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More North American Shrubs

Updated on February 9, 2012

Where Shrubs Are Often Found

It is the shrubs that form the thickets that make an attractive and sheltering natural border along the outskirts of many woods. They flourish in a continuous fringe by the banks of country streams, arching over the currents and reaching out on the sunny side into rounded masses of foliage.

Standing upon the hilltop, one can trace the winding course of streams whose water cannot be seen at all by the green cushion line of bushes that marks their course.

Such thickets are the favorite resort of small birds, which find among their recesses plenty of the insects or of the small fruits upon which they feed, while they feel safe among the close twigs where they cannot easily be seen by hawks or other enemies. Few small birds spend much of their time in the tall trees, and so they seek the thickets of shrubs.

Here too, insects, snails, and such small creatures live in the shaded soil and decaying leaves. These attract the toads, wood-frogs and turtles. After them go snakes and various of the smaller mammals, wandering rabbits, woodchucks, raccoons, foxes, and so on. All demonstrating the importance of shrubs.

Striped Maple or Moosewood, is one of the most charming of our smaller shrub trees, both in flower and fruit.  Its buds afford a food for moose and deer.
Striped Maple or Moosewood, is one of the most charming of our smaller shrub trees, both in flower and fruit. Its buds afford a food for moose and deer. | Source

Striped Maple (aka Moosewood)

We are all familiar with the great maple trees, so often planted as shade-trees, such as the scarlet, the sugar, and the Norwegian kinds. However, there is a delicate little maple shrub tree that we rarely see, unless we travel on the mountains, or in the Northern forests.

It is uncommon, even then, outside of the woods themselves. It seems to be happy only in thickets of low trees covering rocky hillsides.

In the North woods, hunters often know it as Moosewood -- for those great animals, the moose, feed upon its large red-scaled buds.

The other common name is Striped Maple, which is quite an apt name, for its smooth dark green bark is lined up and down with delicate tracings of a white pigment that can be scraped off with the fingernail.

It is a tree shrub that Japanese artists often like to draw for its great soft triple-pointed leaves are arranged in a fine spray, and from the twigs spring delicate pendent clusters of pale yellow bells, like fragments of necklaces in the late summer. This is followed with strings of pale brown winged fruits that turn to gold when the rays of the setting sun strike through them.

The common Barberry shrubs are not native, having been brought here from Europe, but there is a different native American species in the Alleghenies. Top view of pygmy crimson barberry shrub
The common Barberry shrubs are not native, having been brought here from Europe, but there is a different native American species in the Alleghenies. Top view of pygmy crimson barberry shrub | Source


In case you are not familiar with the term "racemes" it simply means a cluster or bunch in the simplest way of explaining it.

More specifically it's an inflorescence (bunch or cluster) of stalked flowers arranged singly along an elongated unbranched axis.


Along roadsides, Barberry is often seen. It's a tall bush, very straggling in its growth and crowded by a host of suckers. It has come from the Old World, but has become so much at home here that we ignore the fact.

It throws out long, slender and brittle branches, studded with tufts of small, obovate, or spatulate leaves. However, as soon as we pick a spray we discover that it is very fully armed with sharp spines that point in every direction.

They are leaves that have been transformed entirely into spines, like those of the cactuses.

In the autumn, the ordinary foliage falls off, but the spiny leaves remain, ready to keep browsing animals away from the tender, growing twigs.

Racemes of pretty yellow flowers droop from the tiny Barberry shoots in spring, in which the nectar is produced in saffron-colored swellings, on the petals, and also on the filaments of the interior circle of stamens -- for the six pollen-bearers stand in two whorls, slanting outward and lying in the concave faces of the similarly placed petals.

The bases of these stamens are very sensitive, and when a bee flies upward to the drooping flower-- that, like a roof, protects its stamens from rain -- and plunges her feet or proboscis therein, seeking honey, she sets off a trap, as it were.

The stamens fly upward at the slightest touch, toward the stigma, and tap the bees smartly on the head, snapping open the little trap-doors at the top of the anther, and powdering the visitor thoroughly with pollen.

The later racemes of oval scarlet berries droop from the bending branches during almost the whole winter. They are very acid--too tart to interest many birds. However, they make delicious preserves, with a very distinct flavor.

Barberry And Honeybees

A medium (~12-15 foot tall) honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos) tree planted on the grounds of the Mary Hill Museum, Washington, USA.
A medium (~12-15 foot tall) honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos) tree planted on the grounds of the Mary Hill Museum, Washington, USA. | Source


While the Tulip tree grows best in damp soil, the Locust shrub tree thrives best in dry and sandy land. It has a somewhat tropical look, reminding one of the African mimosas, for its leaves are divided into many rounded leaflets.

Its spray, seen against the sunset light, looks like delicate seaweed, and the Locustitself, when uninjured, suggests instantly the gray-tined ones seen in the landscapes of the older French painters.

