“Love winter when the plant says nothing,” mystic and poet Thomas Merton wrote in his poem of the same name. Those of us who do love the silence and tranquility of the colder months may not demand or expect a lot of drama from the natural world in winter, but we can nonetheless find bursts of color and signs of potential life even at this time of year.
The most obvious example: berries. Lots and lots of berries. As I look around my own yard, for example, I find Indian currant berries, possumhaw berries, and evergreen sumac berries. Although the first plant, better known as coralberry, isn’t found in our natural areas, the latter two are.
Evergreen sumac, in particular, is noticeable along certain trails. A shrub or small tree, usually reaching no more than 12 feet, this species is desirable for many reasons. Though it can become a sprawling, unwieldy plant, evergreen sumac makes a very attractive landscape tree if carefully pruned. Left alone, it makes a good screen planting and a fine shelter for birds.
Like the live oak, evergreen sumac is not truly evergreen, losing its leaves in spring but quickly replacing them. That said, the tree is a nice source of green during the winter. Female trees will bloom in late summer, attracting hosts of bees and other pollinators, with the fuzzy red berries becoming ripe in the fall. The fruit typically remains on the tree through at least part of the winter, during which time it becomes a buffet for birds.
Other pluses: Evergreen sumac will grow in sun or light shade. It’s disease- and drought-resistant. It’s fast growing. And it propagates very easily. Its only requirement is well-draining soil.
For all of these reasons, evergreen sumac is a tree that SMGA would like to see more of in our natural areas. If you’re lucky enough to have one of these trees in your home landscape, and are willing to share, you can help in this effort by gathering berries from your trees and passing them on to Team Flora. Just be sure to place them in a paper bag or envelope. At our house, we’re fortunate to have a large tree next to our driveway, which means we’re able to simply sweep up berries as they fall. By this point, they’re typically dry and easily collected.
Most sources, including Jill Nokes, author of How to Grow Native Plants of Texas and the Southwest, recommend treating the seed before planting. This can be done by running the seeds through the blender for just a moment, rubbing sandpaper across them, or soaking them in hot water, after which the seeds must be planted immediately. The object of scarification is simply to rub off a bit of the seeds’ outer surface in order to allow water in. A helpful video:
Don’t forget that mountain laurel seeds can also be collected at this time of year. Mountain laurel pods frequently fall from the trees after a cold front accompanied by rain and heavy wind. Pods already on the ground are gradually broken open by water and foot traffic. While the brown pods are well-camouflaged, the red seeds are hard to miss. These should also be stored in a paper bag until passed on to Team Flora, which is headed by Lance Jones ([email protected]).
Written by Susan Hanson, SMGA board member and chair of the Outreach Committee