By Joe Reynolds
New York Harbor Nature Blog
This time of year, the coast is not where numerous people visit to see magnificent fall foliage. And for good reason. Unlike many inland places, a beach around New York or New Jersey frequently does not have a variety or abundance of maples, beeches, birches, or other trees that provide leaves with impressive autumn color.
Yet, the one exception would be sumac, a member of the cashew family. There are several varieties commonly found around New York Harbor:
Don’t worry, these are not poison sumac. There are around 250 different plants in the genus Rhus, and poison sumac (Rhus vernix) is rarely encountered. Poison sumac is often discovered as a small, straggly tree or shrub in shaded wooded swamps, bogs or wet woods, not near sandy beaches. Poison sumac has white berries and common species of sumac to NY Harbor have red berries.
Together, winged, staghorn and smooth sumacs prefer to grow in sunny open areas. These are tough plants, perfect for the harsh sandy dune environment near a coastline.
These small trees or shrubs provide pleasant fall foliage. Rich green leaves during the summer turn a bright red or orange with autumn winds. Even the plant’s fruit gets into the action. Berries become clusters of bright red cones, called a pancile, and are ripe for picking. Back in the day, Native American Indians of the Northeast made a tart lemonade-like drink from the fruit. It must have been a real treat from just drinking water or tea nearly all the time. Native people might also have mixed dried sumac leaves with tobacco to smoke in their pipes.
Several species of sumacs are native to southern Canada and the Eastern United States. I find there is an abundant population growing all around New York Harbor, especially at Sandy Hook NRA. They make excellent windbreakers and help with erosion control, important natural tools to protect an ever-changeable shoreline.
But the benefits do not stop here. The berries from sumac also help to supply food for wild birds, including robins, bluebirds, mocking birds, waxwings, yellow-rumped warblers, and various other species that eat berries in the winter.
Be alert of poison sumac, but don’t be afraid of all plants with the word "sumac." Winged, staghorn and other species of sumac are not poisonous and provides beautiful autumn color along the coast.
STOP THE WILLIAMS FRACKED GAS PIPELINE THROUGH NY HARBOR!
MY TOP 5 FAVORITE BOOKS ABOUT NY HARBOR
1. Field Guide to the Neighborhood Birds of New York City by Leslie Day
2.Heartbeats in the Muck by John Waldman
3. The Fisheries of Raritan Bay by Clyde L. MacKenzie Jr.
4. Waterfront: A Walk Around Manhattan by Phillip Lopate
5. The Bottom of the Harbor by Joseph Mitchell