Sunday, January 8, 2012

Shining sumac

Shining sumac, originally uploaded by Elizabeth Smith.

Rhus copallina

This is one of my favorite woodland shrubs. I usually see shining sumac on the edges of habitats, in the ecotone or transition zone.  Shining sumac is also called winged sumac or red sumac. You may not be able to tell from my quick sketch, but there are little “wings” along the leaf stem (rachis).  This one has very small wings, but in some  specimens they are more pronounced. Shining sumac has pinnately compound leaves that alternately spiral along the main stem. The individual leaves (or leaflets) are about 2 to 3 inches in length, but you can see that they're variable in size. This sumac caught my eye because of the gorgeous colors.

Shining sumac has quite a range in the eastern United States, throughout Florida and as far north as the south of Maine. In the south it reaches into Texas.  Although the berries are favorites of many birds, this specimen had none to show. It's situated along a trail, so it may have been trimmed back while in flower or fruit. In the past, the fruits have been used by humans to make a cooling, tart lemonade-like beverage, and as a dye. The roots are reported to have been used to treat dysentery.

Sumac is deciduous, so next time I visit this trail the leaves may have dropped.  Another species of Rhus is poisonous, aptly named poison sumac. The leaves, stems, and roots contain the same irritating allergen as poison ivy, urushiol.  Luckily, this species grows a bit further north of southwest Florida in damp or wet locations, while shining sumac prefers drier conditions. This is good news for me, since I seem to attract poison ivy just by setting foot outside my car! Sumac belongs to the Cashew family, Anacardiaceae.

The genus name Rhus is thought to come from the old French, meaning red, or from the Greek reo, meaning “to flow,” thought to refer to its spreading habit. Another source claims that Rhus is a derivation of rhous, an ancient Greek name for sumac. I found only one source that states that copallina means gummy or resinous, but doesn’t list the language or country of origin. I believe that the common name of shining sumac refers to the shiny leaves of this species. The leaves I sketched were somewhat shiny, depending on the age of the leaf. The new leaves were glossy in spite of the recent cold snap, a beautiful light red with almost a bronzy overtone.

I spotted this shining sumac along the trail at Rookery Bay that leads to the Conservancy’s boardwalk. I hope you’ve enjoyed seeing my sketch and reading a bit more about this common but often overlooked native shrub or small tree.