Updated: Apr 29, 2022
The time of year for the sumac and aspen battle is here. Call it the Battle of the Clones. On June 22 the first engagement began as a team marched onto Mathy prairie prepared to liberate the prairie plants from the shade of a large clone of sumac that was taking over. Since then two neighboring prairies, Lookout and Zoerb have also had their first cuttings, with aspen included on Zoerb. The first of a “double cut”, this cutting will be followed with a second one in about one month. Think of being on the dance floor and doing the “two step” with each step a month apart as you glide nimbly 1, 2, 3 across the three prairies all the while trying to avoid stepping on your partner’s toes or trampling too much on the rich array of flowering forbes and grasses. Hopefully this will keep the clone at bay and allow the prairies to thrive. This year is the third thorough cutting on Zoerb, the second on Lookout, and the first on Mathy. It was nice to see that Zoerb had comparatively little sumac, showing that the double cut method is working, all without the use of herbicide!
There are two species of sumac in Wisconsin that commonly invade prairies, smooth (Rhus glabra) and staghorn (Rhus typhina). Both are native and give our roadways and hillsides a brilliant display of crimson red in early fall. They also provide food for many native insects and birds. But on remnant prairies these two common sumacs can be a real nuisance, especially smooth sumac, forming clones that take over. Staghorn sumac gets its name from the fuzzy twigs that look like the velvet on the horns of a buck. Smooth sumac has smooth twigs without the fuzz. Another one, poison sumac, is actually in a different genus (Toxicodencron). It is found in wet habitats and is rarely encountered. When it is, it can cause a bad rash like poison ivy. Smooth and staghorn sumac do not cause a rash. Many other sumac species exist, including natives and nonnative, but these are rarely a problem on prairies.
New plants can also start by seed. This seems to be most common on bare areas such as where brush piles have been burned. These are easily removed by pulling since they are not yet connected to other plants through a root system.
Some foragers like to make a drink high in vitamin C from staghorn or smooth sumac by placing one to two cups of berries into a quart of cold water, gently squeezing them to release the juices, then letting them soak overnight. The next day, strain the mixture through a coffee filter, sweeten as desired, and enjoy a refreshing, nutritious beverage!