It’s easy to assume trees have a natural hierarchy, with towering sequoias and oaks at the top, sugar maples and hemlocks in the middle, and jack pine and willows at the bottom. Part of this is time and size - by most any measure something as massive, ancient and rare as a redwood has more value than one of the ubiquitous poplars that spring up beside the driveway overnight. But taken too far this perspective can be corrosive to both places and species. If only the rarest and most impressive features of a landscape or members of an ecosystem are venerated, beauty and uses that are small, subtle, and everyday go neglected.
This line of thinking has me considering the staghorn sumac that lines the creek bisecting my farm. Because it can spread rhizomatically, it has formed colonies that reach down to the edge of the water and creep towards the barn if I don’t mow them every once in a while. The trunks never get big enough to do much with, and while the crimson fruiting clusters are striking, they are offset by the tree’s gangly, disorganized growth pattern. It is a great plant for kids. They can wriggle into a grove in pursuit of grasshoppers, and thinner stems make perfect wands or spears. My daughter picked some berries and soaked them to make a tart sumac-ade.
If not so striking as a forest of maples turned blazing orange in the autumn or the sunrise on a misty morning (let alone General Sherman or the Grand Canyon) a dense clump of sumac looks unlike anything else growing in central New York. On a hot afternoon at the end of summer, when the air is still and humid, it forms a wall beside a torpid stream that creates an almost tropical scene, with overlapping compound leaves punctuated by pyramidal clusters of berries. I can walk right past without stopping to notice it, or I can pause for a moment and appreciate the fact that something so particular stands where nothing has to.