Not really presenting this post as a Fabulous Fall Foliage Photo Folio (please, say those last five words three times fast) – more as an advertisement for a neglected part of autumn.
Sumac is often scrubby and undistinguished, and every fall, I realized that it’s rarely mentioned, when people are exclaiming over the maples and aspens or whatever.
Kind of a mutt – – too leggy and sprawling to be used as a shrub in your yard, but seems too small to be a real “tree.” It usually grows like a big clump of weeds – – in neglected corners of fields, along roadways and railroad beds, or behind barns.
I read up on it a bit, and find that in other countries, the dried “fruit” is used as a lemony spice. I’ve never heard of anyone using the North American version in this way. But I’ve been informed, that I’ve eaten it, and liked it: it’s a key ingredient in Middle Eastern “za’atar” seasoning (there’s a lot of versions, but thyme, sesame seed, and dried sumac seem to be the constants).
Just try saying “Za’atar! Sumac! Sesame!” out loud, and see if it doesn’t sound pretty cool and exotic.
The only use I can think of for its wood: kids cut it into foot-long sections, push out the pithy center, and use it for pea-shooters.
I’ve also read that Native Americans used the sections as pipe-stems, but I don’t know if this is true.
The Iroquois tribes around this area, grew beans, corn, and squash, but not peas, so I guess the pea-shooter idea was of no use to them, and they had to stick with tomahawks and arrows.
(Actually, we generally used the the smallest fruits from hawthorns, or inkberries, not actual peas, depending on the caliber of the shrub we’d cut that day). But there are two other attributes that make this little-noticed, unkempt little tree kind of special.
For kids in this part of the world, the little groves of sumac were the closest thing we’d experience to a bamboo thicket. Only kids could eel their way through the dense stands of sumac, like Br’er Rabbit escaping a fox. Say, hypothetically, if you used your pea-shooter to ambush a larger cousin walking by.
And every fall, having gone the entire summer in scruffy obscurity, it faithfully turns beautiful reds, yellows, and oranges.
Always, without fail. Having gone the entire summer in generic, innocuous obscurity, just as autumn begins, it flames out with style.
The leaves hang in festive rows, like tiny ceremonial banners for the autumn celebration, a mousey shrub suddenly looking quite elegant.
Sumacs are like the quiet, unassuming, small-town guys, that you always forget are Shriners, until one day, out of the blue, they break out their red velvet fezzes, have a few belts, and parade down the avenue in their crazy bright brocade uniforms.
I don’t use the expression, but sumac seems to meet the definition of a “hot mess” – – disheveled but attractive.