Red Candles of Winter: Staghorn Sumac

Karl VonBerg Monday, 18 December 2017

4.0/5 rating 1 vote

Driving a country road recently on a cold, crystal-clear day, I noticed the fat red spires of staghorn sumac seed clusters silhouetted against the deep blue sky.

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A tall shrub or short tree, staghorn sumac grows to around 30 feet tall. It tends to grow in clumps, because multiple plants can sprout off the same root system. It’s common along roadsides, so you’ve likely seen it while driving.

Staghorn sumac stands out in winter because it keeps its red seed clusters throughout the season. If you’re in doubt about the species, look for those clusters.

That said, not every sumac has these red candles. Sumacs have male and female trees, and only the females sport seed clusters.

But even though the males aren’t as easy to identify at 55 MPH, they’re actually the source of the staghorn sumac’s name. The male trees have barren branches this time of year, and the way those branches fork looks like a stag’s antlers.

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If you get out of your car and take a closer look, you can find another telltale sign of staghorn sumac at the end of those stag branches. They’ll be loaded with hairs that give the branches a neat fuzzy feel. This is another reason for the staghorn name, because the hairy branches look like a buck’s antlers in velvet.

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Because sumac keeps its seed clusters through the winter, the plant is a good emergency food for many birds. Turkey, ruffed grouse, pheasant, quail, and many songbirds will all eat from staghorn sumac to help get through cold months when snow covers most other foods.

It’s possible for people to get some nourishment from sumac too, though it takes a little work. If you harvest and crush the seeds after they ripen in the summer, you can use them to make a drink called “sumac-ade.” The video below describes the process for making this tangy red beverage.

Caution: if you’re allergic to cashews or mangoes, don’t make sumac-ade, as the plants are related. Always be sure of your plant ID and food preparation technique before consuming any part of any wild plant.

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