I hoped to offer a recipe for sumac meringue pie this month, but the timing wasn’t right.
Original people enjoyed staghorn sumac for time out of mind. They taught us helpless conquerors about local foods, including sumac. Sumac makes a pretty pink drink, like lemonade; but it has gone out of style, and many people, lacking knowledge of wild plants, are appropriately scared of wild foods.
Staghorn sumac is easily identified by cone-shaped red berry bunches. There are two related plants, poison sumac, and poison ivy. Poison sumac has white berries, in loose, flattish umbels. Poison ivy lacks the tree-like form and long, compound leaves of staghorn sumac.
Nothing else growing around here looks like staghorn sumac. You are familiar with roadside groups of 5- to 10-foot-tall trees or shrubs topped with big, red sort-of cone-shaped berry clusters. (I avoid roadside plants bathed in auto exhaust.) The fuzzy red clusters grow on the tips of fuzzy branches that curve upward like the tines of deer antlers. But the antler appearance is mostly hidden now, by 1- to 2-foot-long compound leaves composed of as many as 15 pairs of slender, pointed leaves. Male, pollen-bearing flowers open while the young female flowers are still pink.
Last week I picked a staghorn berry cluster, but found it still immature, only about 5 inches long, and with some greenish berries on the shady side. I put it in a glass of water and rubbed it hard to let out some juice. After several hours, I rubbed again, and strained the juice through a coffee filter to remove the little hairs and berry fragments.
Pale pink, it was pretty dilute, but it had the lemon-like sumac flavor. For stronger drink, use more water with as many clusters as it takes to get the flavor you are after. Just wring out the used berries and drop in a fresh bunch.
But here is the problem. At some point, I’m not sure when, some sort of insects beat me to the sumac. Inside the pretty red clusters are brown bug droppings and berry fragments called “frass.” You can buy it at Amazon for fertilizer! Really! So stay tuned. If I can beat the bugs to mature berries, I’ll make a sumac meringue pie and offer the recipe.
The bird chorus is tapering off. Some bird parents are still feeding young; but most have started recovering from the hard work of parenting. Even the robin I named “Putin” has finally run out of territorial aggression: he’s no longer fighting his reflection in the windows.
If you saw the photo of a thin, bedraggled female downy woodpecker in the July column, you can guess that it’s time for adult birds to molt their worn-out spring finery. Some, like the downy woodpecker and cardinal, just replace worn feathers with fresh new ones of the same colors. But goldfinches and others, change into less conspicuous plumage.
Goldfinches don’t nest until mid to late summer, perhaps to time chick fledging until plenty of seeds are available. I’m already seeing males with dusky-olive smudges, as they molt the gold in exchange for safer, less conspicuous colors. The female does all the incubating; and, charmingly, the male feeds her as she sets. Both parents feed the nestlings.
The hay was left uncut long enough for bobolinks to fledge their young. One morning there was a great kerfuffle at the edge of the marsh. I imagined that the local red-tailed hawk was going for a fat, young red-winged blackbird for lunch. But binoculars disclosed a troop of newly fledged bobolinks who fluttered down the field, probably aided by the slope and the usual southwest wind.
The red-winged blackbirds, still caring for their fledglings in the marsh, met the innocent invasion and drove them back up the hill. Incensed bobolink adults flitted in and out of the melee, yelling bobolink rage. Life is not always peaceful in the country.
I wrote in a recent column that fledgling hummingbirds can be differentiated from adult females by their shorter bills. Then I read in a reasonably reliable source that their bills were full length when they left the nest. So I planned a correction in this column – until two female colored birds with short bills arrived at the feeder. So some fledglings have shorter bills than adults.
That’s how science works. We accept what seems like the best theory until new evidence suggests a better theory. Thank goodness, it is now accepted fact that vaccination inhibits the spread of COVID-19, and that we are clearly responsible for climate change.
(Nancy Holmes prowled Linekin Neck in Boothbay as a child, then an Illinois bottomland while earning a master’s degree in wildlife management. Once back in Maine, she raised children and kept assorted animals, wild and domestic. She and her Carolina dog roam their woods in Newcastle. Write to Holmes at firstname.lastname@example.org.)