Some people call sumac a sumac tree and some call it a sumac bush. Either can probably suffice as there are both short and tall varieties. The sumac also has another stigma to overcome. Many people have heard of poison sumac and not so many have heard of a non-poisonous sumac tree.
Still, if you are looking for a relatively small tree that is spectacular at foliage time, the sumac might be just for you. First of all, you should learn about poison sumac so that when neighbors or relatives ask how you know it’s not a poison sumac tree, you can explain it to them. Poison sumac, by the way, gives a skin irritation to those who touch it much like poison ivy. Poison sumac like very, very, wet soil, so wet in fact that they grow mostly in swampy areas. A sumac tree, on the other hand, likes its soil to be very well-drained and is likely to be found in a dry area. If it’s in the fall, there’s an easy way to tell the difference between the two. The poison version will have white berries that hang downward toward the ground. The sumac tree will have red berries that grow upward toward the sky.
The sumac tree is native to New England but can be grown in other areas with the same climate. Two popular ones are the staghorn sumac tree and the smooth sumac tree. The staghorn grows to what most people would think of as acceptable tree height, 20-35 feet. The smooth sumac is shorter, more in the 8-12 foot range. Both of the trees have brilliant foliage and bright red berries. These red berries do stay red even after the snow flies, making a stark visual contrast with the white on the ground.
Because the berries last a long time, they will attract birds. However, the birds will devour other foodstuff first, leaving the berries till later in winter when the snow is to high to make lower foraging possible. Birds that are attracted to the bright red berries are chickadees, blue jays, crows, grouse, pheasant, wood and hermit thrushes.
A sumac tree does have a failing that might deter some prospective tree planters. It is an invasive plant, but it is a native invasive plant. The rhizomes are prolific spreaders and if you aren’t careful you could soon have sumac trees where you don’t want sumac trees. If you are the type of landscaper that doesn’t want to be bothered with pruning or plant care beyond the initial planting, then maybe the sumac isn’t right for you. But for anyone who enjoys working with plants, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.
A sumac tree has many great qualities to offer. Native Americans used the bark for tanning and used the seeds to make a lemonade-type drink that was very high in Vitamin C. Ground sumac seeds are also used as a spice in several cultures, said to give food a tart zesty taste. It is often used with fish and meat, salads, rice, potatoes and onions.