Three Sumacs And Two Imposters

Sumac fruit (photo by Kate St. John)

In July I took photos of sumacs along the Montour Trail but didn't identify the species and assumed these first two were staghorn sumac.  Wrong!

As I started to write this article I examined the photos and noticed a big difference between them.  The red fruit spike above is fuzzy.  The one below is smooth.   Not only that, you can see that the stems on the top one are also fuzzy but the stems below are smooth.

Fruit of smooth sumac (photo by Kate St. John)

In southwestern Pennsylvania we have three common sumac species that bear pointed red fruit clusters:

  • Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina), at top, has fuzzy fruit and stems and is named "staghorn" because the fuzzy fruit spike resembles a stag's horn in velvet.
  • Smooth sumac (Rhus glabra), above, is smooth just like its name.
  • Shining sumac (Rhus copallina) is easily identified by its winged stems.

I haven't seen Shining Sumac lately so here's a photo from Wikimedia Commons.  See how the stem has wings (like wingstem) between the leaflets?

Leaves and flower of Shining Sumac (photo from Wikimedia Commons)


There are two more plants we call "sumac" whose leaves resemble these plants but they aren't in the genus Rhus:

  • Poison-sumac (Toxicodendron vernix) is in the cashew family (as is Rhus) but it's closely related to poison ivy and causes the same rash.  Its stems are smooth, like smooth sumac, but its flowers and fruit are not in dense spikes.  Fortunately poison sumac only grows in swamps and bogs so you'd have to go out of your way to touch it.  Click here for a photo.
  • And finally there's a plant we call "sumac" which isn't related at all.  Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima) is an invasive tree from China with compound leaves that resemble sumac.  However its leaflets are notched, especially at the base, and the tree produces seeds instead of a fruit spike.  Notice the notches on the leaflets and the heavy cascade of seeds in this Wikimedia photo.   This is NOT sumac.   It grows anywhere, even in abandoned parking lots.

Ailanthus leaves and seeds (photo from Wikimedia Commons)


Three real Rhus sumacs and two imposters.

(photos by Kate St. John except where noted.  Click on the Wikimedia photos to see their originals)

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