Monday, December 12, 2011

Sumac Fruit

Winged Sumac is the most consistent producer of fruit at Blue Jay Barrens. Regardless of the weather experienced during the growing season, the sumacs always produce a hefty crop of fruit.

The plump fruits begin the winter season with a bright red coat covered in short hairs that produce an acid substance. It may be this acidic compound that causes most birds to ignore this potential food source. By mid-winter, the meat of the fruit will dry to form a leathery coat around the seed. If the birds are finding plenty to eat, they’ll avoid the sumac. It’s just in years of hardship that they’ll turn to the sumacs as a source of emergency rations to carry them through to spring. Mockingbirds are about the only species I’ve seen eat sumac fruit on a regular basis. I’ve also seen Carolina Wrens picking insects out of the fruit clusters.

Winged Sumac grows to a height of 15 or 20 feet and will spread by rhizomes to produce a large thicket. I leave scattered clumps of tall sumacs, but periodically mow the rest of the sumac patches to keep them at a manageable size. If left unchecked, Winged Sumac can easily take over a whole field to the detriment of the grassland species. By mowing sumac patches in rotation every three or four years a short height is maintained, but fruit production remains high.

Untouched clusters of sumac fruit are an indication that the birds are finding an adequate food supply. In a typical year, other food sources carry the birds through winter and the sumac fruits are still present in the spring. To find the sumacs stripped of their fruits before the end of winter, usually means that the birds are in serious danger of starving to death before spring arrives.

Keeping scattered patches of sumacs unmowed allows me to enjoy the beauty of the mature plant. Winged Sumac is not a species that exhibits uniform growth patterns between in individuals. Each oddly shaped shrub is unique in form, but they all share a similar texture and color that creates a striking display. It’s also the older specimens that develop the interesting colonies of lichens on their trunks. I enjoy the Winged Sumacs in all seasons, but I’m especially cheered to see the fruits still untouched at the end of winter.


  1. steve , i been told that sumac is a staple food of ruffed grouse , but since i no longer see grouse, and i dont have any sumac i dont know if this correct.

  2. Hi Mike. I haven't seen a grouse around here for about 20 years. I've also read that grouse feed on sumac fruit. I think they were referring to Smooth Sumac or Staghorn Sumac which seem to produce a more palatable fruit.

  3. Keep us posted on how this emergency ration holds up ...

  4. Hi James. For the moment, other fruits are available in abundance. If the predictions are correct and ice/snow becomes a regular feature this winter, Sumac may be a life saver.