Another error of common naming

A common tree/shrub in North America is the Sumac, around here mostly the Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina), athough there are several other species in the genus. A good row of them grow along the boundary of the Garden at Fritz where I volunteer every summer and shelter the rabbits that try to eat our beans. It is attractive and beneficial. To quote from a summary by the Canadian Wildlife Federation “Birds such as evening grosbeaks, northern cardinals and ruffed grouse will eat sumac berries in winter and early spring, but often as a last resort. Mammals also make use of this shrub as rabbits, moose and deer browse on the leaves and twigs. Some butterflies use this plant as food for their young, and sumacs provide nectar for bees and other beneficial insects while providing great shelter for many more wild creatures. Humans have enjoyed sumac berries, which have a zingy lemon taste when picked at their peak, typically in late summer or early fall.” So, it’s generally a good thing to have around just so long as its powerful roots don’t get into your underground pipes. In the photo above it’s the plant at the back with the red flowers.

Then there is “Poison Sumac” (Toxicodendron vernix) that secretes a resin containing urushiol which is the same nasty stuff found in poison ivy and a few other plants. It grows in swampy habitats, it’s a much larger tree and it doesn’t grow anywhere near Quebec.

Trouble is that they are both, in common nomenclature, called Sumacs. Much the same as the American Robin is called a Robin despite being taxonomically a Thrush. I have recently been asked by a couple of people near the Fritz Garden about the poisonous character of the Sumac that shelters us and “why don’t we dig it out?” They also try to make sure we don’t get too close to it and once wondered if it would make our vegetables toxic. There is a vague similarity to the structure of the leaves I suppose, though not if you spend even a minute comparing them closely, but they are quite different creatures. The similar name though leads people to assume they share the same properties. They don’t.

Hence while common nomenclature has it that they are both Sumacs, they cannot in fact be so. Ours is a friend to all and nobody needs to fear that the plants we have will do them any harm whatsoever. In the more southerly parts of the US it is also known as Thunderwood, perhaps if everyone used that as the common name there would be no confusion/