Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Prairie flameleaf sumac flamed out with respect to fall foliage this year.

with 46 comments

2018 wasn’t a good year for colorful fall foliage from prairie flameleaf sumac (Rhus lanceolata), of which I’ve shown you many good examples in other years (for example in 2012 and in 2015). However, I did find a few small instances of bright leaves from that species this year. The one that you see in the first photograph came my way on November 26th as I drove down (literally) Ladera Norte and quickly pulled over to record the bright color I’d glimpsed in the leaflets of a sapling. Even at so young an age it knew how to turn colors.

I’d found the other example of flaming flameleaf sumac much earlier, before you’d normally expect it, along a path on the southwestern edge of my Great Hills neighborhood. The date was October 4th, and a small portion of a full-grown tree had unexplainedly turned colors while all the other leaves were still green. Scrunching myself in behind the bright leaflets, I aimed outward to take advantage of the backlighting sun, grateful for how early these warm colors had begun.

Sometimes the minimalism of a single leaflet is the way to go, and so I went:

© 2018 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

December 27, 2018 at 4:56 AM

46 Responses

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  1. Sumac can grow fast and spread to overwhelm the area. Our sumacs are a deep shade of red.


    December 27, 2018 at 5:00 AM

    • I’ve seen some large clusters of sumac here, too. In terms of color, the leaves of ours vary, with red often a component.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 27, 2018 at 8:19 AM

  2. Even though I was housebound, I can say that 2018 was a foliage bust here in WMass. But I think your late summer and early winter flowers make up for your lack of sumac foliage.

    Steve Gingold

    December 27, 2018 at 5:26 AM

    • One of the early lessons I learned when I started photographing native plants is how different a species can look from one year to the next. I remember going back to a place where I’d found great wildflowers on the same date a year earlier and finding—nothing. While it’s true that our sumacs had a bad year for colorful fall foliage, some other species stepped in to fill the gap. And as you said, we still have a few wildflowers even now.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 27, 2018 at 8:25 AM

  3. The blackened edges really aid in the suggestion of self-immolation. It’s great to see the warm color in these shots, the fall foliage season was too brief this year.

    Robert Parker

    December 27, 2018 at 5:50 AM

    • Ah, so like Steve Gingold, you had non-spectacular fall foliage this year, unless it blazed during its brief period. Interesting that you saw the tips of the leaflets as little Brünnhildes.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 27, 2018 at 8:30 AM

  4. Great autumn pictures.


    December 27, 2018 at 6:44 AM

  5. Until I saw these photos and read your commentary, I hadn’t realized that I’ve seen no colorful sumac this year. That’s mostly due to my being stuck here on the coast, where it’s almost non-existent, so I called my friend in the hill country and asked how her sumac had performed. The word she chose to describe it was “blah.” Apparently non-glorious sumac was a thing this year.

    On the other hand, you should see the possumhaw down here. You may remember my gentle grumping the last couple of years about the lack of berries. This year, no matter which road you take or which direction you look, there they are, and they’re thick. I had no idea there were so many possumhaw trees around. As a special treat, I found my first bright orange one; I didn’t realize the native possumhaw also come in orange.


    December 27, 2018 at 9:05 AM

    • I’m not surprised you got confirmation from farther west on the Edwards Plateau that this was a blah year for flameleaf sumac. And to the contrary I’ll confirm that possumhaw is having a fine time here, as you say it is over by the coast. I’ve photographed several of them over the past month, including two more this morning. The yaupon trees are also doing well this season.

      In addition to orange possumhaw fruit, there’s occasionally a tree with yellow fruit, which is by far the least common color. I know I once photographed some but in checking just now I see that I never included it in a post.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 27, 2018 at 1:31 PM

  6. One of my favourite trees in Central Texas for that glorious fall colour. Coincidentally, just this year I noticed a little sapling growing next to an ageing (and declining) pecan in my front yard. I wasn’t sure what it was until this fall when the leaves seemed to catch fire: all red and bright orange. I hope they can be buddies for many years to come.

    Anima Monday

    December 27, 2018 at 10:27 AM

    • It’s one of my favorites too, even if it didn’t perform this year.

