Northland Nature: Sumac berries cling to life on trees
Retired teacher Larry Weber, of Barnum, is the author of “Butterflies of the North Woods" and “Spiders of the North Woods," among other books. Reach him via Katie Rohman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By the end of February, sunrise is before 7 a.m., setting near 6 p.m., giving 11 hours of daylight. This lengthening continues to rapidly expand as we move toward the vernal equinox of March 20, the first day of spring.
There are many responses to these longer days in the Northland. Some early migrants, mainly crows and eagles, are present. Owls call more often as their night hours get shorter. Birds at the feeder get restless and we hear calls from chickadees, nuthatches and various finches.
The breeding season for mammals continues. Squirrels, rabbits and mice will soon be giving birth. We might see (or otherwise notice) the presence of waking skunks, raccoons or chipmunks.
As more sunlight each day penetrates the forest, trees absorb this warm light and reradiate it back out from their trunks to melt nearby snow. Many trees now wear circles around their base. On south-facing hillsides and walls of buildings, we see snow melting and perhaps movement of small critters that wintered here: ants, flies and spiders.
But I find that it is the trees, mostly small ones, that weathered the winter and now respond to the longer days as they reach toward spring. Various willows take on colors of yellow and red in their extended branches. Red-osier dogwood lives up to its name. The entire plant, all branches above the ground, becomes a bright red. A thick growth of these small trees is hard to miss at this time.
Some of us search for another willow, the pussy willow, in late winter to find the fuzzy buds opening. Many Northland homes may hold twigs of this small willow as a treatment for spring fever. Higher up, we can see similar looking furry buds on twigs of quaking aspens. Both these willow and aspen buds will later become catkins during the coming spring.
As I was looking at these springing trees along a roadside recently, I noticed a group (clone) of another small tree that showed up clearly as well. These did not have buds opening to welcome the coming of spring, but instead held clusters of fruits and seeds still on the trees from last summer. These small trees, sumacs, were also next to the road at the edge of the woods.
In our area, there are two kinds of sumacs: staghorn and smooth. Staghorn sumac gets its name from the hair-like growths on the twigs, resembling the velvet on antlers. Smooth sumac does not have such a growth. Both grow in the open areas where they can get enough sunlight. This is usually at the margin of the forests; roadsides work just fine. The road where I found these had many sumacs along the north side (facing south), while none were seen along the south side of the road.
Sumacs respond to the coming spring more slowly and maybe do not get foliage until about June. Also of note, they are one of the earliest trees to drop leaves, often after being bright red, in September. During the summer, clusters of greenish-yellow flowers form compact groups of hairy red fruits. Being drupes, they have a hard seed in the center.
With little material to eat, birds take few of these lemon-tasting berries. And so, they tend to last long on the trees, often throughout winter. It’s been many months since these fruits were formed, but they will likely still be here more months.
Although not eaten often by the local fauna, they do get used. Small critters, like insects and spiders, will take shelter in these clusters since they are here all winter.