Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

A tale of two sumacs, part 1

with 13 comments

The title of this post aside, Austin is home to three native sumac species. By far the most colorful is the aptly named flameleaf sumac, Rhus lanceolata, which you’ve often enough seen here putting on great displays of fall foliage. Less well known is Rhus trilobata, the species name of which tells you that each leaf is made up of three leaflets, each of which can be seen as having three primary lobes. Vernacular names include three-leaf sumac and skunkbush, though nothing about this small tree has ever smelled skunky to me. In any case, the leaves of this species tend to turn colors in the fall, and that’s what you see in this portrait from Allen Park on December 17th. I’d gone out that morning with my ring flash so I could stop down for good depth of field.

© 2021 Steven Schwartzman


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I recently came across the term cancel culture fittingly recast as coward culture in an op-ed by Bret Stephens. He wrote that “our universities are failing at the task of educating students in the habits of a free mind. Instead, they are becoming islands of illiberal ideology and factories of moral certitude, more often at war with the values of liberal democracy than in their service.” You’re welcome to read the full op-ed.


Written by Steve Schwartzman

December 27, 2021 at 5:52 AM

13 Responses

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  1. The color’s familiar: the shape, not so much. I’ve never seen this one, and honestly wasn’t aware of its existence. I like the shape of the leaves, especially that they’re shaped differently enough from that other ‘leaves of three’ beast that even I could tell them apart.

    I’ll have to look for the plant in the hill country, though; it doesn’t come close to southeast Texas. That makes sense, since I’ve found two other sumac species there.


    December 27, 2021 at 6:53 AM

    • In today’s portrait I obviously went for a close abstraction. You can get the gestalt of this sumac in a fall foliage picture from 2015. You’re right, of course, that no one’s likely to mistake this species for poison ivy—or maybe just people who’ve heard no more than “Leaves of three, let it be” and who don’t know the shapes and configuration of the three dangerous leaflets. Now you’ve got one more species to keep an eye out for in the center of the state.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 27, 2021 at 7:10 AM

      • Now that you’ve reminded me of that previous post, I reminded myself of the third species I’ve found on the Willow City loop: Rhus virens. While I was snooping around, I discovered that the twigs of R. trilobata are especially pliable, and were used for basketry by the Hopi, White Mountain Apache, Tewa, and Zuni, among others.


        December 27, 2021 at 7:50 AM

        • With Rhus virens you’ve anticipated tomorrow’s “A tale of two sumacs, part 2,” which will show that evergreen isn’t always evergreen. I didn’t know how native tribes took advantage of Rhus trilobata‘s twigs.

          Steve Schwartzman

          December 27, 2021 at 8:07 AM

  2. That’s a different sumac leaf shape than I see around here. I actually love the shape and autumn color of this species!


    December 27, 2021 at 1:01 PM

    • Of the three sumac species in Austin, this is the one I least often see, so when I do come across it looking colorful in the fall I welcome it as much as you do now.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 27, 2021 at 1:47 PM

  3. […] yesterday’s post you saw that Rhus trilobata, one of Austin’s three native sumac species, produces colorful […]

  4. Simple but pretty leaf.

    Alessandra Chaves

    December 28, 2021 at 6:33 AM

  5. And what brights colors they are. Beautiful. I find I really enjoy these closeups you create with the flash, pushing the background to black. They’re great at showing the details. I’ve yet to do much of anything with flash. I suppose I’d have to get one, first. 🙂

    Todd Henson

    December 29, 2021 at 6:40 AM

    • Unlike cake, which the eating of precludes the further keeping of, you can use a flash and still hold onto it—provided that you go out and get a flash in the first place. All of the crop-sensor Canon bodies that I used had a flash built in, which was convenient for the occasional picture where I needed the extra light. After I upgraded to a body with a full-frame sensor, I unfortunately had to buy and carry around the extra weight of an external flash. On the good side, it’s more powerful and more versatile than a small built-in flash.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 29, 2021 at 8:02 AM

  6. Beautifully photographed!

    Ann Mackay

    December 30, 2021 at 1:29 PM

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