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What Time is it in Nature: Winged Sumac

November 13, 2013

Winged Sumac, Rhus copallina

Prairie Ridge is spectacular in the fall! The deciduous trees (the ones that lose their leaves in winter) change colors from green to blazing reds, yellows, and oranges before the leaves eventually flutter to the ground. One of our favorite brightly colored fall trees is the Winged Sumac.

winged sumac

Winged sumac

Winged Sumac is a small, shrubby member of the cashew family of trees, the Anacardiaceae, typically reaching heights of 10-15 feet. As in other sumacs, what many people consider leaves are instead leaflets, a whole series of which positioned along a midrib makes up a long compound leaf. The leaflets of the Winged Sumac are longer than wide with a round base and a pointed tip with small serrations along the edges. The most distinctive characteristic, however, is the “wings,” broad, flat sections of the midrib between the leaflets. These wings give the Winged Sumac its common name and are visible in the image above.

While Winged Sumacs prefer to grow in rich upland areas, they also grow well in disturbed soils, sending up multiple shoots from runners off the main stem. As such, you will often see them along roadsides, planted around parking lots, or in land reclamation projects. They also do well in urban environments and are a popular landscaping plant in residential areas, where they are often planted as privacy hedges and in areas with less than ideal soils. Winged Sumacs are also popular for their spectacular fall foliage, as seen above. The almost shockingly bright red coloration brings out a bright burst of color on the trees before they lose their leaves for the winter.

Apart from their landscaping and reclamation uses, naturally occurring and planted Winged Sumacs are an important food source for several animal species. The berries remain on the trees through most of the winter, providing an important food source for birds and small mammals at a time when other foods are scarce. The bark is also sometimes eaten by Fox Squirrels or White-tailed Deer.

If you’ve never seen a Winged Sumac before, we have a great example just outside of the Prairie Ridge Outdoor Classroom. Come on out and see it before the leaves disappear for the winter! The brilliant red leaves provide an excellent pop of warm color against an increasingly drab landscape.

What Time is it in Nature is a weekly feature highlighting the current plants, animals, and other wildlife at the Musuem’s public outdoor facility, Prairie Ridge Ecostation.  Find out more about the natural happenings at Prairie Ridge at our What Time is it in Nature Archive!

(Photos by Chris Goforth)

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