      I’ve heard of the buddy system; I’m glad to hear you’ve got it going in your yard between a pecan and a flameleaf sumac.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 27, 2018 at 1:35 PM

  7. Nice to see some colors!


    December 27, 2018 at 10:53 AM

    • Given the dates when I saw these, I’ll have to say you were experiencing grander color at that time than we were. That said, even in this last week of 2018 we have small isolated instances of leaves turning yellow, orange, and red.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 27, 2018 at 1:37 PM

  8. On the other hand, here on the coast (where I don’t think I’ve ever seen sumac) we had some glorious color from the big leaf maples and especially the vine maple this year. I think it’s the best color I’ve seen since I moved to the coast some 24 years ago.
    I like the isolated shot of the sumac with the sky for background, but I also like the textures of the rock/cliff and dry grasses behind your first image.


    December 27, 2018 at 2:39 PM

    • Steve Gingold reports poor fall foliage this year in Massachusetts, as far from me to the northeast as you are to the northwest. From what you say, that shift in direction made all the difference. I’m glad to hear it was the best color you’ve seen in your 24 years on the Oregon coast.

      I often try to photograph bright fall foliage against a clear sky to isolate it and of course to contrast the warm colors with the blue behind them. The first picture doesn’t please me as much esthetically but it serves as what I call an informational or documentary image, showing the environment in which the plant was growing.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 27, 2018 at 3:29 PM

  9. Nice Fall colors Steve! Almost looks like they are on fire!

    Reed Andariese

    December 27, 2018 at 5:19 PM

    • Not for nothing do people call this sumac “flameleaf.” It certainly kindles my photographic fire each fall.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 27, 2018 at 5:24 PM

  10. Your photos highlight the glory of the flameleaf sumac, Steve, a plant I am not familiar with. I’m glad you found it and pulled over.

    Jet Eliot

    December 27, 2018 at 7:46 PM

  11. The blue sky complements the orange wonderfully, Steve. The last photo resembles a flag flying at half-staff (I don’t think there is a purely orange flag among this planet’s countries).


    December 29, 2018 at 7:30 PM

    • I mentioned to someone here a few years ago that in the county I grew up in on Long Island the police cars in the late 1950s were painted two-tone orange and blue. I think you’re right about no country having a purely orange flag. You can create an imaginary country and use the leaflet in the last picture as its flag.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 29, 2018 at 8:54 PM

      • Thank you for the permission to re-purpose your photograph, Steve. My imaginary country would likely not contain humans. I would have to create it and leave it alone, to give it a chance to survive, without us. This gives you a piece of my mind. I hope our beautiful earth will survive despite of us. 🌍


        December 30, 2018 at 6:43 PM

        • I’m sorry to hear you sounding pessimistic, Tanja. Lots of wonder still lurks out there.

          Steve Schwartzman

          December 30, 2018 at 7:03 PM

          • I agree that many wonders remain on this unique and beautiful earth, Steve, but we are wantonly destroying it. What other animal annihilates its own habitat?


            December 30, 2018 at 7:16 PM

            • Your question prompted me to search, and I found what appears to be one instance:


              I also found what seems to be a countervailing view by a British conservation biologist:

              Steve Schwartzman

              December 30, 2018 at 7:31 PM

              • Thank you for your efforts to help me (and probably you) feel better, Steve . While it is healthy not to think that we know it all, to keep an open mind towards potential beneficial effects of climate change, and not to lose our optimism, it is still very disconcerting to see how loss or modification of habitat has effected many species. It makes me sad because I will never get to see a Passenger Pigeon, a Great Auk, or a Carolina Parakeet (unless they are genetically engineered).
                May we become better caretakers in 2019 than we were in 2018.


                January 1, 2019 at 9:28 AM

                • Over the last several years I’ve been saddened by the number of properties—at least two dozen—in and around Austin that I’ve lost to development. Of course they weren’t my properties, but they were places where I’d taken nature pictures, in some cases once or twice, in other cases many times. When I see buildings, streets, etc., in those places now, I always remember how the land used to be, and the many native plants (and some animals) I found and photographed there.

                  Steve Schwartzman

                  January 1, 2019 at 10:10 AM

                • I can relate to, and am also saddened by, your loss, Steve.
                  Many times I have wished to be fabulously wealthy, so that I could buy up land and set it aside. Fortunately, there are some wealthy individuals or environmental organizations that do just that. More power to them!


