Posted by: Memorizing Nature | October 17, 2010

Never Seen It

One day in Grade 5, our teacher asked us, as an assignment, to bring in the leaf of a staghorn sumac for the next science class. We were studying plants. It was autumn, the beginning of the school year. This teacher was new to the school, and the assignment was kind of weird, much too interactive you could say.      

Staghorn sumach – never seen it, never heard of it. Must be rare. Remember, in those days, there was no internet. Research was time-consuming and pretty inconvenient. Libraries had minimal hours. Plus, Happy Days was on that night. Were we getting marked for this? Not likely.

"It is peaceful in this place of spotty shade. I smell bees." (Photo by E. Medline)

The next day, our teacher was more surprised than disappointed – not a single student had produced the designated leaf.  A lecture followed.  

Staghorn sumac is all around you, she told us. Open your eyes, she cried. Calm down, we thought. You’re losing your mind over these sumacs.  The fruit are red and noticeable, she informed us, rusty fuzzy bobs. This time of year, the leaves are turning red too. Well, so are maple leaves, we thought. Why couldn’t she have asked for a maple leaf? You can’t miss them, she sighed. The shrubs actually look like miniature palms.

She was silent for a moment, debating whether to continue educating us or give up. She decided on the latter. Open your textbooks to page 26. Photosynthesis. . .  

Then it was recess. We headed out to the pavement and played four square (a playground ball game, not the social networking site). As we smacked the ball from square to square, sweaty in our woolen kneesocks, I noticed bushes lining the fences surrounding us. Oh, crap. She couldn’t have been right. Tons of this sumac stuff, all over the place.

The bell rang. The other girls lined up in their uniforms to head back inside.

Meantime, I made a dash for the edge of the playground, stuck a hand through the wire, and touched one branch of a staghorn sumac. It was soft like felt. The fruit, or were they flowers – who could tell the difference – were obvious big hairy clumps. I snapped off a leaf, thinner and longer than a maple leaf, and hid it in my tunic pocket. Later, when no one was looking, I placed it on the teacher’s desk, like it was an apple.  (Or was it another student who did that? My role in all of this is unclear.)   

"The fruit are red and noticeable, she informed us, rusty fuzzy bobs." (Photo by E. Medline)

Many years later, and there is a meadow below our house where a grove of staghorn sumac grows. Just before dawn, I hear a rustling. I venture down below the fronds, and see that the ground is trampled. Who was there? Deer? It is peaceful in this place of spotty shade. A bird’s nest rests in the apex of branches. I smell bees. Miniature palm-like trees everywhere, boasting bright drupes, and no one notices them. Irrelevant decoration on the edge of a forest.   

There must have been a time when this small tree was revered. At the very least, there must have been a time when people knew its name.


Be sure to check out flowers from around the world in Today’s Flowers



  1. lovely post, its amazing what’s out there if we open our eyes. It’s amazing too how many people have their eyes shut most of the time

  2. Oh so beautiful!

    Flower shots

  3. When we were driving along the highway from Toronto to Ottawa on Thanksgiving weekend the reddest of plants was the sumac – everywhere. They hide green all summer and then suddenly appear in the fall. I’ve always loved their colour.

    • Thanks Elaine – it is a stunning fall tree and that’s a great story – I can’t believe you can recall a class about it. I wasn’t there yet so no idea what teacher 🙂 Grade 6 didn’t have anything so complicated – except I remember Mrs Muir asking us to compose a song. That was frightening.

      I remember the park in Banbury was always filled with sumacs and when I was young I thought they were odd – almost foreign looking. Now I agree they are beautiful.

  4. It;s amazing that staghorn sumac (and other sumacs) are considered “weed” species by many, including landscape designers.

    Not only is the shrub breath takingly beautiful in autumn, it has many uses, including but not limited to, staghorn sumac tea, a wonderful summer refreshment unique to those areas sumac inhabits.

    Nice post. Enjoyed it. I did a piece on staghorn sumac not to long ago.

  5. Thanks for the post. You must have taught Jon well because one of the trees our kids can recognize is the sumac. They do turn such a lovely colour, as your gorgeous photos show.

  6. I remember the projects we had to do in fall in elementary school on trees and we would go out and collect leaves, maple leaves, oak leaves but never sumac leaves and yet you are right, they are all around us and such an amazing shade of red right now!

  7. Ah, sumac! I was unaware of it except when I noticed the stunning red setting off the purple asters in the fall. But when I started working on my wildlife habitat it was one of the trees that the Conservation Dept. suggested as a good food source for birds, so I put a few in on the back line of the property. Now I have a whole grove and they are bright red right now. Just lovely.

    Like this post. Lovely.

  8. As a teacher and a fellow lover-of-sumac, this post delighted me. I’m brand new to your blog, but I can tell it’s right up my alley and I’m sure I’ll stop back soon. Thanks for sharing this memory and crafting it in such an entertaining, telling way. Cheers!

  9. Lovely post..I ll be sure to spot out for sumac.

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