Gateway to the Classics: Handbook of Nature Study: Trees by Anna Botsford Comstock
Handbook of Nature Study: Trees by  Anna Botsford Comstock

The Velvet, or Staghorn, Sumac

Teacher's Story

The sumacs with flame leaves at half-mast,

like wildfire spread over the glade;

Above them, the crows on frayed pinions

move northward in ragged parade.

dropcap image HE sumacs, in early autumn, form a "firing line" along the borders of woodlands and fences, before any other plant but the Virginia creeper has thought of taking on brighter colors. No other leaves can emulate the burning scarlet of their hues. The sumacs are a glory to our hills; and sometime, when Americans have time to cultivate a true artistic sense, these shrubs will play an important part in landscape gardening. They are beautiful in summer, when each crimson "bob" (a homely New England name for the fruit panicle) is set at the center of the bouquet of spreading, fernlike leaves. In winter nakedness they are most picturesque, with their broadly branching twigs bearing aloft the wine-colored pompons against the background of snow, and calling to the winter birds to come and partake of the pleasantly acid drupes. In spring, they put out their soft leaves in exquisite shades of pale pinkish green, and when in blossom their staminate panicles of greenish white cover them with loose pyramids of delicate bloom.

Well may it be called velvet sumac, for this year's growth of wood and the leaf stems are covered with fine hairs, pinkish at first, but soon white; if we slip our fingers down a branch, we can tell even without looking where last year's growth began and ended, because of the velvety feel. The name staghorn sumac is just as fitting, for its upper branches spread widely like a stag's horns and, like them, the new growth is covered with velvet.

The leaves are borne on the new wood, and therefore at the ends of branches; they are alternate; the petiole broadens where it clasps the branch, making a perfect nursery for the little next-year's bud, which is nestled below it. The leaves are compound and the number of leaflets varies from eleven to thirty-one. Each leaflet is set close to the midrib, with a base that is not symmetrical; the leaflets have their edges toothed, and are long and narrow; they do not spread out on either side the midrib like a fern, but naturally droop somewhat, and thus conceal their undersides, which are much lighter in color. The leaflets are not always set exactly opposite; the basal ones are bent back toward the main stem, making a fold in the base of each. The end leaflets are not always three, symmetrically set, but sometimes are two and sometimes one, with two basal lobes.

The wine-colored "bob" is cone-shaped, but with a bunchy surface. Remove all the seeds from it and note its framework of tiny branches, and again pay admiring tribute to nature's way of doing up compact packages. Each seed is a drupe, as is also the cherry. A drupe is merely a seed within a fleshy layer, all being enclosed in a firmer outside covering; here, the outside case is covered with dark red fuzz, a clothing of furs for winter, the fur standing out in all directions. The fleshy part around the seed has a pleasantly acid taste, and one of my childhood diversions was to share these fruits in winter with the birds. I probably inadvertently ate also many a little six-footed brother hidden away for winter safe-keeping, for every sumac panicle is a crowded insect-tenement.

It is only in its winter aspect that we can see the peculiar way of the sumac's branching, which is in picturesque zigzags, ending with coarse, wide-spreading twigs. As each terminal twig was a stem for the bouquet of blossom and fruit set about with graceful leaves, it needed room and this is reason enough for the coarse branching. The wood of the sumac has a pith, and is coarse in texture.


The stag-horn sumac.

Photo by Verne Morton.

During late May the new growth starts near the end of last year's twig; the buds are yellowish and show off against the dark gray twigs. From the center of these buds comes the fuzzy new growth, which is usually reddish purple; the tiny leaves are folded, each leaflet creased at its midrib and folded tightly against itself; as the leaves unfold, they are olive-green tinted with red, and look like tassels coming out around the old dark red "bob." When the sumacs are in blossom, we see in every group of them, two kinds; one with pyramids of white flowers, and the other with pinkish callow bobs. The structure of these two different flower-clusters is really the same, except that the white ones are looser and more widely spread. Each flower of the white panicle is staminate, and has five greenish, somewhat hairy sepals and five yellowish white petals, at the center of which are five large anthers. A flower from the bob is quite different; it has the five hairy sepals alternating with five narrow, yellowish white petals, both clasping the globular base, or ovary, which is now quite covered with pinkish plush, and bears at its tip the three styles flaring into stigmas.


a. Pistillate flower from a "bob."

b. Staminate flower from the greenish panicle.