                  January 1, 2019 at 11:00 AM

                • Tanja,

                  I feel your sorrow. I want to mention that the 30,000 + acres that got set aside here in Lake county, Il, were a result of voters wanting it. Several decades ago a woman saw wanton development beginning to happen around here, and she started agitating to have some land set aside. A forest Preserve District was created, funds were raised, and now we have a wonderful network of reserves. Some have trails, some are strictly for preservation. Perhaps you can do that where you live?


                  January 13, 2019 at 9:54 AM

                • It is inspiring to see what human engagement can do, Melissa. I am trying to keep an eye on the plans for the spot in question, and might join others in trying to mitigate the impact.
                  By the way, I have been unable to access your blog for the last couple of months. This is the message that pops up whenever I click on Melissa Blue Fine Art:
                  Error: the domain you requested can not be served at this time. An error report has already been sent to the technical team. Please try again in ten minutes.


                  January 13, 2019 at 5:29 PM

                • Melissa’s website is at


                  She may resume her blog there.

                  Steve Schwartzman

                  January 13, 2019 at 5:56 PM

                • Thank you, Steve. If she announced this decision, I might have missed it. Right now nothing comes up under Blog on her webpage.


                  January 13, 2019 at 6:28 PM

                • It really is inspiring, isn’t it? In fact, it blows me away what a few people can accomplish. I don’t know that I’d have the courage to do it but if others were also committed then maybe.
                  So, here’s what happened. I wanted to create a nifty website connected to my blog, so I upgraded my subscription…and then everything went wrong. I was in quite a battle with WP. Honestly, it seemed like the minute I handed over money they had what they wanted from me and couldn’t be bothered anymore. So I transferred my domain to Format, and am working on a new website there. That killed my existing blog…I didn’t realize that would happen until I did it, although in hindsight it should have been obvious to me. I’m sorry for the inconvenience. I plan to write a blog at the new site, but I don’t know how that will work yet.


                  January 14, 2019 at 8:22 AM

                • I am sorry for what sounds like a nightmare, Melissa! I hope you can figure it all out. Thank you for letting me know.
                  Best wishes,


                  January 14, 2019 at 8:33 AM

                • Thank you so much, Tanja. Everyone keeps telling me I need a website but most of my paintings sell at galleries, so I’m tempted to forget the whole thing.


                  January 14, 2019 at 9:43 AM

                • You should do what feels right to you, Melissa. If you are enjoying the web and blogging, go for it. If not, it might not be for you.


                  January 16, 2019 at 7:38 AM

                • On the other hand, it is good for my mind. It really doesn’t come easily to me, so every day I have a puzzle to solve.


                  January 16, 2019 at 8:59 AM

                • You will figure it out.


                  January 16, 2019 at 8:39 PM

  12. If these lovely leaves eventually blacken all over ( do they?) we could consider them poster leaves for Orange is the New Black. Why we would want to consider such a silly thing I have no idea but, as we near the end of the year, a little silliness is mandatory.


    December 30, 2018 at 4:11 AM

    • Good question. While I haven’t done a study, my impression is that the leaflets don’t turn completely black. For one thing, most of them loosen while they still have some or even a lot of color, and if I touch a leaflet in the state shown here, it may well fall off.

      As for a little silliness, you know that that’s fine with me, whatever its colors.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 30, 2018 at 8:23 AM

  13. The only native sumac I remember in Oklahoma was already bare when we got there in late October. I don’t remember why. It was likely defoliated by rain or wind. I really do not remember asking. The blackjack oaks were still foliated with brown foliage. I remember the sumac because I had never seen them before. I do not know how many specie are native there.


    December 30, 2018 at 3:21 PM

    • I usually turn to BONAP when I want to see where all the species within a genus grow:


      Here are the maps for Rhus:


      Steve Schwartzman

      December 30, 2018 at 4:06 PM

      • Goodness! That certainly narrows it down! I did not bother to look because I figured that there were several specie there. As it turns out, there are only three, and I know it was not Rhus aromatica. It would have been either Rhus copallinum or Rhus glabra. Now I am wondering. I suppose it could have been both. Some seemed to be more stout, with branches that looked like antlers with seeded trusses on top. Thank you for sending that.


        December 30, 2018 at 8:50 PM

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