come immediately to mind: A single majestic maple bears thousands of colorful fall leaves. By comparison, sumac trees are small; indeed, depending upon whom you ask, sumac is considered either a small tree or tall shrub. But pound for pound (or should I say, "leaf for leaf"?), they can hold their own with any tree for fall foliage. Some of the best fall foliage spectacles I've witnessed in New England have consisted of dense stands of sumac trees covering a slope in a sea of red. The reputation of these delightful sumac trees, however, has been smeared through their association with their nefarious cousin -- poison sumac.
"Poison sumac." The words are mouthed with such dread that simply mentioning them will keep some people out of the woods, even during New England's brilliant fall foliage season. But while poison sumac causes a severe skin irritation when touched and should, indeed, be avoided, don't be hasty about trying to eradicate that stand of non-poison sumac trees on your property. Sumac trees just might be your best source for the type of fall foliage people associate with the New England region, a fact known by the nurseries that sell this "weed" to those seeking a brilliant autumn display (for a photo of a nursery-grown cultivar, click the photo at right to open up the photo gallery). As I illustrate in my gallery of poison sumac pictures, the easiest way to distinguish poison sumac from non-poison sumac is to compare the berries.
One of the better-known sumac trees (sometimes spelled, "sumach trees") is the staghorn. Although native to New England, it is a tough plant that can be grown in other regions as well. And almost every region of the U.S. has some variety of sumac native to it. If you're sure that sumac is too offbeat for your landscaping tastes, please consult my series on popular fall foliage trees. This series provides photos and descriptions of trees ranging from towering maples to dwarf weeping birches.
Fall foliage display is not a matter merely of personal enjoyment. If your home is on the real estate market, you need to be aware that you can increase your property value significantly (fifteen percent is the figure often cited) with the right landscaping. Landscaping is an important aspect of home improvement. Potential buyers looking at real estate during the autumn months cannot help but be influenced by landscaping with dynamic fall foliage.
There are many kinds of non-poison sumac trees. Mention of two common varieties in New England will suffice as examples. Staghorn trees (Rhus typhina (hirta)) are a relatively tall variety (reaches 18 feet to 35 feet). Staghorn derives its name from the hairy texture of its branches, reminiscent of the velvety feel of deer antlers. The smooth sumac tree (Rhus glabra) is another common variety; it attains a height of about 10 feet. Both provide striking fall foliage.
The sumac trees that some of us have scorned all our lives, through their association with poison sumac, deserve a closer look -- and not only for the fall foliage they provide. For, historically, they have been more than just something pretty to look at, as we'll see on Page 2....