I have a complicated relationship with smooth sumac. It’s a native prairie shrub and a long-term and important member of the grassland plant community. On the other hand, it is often more abundant than I’d like, especially in smaller prairie fragments – altering habitat structure, shading out other plants, and offering protective and nurturing conditions for encroaching trees. I don’t want to eradicate smooth sumac, but it can spread over large areas, and seems to be getting better at doing so as the climate changes.
In the fall, however, my relationship with smooth sumac gets a lot rosier. I can’t think of any prairie plants that have a more striking autumn plumage, especially against a backdrop of golden grasses. Photographing sumac leaves in the fall has become an annual tradition for me – one I very much enjoy. The only problem is that I’m constantly trying to find new ways to photograph this plant, for which I already have a big library of images. This year, I focused on a couple plants that leaves that weren’t just uniformly red. One of those plants had leaves that seemed to be in various stages of their green to red transformation, and the other had patterns I can’t explain, but am very much entranced by.
As soon as sumac drops its leaves our relationship will deteriorate again. I’ll look upon the same plants I photographed this week with a sharp and wary eye, watching closely to see if they are trying to take over one of my favorite prairies. For now, though, they sure are pretty, aren’t they?