It’s mid-August here in the Texas Hill Country–an August that most of us have never seen before. The summer has been fiercely dry, with no rain to speak of since mid-May, and the heat is brutal: there are few clouds to shade the landscape and no soil moisture to buffer the blaze of the sun.The air is furnace-hot and walking in the afternoon meadow with a hand-held contact thermometer, I’ve measured soil-surface readings of 150 degrees.
Even our deep-rooted native grasses, Lindheimer’s muhly and big bluestem and Indian grass and lovegrass, are as brown as they are after our first frost, in late October. And along Pecan Creek, bone dry for the past six months, the forty-foot cypress trees have already turned from bright green to burnt orange as they retreat into a premature dormancy.They’re waiting for the October-November rains. If we have another dry La Nina winter, the second in a row, the cypress may not survive.
But one corner of our 31 acres here at Meadow Knoll looks just as it always does in August. The sumacs–our flame-leaf prairie sumacs (Rhus Lanceolata)–are defying the drought. And as I walk among these shrubby trees, admiring their prolific blooms, I can’t help thinking that they are a small prairie miracle.
August is bloom-time for the sumacs, and while almost everything else has yielded to the heat and dryness, they’re carrying on almost as if there were no drought. Laden with pyramidal clusters of creamy white flowers, these little trees, no more than seven or eight feet high, invite every bee in Burnet County to fly in for a load of pollen. And not just bees, for the flower clusters are open and accessible to many different insect species, and the nectar they secrete is rich with a fragrant allure.
In another month, the sumac leaves will turn a bright scarlet, splashing their vibrant color across the prairies. At the same time, the trees will begin to produce their fruit: cone-shaped clusters (drupes) of sticky red berries, round, with hard seeds inside.
As the weeks go on, the berries will turn a rusty red–that is, if the raccoons and birds don’t strip them. (In the path, I’ll find piles of fresh coon scat studded with sumac seeds, and I’ll know that the animals are fulfilling the sumac’s desire to be fruitful and multiply.) Or if I don’t pick and dry the berries to brew sumac tea, a tart, refreshing drink that’s high in Vitamin C. Sweetened with honey, it’s a delicious reminder of summer’s bounty, generously spilled even in the August heart of a brutal drought.
Native Americans put the sumacs–as they did most native plants–to medicinal uses.They made a decoction of the root to treat urinary disorders, fevers and colds and brewed a strong berry tea for irregular menstruation, dysentery, fevers, and colds. A poultice of pounded roots and berries was applied to warts, hemorrhoids, and canker sores, and the crushed leaves were used to treat various skin diseases. Leaves and seeds were used to dry oozing sores and ulcers, and the leaves (brewed as a tea) treated venereal disease. A pharmacy in a single plant.
Our local weather gurus tell us that there’s no rain on our horizon unless a tropical system spins up out of the Gulf with enough power to shoulder aside the high-pressure ridge that’s producing our brutal heat and disastrous drought. Or, in another month or so, the storm track moves far enough south to bring cooler and more unsettled air. Meanwhile, all we can do is appreciate the small miracles around us, as plants and animals do their best to survive.
© 2011 – 2012, Susan Wittig Albert. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. If you are reading this at another site, please report that to us