The Female in Winter: Staghorn Sumac

There are not many seeds or fruits still hanging on in January and February on the trees and shrubs in Eliza Howell Park. They can, however, still be found on staghorn sumac in deep winter.


When I see “her” during my winter walks in the park, I am aware that “he” does not have anything much to show at this time of the year. Staghorn sumac is one of the few plant species that develop female and male flowers on completely different plants (“dioecious”); some plants are male and some are female.

Perhaps the best known dioecious plant is cannabis, an annual. In the case of cannabis, male plants are usually discarded because pollination is unwelcome; the unpollinated flowers of the female pants are considered the best part of the plant for psychoactive effect (according to what I read).

In our Detroit neighborhood, a good example of a dioecious tree is ginkgo, which has been planted as a shade tree along certain streets. In planting ginkgos, the females are not usually as welcome as the males because the female’s abundant fruit falls on sidewalks and produces an unpleasant smell when stepped on.

About the beginning of June in Eliza Howell, the sumac flowers develop on separate shrubs, the female on the left in the photo and the male on the right.


Though they were put together here for easier comparison, I do not usually find the female and male plants in close proximity. Staghorn sumac can grow from seed, of course, but it typically spreads by underground shoots (rhizomes). As a result, a clump of sumac is usually made up of plants all of the same sex; it is not really a clump, in fact, but parts of the same plant.

The quite large clump/plant along the nature trail that I observe most frequently is female, some meters away from the nearest male that I am aware of. Sumac depends upon insects, like bees, for pollination over such distances.

The male flowers do not last long. By late June, they are beginning to fade while the females (again on the left in the photo) are just beginning to turn the red that will persevere for many months.


For the next 6 months, the flowers and seed clusters stand out.

This picture is from the middle of July.


While birds eat the seeds, they seem to do so very late in the winter, after most of the other fruit in the park is gone. This picture was taken in the middle of December.


In many bird species, though not all, males are more colorful and attention-getting than females.

In the case of staghorn sumac, however, my attention is fully on the female for most of the year and only very briefly do I follow the male. She is there, standing proud, in the coldest part of winter.

The Calendar Says Spring

March 21, 2018 (Walk # 1061)

This was my first walk after the vernal equinox and I was looking for signs of spring. I found a few, but winter is not over. A few observations from today:

The river water level is quite low for March. I use the extent of visible sycamore tree roots on the right for comparison purposes.


One advantage to the nature walker of the lower water level is that there is more mud along the river edge, the area between the sides of the bank and the water. More mud means more mammal tracks and, at least for me, tracks in mud are usually easier to read than tracks in snow.

Here is an example.


I circled two obviously different tracks here. The one in purple is typical of a raccoon and the one in red was made by a canine, probably a coyote.


Robins are abundant in the park now and, in this time between winter and spring, are exhibiting both winter and spring behaviors. Many are feeding on the ground, but others are still foraging for fruit and seeds, as they do in winter.

I posted about sumac seed clusters last December, about how long they persist. Some of last year’s seeds are still present now and today both chickadees and robins were feeding on them.


The number of bird species seen today – 18 – is the highest so far in 2018. A couple of these are winter visitors that have not yet returned north: Dark-eyed Juncos and American Tree Sparrow.

There are a few signs of spring. Some birds are pairing off, preparatory to breeding season. One Downy Woodpecker now usually means another is very close nearby. Canada Goose is one of the earliest birds to nest along the Rouge River and this pair appears to be getting in the mood.



While the park still has the brown winter look, it is possible to find a little bit of new green. As in home gardens, the first plants to emerge from the ground are those that grow from bulbs or rhizomes. I was pleased to see that a native species of marsh iris is back again this year.


Today’s observations indicate that this March is both colder and drier than normal. I anticipate rapid changes in the park as the weather warms.

Persistent Sumac Seed Clusters

Staghorn sumac is an attention grabber from July right through the winter. In the summer, the large red fruit cluster is already present; in the fall the leaves are a brilliant red well before the leaves turn on most other trees; in winter, the fruit clusters hang on when very little fruit remains on other trees in the park, providing sustenance both for birds and bird watchers on cold days.

Now, in early December, the robins that seem to have a particular sequence of moving from one type of berry to the next have arrived at the sumac in significant numbers. This is what they see up close.


Each of the little fuzzy fruits contains just one seed and the full cluster may contain as many as 700 seeds. The seed clusters grow at the end of stems on the deciduous shrubs or small trees, which may grow to some 20 feet. The plants grow in colonies or thickets and, in Eliza Howell, there is a grouping along the nature path leading to the river from the car loop.

The seed clusters grow in early summer, clearly noticeable by the fourth of July.

20171211_111502          July 5, 2017

Staghorn sumac got the name “staghorn” from the velvety covering of bare twigs in winter, which suggested (to someone) the velvet on new antlers. They have crooked, leaning trunks and large leaves. Some plants are male and some female; only female trees produce flowers and berries. The colony along the nature path is made up of female plants.

The fruit is edible and is used by some people to make a drink, which is compared to lemonade. Others dry and grind the fruit to use as a spice. The fruit is ready for human harvesting, should one want to do so, in late August or so. A variety of wildlife harvest the fruit later, often over the winter.

20170831_112149           August 31, 2017

In September and October, the attractive red of the seed clusters is nearly overwhelmed by the brighter red of the leaves.


20170914_091435 (1)        September 1 4, 2017

20171024_092224 (2)      October, 24, 2017

By the time December and the first snows come, the leaves are long gone and wildlife has begun to forage on the persistently standing seed clusters.

20171209_112321     December 9, 2017