However, the Flowering Locustis rarely seen in fine condition, for its branches are extremely brittle, and are usually injured by borer insects, and some are likely to crash down in every storm.

In June, it is a glory of bloom. Great cluster of racemes of pea-like flowers droop from every branch, white, with golden hearts -- an American rival of the Japanese Wisteria with the added virtue of very great fragrance.

However, one must approach the Locust with caution, for it is defended by the vicious thorns, while stray thorns are scattered here and there on the main trunk, even near the ground, where we do not expect them.

Brittle as the branches are, the wood, when properly seasoned, withstands decay admirably, especially when in contact with the soil, and is greatly sought after for fence-posts (this is particularly true in the states of Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania where you will often see Locust post fences).


Staghorn Sumac
Staghorn Sumac | Source

Stag-horn Sumac

Even more tropical in appearance than the Locust, is the Stag-horn Sumac with its crooked branches covered with thick, soft hair, not unlike the velvet of a young deer's horn.

Its closely set pyramidal masses of acid fruits are also wrapped in crimson plush, as well they may be, for they crown the awkward brittle stems until spring, or as long as the birds will let them stay.

Although sour and dry and velvety and difficult to swallow, they offer a sort of hard, unnourishing food to many a bird hard pressed by hunger in the dead of winter. Chickadees fairly haunt them, and cheerily peck the pyramids to pieces.

Poison Sumac is poisonous to touch.  The foliage turns a beautiful red in the autumn
Poison Sumac is poisonous to touch. The foliage turns a beautiful red in the autumn | Source

Poison Sumac

I personally will never forget the horrified look on my Grandmother's face the time I came home from a walk and was placing some wonderfully fall colored "finds" in a vase -- for I had picked a bunch of Poison Sumac.

While we are prowling about the margins of swamps looking for pin oak, we must take care not to run into, or handle, the Poison-sumac, or Swamp Elder, as it is sometimes commonly called.

It is most dangerous in the early summer, for then the flowers are opening, and even the flying pollen seems to be quite able to cause that itching inflammation of the skin which tortures some people so greatly, whether caused by the Poison-ivy of the fence-posts, or by its relative the poison-sumac of the swamps.

This is a shapely shrub or small tree, which often grows among alders and elders.

Its rather long and bare, slender limbs bear at the top a great cluster of leaves composed of from seven to thirteen pointed leaflets.

These stand up from the mid-rib in a way that is quite unlike the attitude of the leaflets in the other shrub trees.

They are very glossy, of an odd shade of dark green above, and have red stems, while the mid-rib from which they spring is also red. This is a point to be remembered.

The little green flowers fall loosely in long spray-like panicles from the axils of these leaves. In the fall, the leaves very early change to unusually brilliant shades of orange and vermilion, and when they have fallen to the mud, grape-like clusters of white berries still grace the tops of the branches, tempting birds to eat them.

They have also unfortunately, occasionally temped people with an eye for decoration to pick them -- with sad results -- for root and branch, winter and summer, are poisonous to the touch.

Practically the same can be said of its more common cousin, the Poison-ivy, which crowns the slender branches among the tickets. This however, has only thin leaflets, without the warning red stalks, but has the same gloss on its dark green leaves, and assumes the same brilliant autumnal coloring.

W. W. Gibson has given us a catchy little jingle about the sumacs which may help us to remember the important differences between the poisonous and harmless sumacs:

Berries red, Have not dread!

Berries white, Poisonous sight!

Leaves three, Quickly flee!

One should be cautious, moreover, in going to the leeward or a fire in which the poison-shrubs are burning, and should never chew bits of wood without first examining them. The smoke from the burning, or the crewed-up splinter of bark may result seriously even for persons who are not usually affected.

Annoying Itchy Rashes From Poison Oak, Poison Ivy, and Poison Sumac

Poison Ivy -- It should be remembered that it is poisonous even in the winter after all leaves have fallen. - Remember - Leaves of Three
Poison Ivy -- It should be remembered that it is poisonous even in the winter after all leaves have fallen. - Remember - Leaves of Three | Source

Poison Ivy

Although not quite so virulent as the swamp or Poison-sumac, the Poison-ivy, its close relative, is quite as dangerous.

It is much more common, springing up in many an old field and woodland clearing, and climbing upon roadside fences, where it thrusts out its short branches into the faces of the passers-by.

It climbs by means of rootlets protruding from the bark, and each leaf is made up of three leaflets of an irregular lobed, ovate outline.

The number of leaflets is to be remembered, for the poison-ivy is frequently confused with the innocent five-leaved Virginia Creeper, or ampelopis.

The spreading of the poison-ivy is due largely to the birds, which devour the berries eagerly, pallid, hard-shelled and unappetizing as they look to us. Some of the seeds passing through the bodies of the birds fall uninjured and proceed to sprout.


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