The velvet sumac is larger than the smooth species (Rhus glabra),  and is easily distinguished from it, since the new wood of the latter is smooth and covered with bloom but is not at all velvety. The poison sumac, which is very dangerous to many people when handled, is a swamp species and its fruit is a loose, drooping panicle of whitish berries, very much like that of poison ivy; therefore, any sumac that has the red bob is not dangerous. The poison species has the edges of its leaflets entire and each leaflet has a distinct petiole of its own where it joins the midrib.

There is much tannin in sumac and it is used extensively to tan leather. The bobs are used for coloring a certain shade of brown. The famous Japanese lacquer is made from the juice of a species of sumac.

Lesson CCVI

The Velvet, or Staghorn, Sumac

Leading thought—The sumac is a beautiful shrub in summer because of its fern-like leaves; it is picturesque in winter, and its colors in autumn are most brilliant. Its dark red fruit clusters remain upon it during the entire winter. In June it shows two kinds of blossoms on different shrubs, one is whitish and bears the pollen, the other is reddish and is a pistillate flower, later developing into the seed on the "bob" or fruit cluster.

Method—Begin this study in October when the beautiful autumn color of the leaves attracts the eye. Observations to be made in the field should be outlined and should be answered in the field note-books. The study of the fruit and leaf may be made in the schoolroom, and an interest should be developed which will lead to the study of the interesting flowers the following spring. The sumacs in autumn make a beautiful subject for watercolor sketches, and their peculiar method of branching with their dark red seed clusters or bobs, make them excellent subjects for winter sketching.


1. Why is this called the velvet sumac? Why is it called the staghorn sumac? Look at the stems with a lens and describe the velvet. Can you tell this year's wood by the velvet? Is there any velvet on last year's wood? Is there any on the wood below? What is there peculiar in the appearance of last year's wood? What are the colors of the hairs that make the velvet on this year's growth? On last year's growth? What is the color of this year's growth under the velvet? Where are the leaves borne?

2. Look at the leaves. How many come off the stem between two, one of which is above the other? Is the midrib velvety? What is its color at base and at tip? What is the shape of the petiole where it joins the stem? Remove the leaf. What do you find hidden and protected by its broad base?

3. How many leaflets are there on the longest leaf which you can find? How many on the shortest? Do the leaflets have little petioles, or are they set close to the midrib? How does the basal pair differ from the others? Are the leaflets the same color above as below? Are the pairs set exactly opposite each other? Look at the three leaflets at the tips of several leaves and see if they are all regular in form. Draw a leaflet showing its base, its veins and its margin. Draw an entire leaf, and color it as exactly as possible.

4. Study the fruit. Pick one of the bobs and note its general shape. Is it smooth or bunchy? Sketch it. Remove one of the little bunches and find out why it is of that shape. Remove all of the seeds from one of last year's bobs and see how the fruit is borne. Sketch a part of such a bare stem.

5. Take a single seed; look at it through a lens and describe it. What are the colors? Cut or pare away the flesh, and describe the seed. What birds live on the sumac seeds in winter? How many kinds of insects can you find wintering in the bob? Find a seed free from insects and taste it.

Winter Study of the Sumac—

6. Study the sumac after the leaves have fallen and sketch it. What is there peculiar in its branching? Of what use to the plant is its method of branching? Break a branch and look at the end. Is there a pith? What color is the wood and pith?

May or June Study of the Sumac—

7. Where on the branch does the new growth start? How are the tiny leaves folded? Look over a group of sumacs and see if their blossoms all look alike. Are the different kinds of blossoms found on the same tree or on different trees? Take one of the white pyramidal blossom clusters; look at one of these flowers with a lens and describe its sepals and petals. How many anthers has it and where are they? This is a pollen-bearing flower and has no pistil. How are its tiny staminate flowers arranged on the stem to give the beautiful pyramid shape? This kind of flower cluster is called a panicle.

8. Take one of the green bobs and see if it is made up of little round flowers. Through a lens study one of these. How many sepals? How many petals? Describe the middle of the flower around which the petals and sepals clasp. Is this the ovary, or seed box? Can you see the stigmas protruding beyond it? What insects visit these flowers?

9. How can you tell the velvet or staghorn sumac from the smooth sumac? How can you tell both of these from the poison sumac?

10. To what uses are the sumacs put?

"I see the partridges feed quite extensively upon the sumach berries, at my old house. They come to them after every snow, making fresh tracks, and have now stripped many bushes quite bare."

—Thoreau's Journal, Feb. 4, 1856.

 Table of Contents  |  Index  |  Home  | Previous: The Flowering Dogwood  |  Next: The Witch-Hazel
Copyright (c) 2005 - 2020   Yesterday's Classics, LLC. All Rights Reserved.