Photo of the Week – October 11, 2018

Smooth sumac (Rhus glabra).  Lincoln Creek Prairie, Aurora, Nebraska.

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.

These variegated leaves stood out among others in a small sumac patch, caught in the middle of their color transformation from green to red.
This is a closeup of the above leaf/leaflets.
I have no idea why these leaflets had these magnificent patterns, but I sure like ’em.
Again, a closer view of the same leaflets.

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?

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.

3 thoughts on “Photo of the Week – October 11, 2018

  1. The photos are interesting: especially the last two. I don’t remember seeing such a vibrant purple on sumac. It’s beautiful.

    The most interesting sumac I’ve seen was at the Diamond Grove prairie south of Joplin, Missouri. I was there in the fall, and the mima mounds were covered with it. The scarlet mounds scattered around the prairie were so attractive.

  2. The fall color in your area is further along than where I live. This is somewhat surprising since things at the Platt River Prairies grow and flower earlier in spring than in my location. I would think your longer growing season would result in a later fall. The drier conditions in your neck of the prairie must bring larger swings in temperature which cause fall color changes to occur earlier.

    The below link has a photo of two of my favorite prairie grasses for fall color. Unfortunately, this color has not yet fully developed so you will have to use your imagination.


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