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Written by Kim Holland, Environmental Educator
As Vermont’s winter continues on and we daydream out the window yearning for warmer weather, the waves of grey-brown trunks, spindly branches, and crooked twigs are all we see. To break the monotony of working from home, schooling from home, or stuck at home, we pull on the boots and layer on the coats heading out through the hardwood forest.
The familiar path becomes a bit louder with each day as songbirds begin their choruses while more light is offered with a sense of awakening. Beyond the forest is an open meadow that will soon be filled with common milkweed, Joe-pye weed, and New England asters. This transition between the hardwood forest and the open field offers an array of species: red-tailed hawks perch overlooking the meadow while snow buntings and horned larks dance in fluttering flurries across the open landscape. The strong presence of sugar maples, basswoods, and birches gives way to the snowed-in meadow and pioneering plant species. Between these two ecosystems in this almost black-and-white world our eye is drawn to the red conicals of the staghorn sumac.
The staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) is a native tall shrub standing about 15 feet tall. Its short trunk divides into several upward-reaching arms creating a top-heavy canopy in the spring, summer, and fall. Only the young branches will carry the pinnately compound leaves, which look like feathers. The bark is thin and smooth while the branches are covered in fine hairs, resembling a buck in velvet, giving Rhus typhina another common name: velvet sumac.
Found from Nova Scotia south to northern Georgia and west to central Iowa, this fast growing pioneer species thrives in dry soils and even on seemingly-impossible slopes. The female plants produce the large red cones of berries in the fall which remain on the shrub all through the winter. Each cone contains anywhere from 100 to 700 seeds which are reliably dispersed across this landscape and the next by birds and mammals.
These red cones are a winter oasis. Each fruit and seed contains 13% crude fiber, 5% crude protein, 4% tannin, and 8% moisture — a reliable food source during a harsh season is ecologically important. Mammals such as white-tailed deer and moose rely on the leaves and twigs; while rabbits and fox squirrels rely on the bark. Possibly more impressive by number alone, roughly 300 species of birds across North America rely on the berries of the staghorn sumac to survive each frigid night. Flickers, black-capped chickadees, American crows, ruffed grouses, ring-neck pheasants, eastern phoebes, thrushes, eastern bluebirds, and bobwhite quails are a small handful of the numerous species who rely on this incredible plant. If you know of any songbird, chances are you know of one who needs the staghorn sumac.
The staghorn sumac is not just a bountiful source for wildlife — the berries can be made into a delicious citrus-y iced tea. Once the berries are ripened in the fall, they can be steeped in cool water for several hours and then strained, sugar added to taste. These berries carry antioxidants and lots of Vitamin C, a well-known medicinal remedy among indigenous peoples of North America.
The bright red berries break up the heavy skyline as we look out across the meadow. Tracks of white-tailed deer and eastern cottontails approach the staghorn sumac and meander below its ascending branches. An intent-filled pathway of the resident coyote follows suit, looking for its own meal. The staghorn sumac will soon grow its bright-green leaves creating nesting habitat and shelter at the intersection of the hardwoods and the meadow while providing much needed nutrition well into the spring months.
It is now time for us to return to our home offices and to our online classes. With the staghorn sumac behind us and the hardwood forest in front, we are reminded of the roles each organism plays in the balance of this ecosystem. And we hope that this spring and summer brings warm weather and health for our communities just as the staghorn sumac offers an oasis for its own.
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