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Winter Scenery With Sumac Trees

Aggressive Native Also Attracts Birds


Sumac's red seed tuft

Sumac's red tuft of seeds is attractive to both birds and humans.

David Beaulieu

We began by considering how sumac trees can transplant a bit of New England fall foliage to regions far away from New England. On Page 2 we learned that they also have a rich history. Below we will see that cultivating sumac in the landscape can enhance your winter scenery as well.

Winter scenery with snow needs to be punctuated by color to hold our interest, and sumac's seed-tuft will provide some color. More importantly, it also attracts wild birds, whose presence greatly enhances the color and variety of winter scenery. Increasingly, homeowners are understanding the importance of achieving four seasons of visual interest on the landscape; adequate winter scenery is perhaps the most difficult to achieve, since vegetation is more robust in the other three seasons.

Fall scenery. Winter scenery. With so many good points in its favor, are there any reasons then, you may ask, for treating sumac trees as "weeds" to be eradicated? I can think of only one. Like Japanese knotweed, sumac trees thrive on ground disturbed by humans. That is, it will grow even where you don't want it to grow in your yard.

Winter Scenery and Sumac

Sumac trees spread via rhizomes under the soil, as does Japanese knotweed. On land where the roots from trees long-since cut have decomposed in the soil, an open invitation exists for Japanese knotweed and sumac tree rhizomes to spread like crazy there, since impediments to their movement have been eliminated (they'll get plenty of sun, too, which they both love). For this reason, both sumac trees and Japanese knotweed have been used in erosion control projects. But that's where the similarity ends. A stand of dead Japanese knotweed does nothing for winter scenery, as the ugly dried canes merely litter the landscape; whereas sumac contributes something positive to winter scenery.

If you have only a small plot of land and wish to cultivate an extensive garden, and if you don't want to devote much time to restricting the spread of invasive plants, then growing sumac trees as an ornamental for its fall foliage and winter scenery potential is probably not for you. If you need to get rid of sumac trees, spray them with Ortho's Brush-B-Gon. Alternatively, you can cut the trunks and daub Roundup onto the stumps.

But if you have a large plot on which to garden, or if you are willing to invest the time to keep sumac's rhizomes contained, the plant offers several advantages. Particular varieties of sumac trees are indigenous to a number of regions, both in the Old World and in the New. Growing native plants always carries with it certain advantages over growing plants that "have their roots" elsewhere, if you will. Natives, for instance, tend to be drought-resistant. And why shouldn't they be? Surviving summers stingy with rain is part of their heritage in that particular region. Nor do you have to worry about soil amendments or the pH level since, after all, their ancestors thrived on the native soil just as it was. And, of course, they're often free.

The advantages of growing sumac trees, however, go beyond these considerations. As mentioned at the outset, the fall foliage they provide is unsurpassed. Nor is their autumn color display limited to their leaves, for the tuft atop the plant that holds sumac's berries is red and fluffy, increasing the plant's visual appeal. An added bonus is the fact that this seed-tuft remains on the sumac trees all winter, attracting colorful wild birds to northern landscapes greatly in need of such cheerful winter scenery.

Wild Birds: Winged Winter Scenery

Birdwatchers take note: sumac tree seeds are an important source of birdfood, precisely because they do stay on the plant long enough to be part of your winter scenery. This makes them an excellent emergency food for birds throughout the winter and beyond. I have witnessed bluebirds, black-capped chickadees and robins feeding on sumac seeds in early spring in New England, when there is little else for them to eat. Gary Schneider of the MacPhail Woods Ecological Forestry Project on Prince Edward Island, Canada lists some additional birds known to eat sumac trees' seeds: ruffed grouse, ring-necked pheasant, eastern phoebe, common crow, northern mockingbird, gray catbird, wood thrush, hermit thrush and European starling. Schneider also notes staghorn sumac's use as a windbreak and adds, "Since it is resistant to salt, this is one of the best native shrubs for protection along shorelines or highways."

So the versatile sumac trees' benefits go beyond fall foliage and winter scenery. Before eradicating it from your landscape, I would recommend granting sumac a stay of execution while you ponder its virtues for a while. During the reprieve, sumac just might win you over.

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