Mysterious fires appear on area roadsides

ESCANABA – A mysterious pyromaniac has set the roadside on fire!

Red flames leap up from the sand and gravel to about 10 feet high up into the autumn blue sky.

For so many months this ditch alongside the road was so plain and boring. Who set it ablaze with color?

All summer long, colonies of a bizarre looking trees thrived in this abandoned field. Kind of tropical in appearance with large leaves and umbrella like crowns, this large shrub just did not look like a native Yooper plant.

Everybody except the cottontail rabbits avoided this strange little patch of woods.

To make matters worse, the odd ball tree grew fuzzy twigs that looked like a deer’s antler in velvet. As the summer progressed, it sprouted cone shaped clusters of what looked like red carpeting. And finally, when the autumn nights grew cold, the crazy tree turned from green to crimson.

The tree I am describing is the staghorn sumac – not to be confused with poison sumac. Staghorn sumac is a native tree of the cashew family that is found in the northern United States and in Canada. They grow in groups (really one plant that sends off many rhizomes that produce small shrubs) in dry open areas.

Most people stay away from sumac trees because they think that they are poison sumac trees that cause a horrible rash like poison ivy.

Poison sumac is not found in northern Michigan. It grows in swamps and peat bogs of the eastern United States and looks quite a bit different from our staghorn sumac.

When we were kids, the side roads between north Escanaba and Wells were full of sumac. We had a nickname for the plant “vinegar tree” (because of the tart acidic berries). The red berry clusters were fun to sa-mack a brother over the head with.

I’ve learned that the Native Americans made a tea from the sumac berries. It was a great source of vitamin C. Often it was referred to as Indian lemonade. They also used the plant’s roots and bark for medicinal purposes.

Today, homemade sumac wine is getting to be a popular thing.

Staghorn sumac benefits wildlife, too. Besides providing cover, birds – especially grouse and pheasants – love the ripe seed clusters. Rabbits, hares and squirrels will often eat the tender bark of this tree.

My favorite part of this unique tree is how it changes into a sea of red tongues of fire in the fall. Its long pointed leaves take on a uniform red before falling to the ground.

Fall is the fire starter. Enjoy the crisp crimson show!

Karen (Rose) Wils is a lifelong resident of north Escanaba. Her folksy columns are published each week in lifestyles.