Flora Fact: Leaves of Fire:
The Texas sumac puts on a dazzling show in the fall - and its berries make a tasty beverage.
By Sheryl Smith-Rodgers
Move over, maples. Texas sumacs (Rhus lanceolata) do a mighty fine job of producing spectacular fall foliage, too.
Also called prairie flameleaf sumac – one of seven Texas sumac species – it turns blazing red and orange with cooler temperatures or extreme drought. A common sight in Central Texas, they also inhabit the dry, rocky soils of Trans-Pecos mountain ranges, the Palo Duro Canyon, and areas north of the Balcones Escarpment. Fast growers and drought-tolerant, they spread by suckers and can reach up to 30 feet high.
In late summer, tiny cream-colored flowers bloom in large clusters (panicles) on branch tips. Their dark red-brown berries (drupes) attract quail, prairie-chicken, ring-necked pheasants and other birds. White-tailed deer and mule deer munch on the leaves, which contain tannic acid used for tanning leather.
Jean Nance, a master naturalist in Leander, likes to pop berries into her mouth and suck them. After giving fall nature walks at the Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge, she serves hikers with cups of tasty sumac-ade, using a recipe found in Edible and Useful Plants of Texas and the Southwest.
"Sumac fruit has the same malic acid as apples, so the taste is familiar – tart yet sweet," she says. "You can make it stronger or weaker, depending on how many berries you use. And I definitely advise using a cheesecloth for straining, like author Delena Tull recommends, because it's a pain to get all the seeds and twigs out of the liquid."
Caution: The leaves and fruit of sumac – a relative of cashews, mangoes and poison ivy – can trigger an allergic reaction in some people. Also, steer clear of cream-colored berries produced by poison sumac (Toxicodendron vernix).