- Written by Clyde McMillan-Gamber Clyde McMillan-Gamber
Pokeweed and staghorn sumac trees are plants that have red foliage in September and October.
Both these species, which are striking in fall, are native to the northeastern United States and have adapted to farmland hedgerows, woodland edges, and country roadsides where sunlight is abundant.
These two plants, and other kinds of vegetation, help make those sunny, human-made habitats more beautiful in autumn.
Poke is a perennial plant that sprouts in May and rapidly grows, bush-like, up to 6 feet or more. Poke produces tiny white blossoms in elongated clusters on each of its several drooping flower stems. When pollinated, those blooms produce green berries that become juicy and deep purple by late summer.
In fall, the large leaves; thick, branching stems; and slender flower stems of pokeweed become red. Those red parts and the deep-purple berries drooping from their stems create lovely plants, readily seen from country roads.
Staghorn sumacs are small trees that help pioneer soil that has been burned over or otherwise disturbed and abandoned. They provide food and shelter for wildlife and help hold down soil against flooding until other kinds of trees take root.
Each leaf of sumacs has several leaflets. In autumn, their pretty red leaves flutter like banners in the wind, adding more beauty to the countryside.
By fall, too, sumacs have clusters of fuzzy red berries on the tips of their twigs, which add more beauty to those trees. Each berry cluster is shaped like a cone pointing up.
The red foliage of these plants is most striking when seen with sunlight behind it. The leaves seem to glow beautifully from within, adding more radiance to weeds, hay, and harvested cornfields.
Field mice and certain berry-eating birds, including cedar waxwings, starlings, American robins, eastern bluebirds, and other kinds, add the berries of poke and sumacs to their fall and winter menus. Those pretty birds digest the pulp of the berries but pass many of the seeds far and wide as they travel about.
Poke and sumac grow abundantly from seeds dropped in sunny, forgotten habitats in farmland. Eventually, they produce their own seeds, many of which are ingested by mice and birds.
Some of the mice become part of several food chains. They are the prey of red foxes, eastern coyotes, long-tailed weasels, American kestrels, screech owls, and other kinds of predators the year around.
By late autumn, poke leaves fall off their stems, but many of those stems are still standing like skeletons. And some of their now-dried berries still cling to their slender stems.
Sumacs are bare and gaunt through winter. But they still hold their lovely berries on top of their limbs, adding a bit of color to the gray winter scene.
When along rural roads this fall, watch for the striking colored foliage of pokeweed and staghorn sumac. They both help make those roadsides more attractive and intriguing in themselves and in drawing the birds that consume their many lovely berries.
Clyde McMillan-Gamber is a retired Lancaster County Parks naturalist. Check out his blog at natureswondersbyclyde.blogspot.com.