This section is from the book "Nature's Garden", by Neltje Blanchan. Also available from Amazon: Nature's Garden; An Aid To Knowledge Of Our Wild Flowers And Their Insect Visitors.
Flowers - Greenish or yellowish white, very small, usually 5-parted, and borne in dense upright, terminal, pyramidal clusters. Stem: A shrub or small tree, 6 to 40 ft. high, the ends of branches forked somewhat like a stag's horns. Leaves: Compounded of 11 to 31 lance-shaped, saw-edged leaflets, dark green above, pale below; the petioles and twigs often velvety-hairy. Fruit: Small globules, very thickly covered with crimson hairs.
Preferred Habitat - Dry, rough or rocky places, banks, roadsides.
Flowering Season - June.
Distribution - Nova Scotia to Georgia, and westward 1500 miles.
Painted with glorious scarlet, crimson, and gold, the autumnal foliage of the sumacs, and even the fruit, so far eclipse their inconspicuous flowers in attractiveness that one quite ignores them. Not so the small, short-tongued bees (chiefly Andrenidae) and flies (Dipteria) seeking the freely exposed nectar secreted in five orange-colored glands in the shallow little cups. As some of the flowers arestaminate and some pistillate, although others show a tendency to revert to the perfect condition of their ancestors, it behooves them to entertain their little pollen-carrying visitors generously, otherwise no seed can possibly be set. And how the autumnal landscape would suffer from the loss of the decorative, dark-red, velvety panicles! Beware only of the poison sumac's deadly, round grayish-white berries.
Most sumacs contain more or less tannin in their bark and leaves, that are therefore eagerly sought by agents for the leather merchants. The beautiful smoke or mist tree (R. cotinus), commonly imported from southern Europe to adorn our lawns (although a similar species grows wild in the Southwest), serves a more ultilitarian purpose in supplying commerce with a rich orange-yellow dye-wood known as young fustic. All this tribe of shrubs and trees contain resinous, milky juice, drying dark like varnish, which in a Japanese species is transformed by the clever native artisans into their famous lacquer. With a commercial instinct worthy of the Hebrew, they guard this process as a national secret.
The Smooth, Upland, or Scarlet Sumac (R. glabra), similar to the staghorn, but lacking its velvety down, and usually of much lower growth, is the very common and widely distributed shrub of dry roadsides, railroad banks, and barren fields. Another low-growing, but more or less downy upland sumac, the Dwarf, Black, or Mountain species (R. capallina), may be known by its dark, glossy green foliage, pale on the under side, and by the broadening of the stem into wings between the leaflets. Hungry migrating birds alight to feast on the harmless acid red fruit when the gorgeous autumnal foliage illuminates their route southward. But while they are, of course, the natural agents for distributing the plants over the country, men find that by cutting bits of any sumac root and planting them in good garden soil, strong specimens are secured within a year. An exquisite cut-leaved variety of the smooth sumac adorns many fine lawns.
Everyone should know the Poison Sumac (R. Vernix) - R. venenata of Gray - as the shrub above all others to avoid. Like its cousin, the Poison or Three-leaved Ivy (R. radicans), which once had the specific name Toxicodendron, although Linnaeus applied that title to a hairy shrub of the Southern States, the poison sumac causes most painful swelling and irritation to the skin of some people, though they do nothing more than pass it by when the wind is blowing over it. Others may handle both these plants with impunity. In spring they are especially noisome; but when the pores of the skin are opened by perspiration, people who are at all sensitive should give them a wide berth at any season. Usually the poison sumac grows in wet or swampy ground; its bark is gray, its leaf-stalks are red; the leaves are compounded, of fewer leaflets than those of the innocent sumacs - that is, of from seven to thirteen - which are green on both sides; the flowers, which are dull whitish-green, grow in loose panicles from the axils of the leaves, and naturally the berries follow them in the same unusual situation. " By their fruits ye shall know them: " all the harmless sumacs have red fruit clusters at the ends of the branches, whereas both the poison sumac's and the poison ivy's axillary clusters are dull grayish-white.