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In Defense of Thickets

Thicket-forming species, like sumacs, wild plum, and dogwoods (to name a few of the many), are early successional woody plant species. What does this mean? They thrive on disturbance and like to live on habitat edges. They can often be found on the edges of woods as well as along railways and occasionally right smack in the middle of a prairie. They pretty significantly alter the habitat directly around them, creating what we call microclimates (mini-habitats within a greater habitat). These microclimates are excellent for providing animals shelter. In fact, thickets are far and away some of the best shelters for wildlife to rest and raise young. Some animals, like box turtles, intentionally seek out thickets while moving between different habitat types. In this way, thickets act like stepping stones for forest animals to venture out into and across grasslands.

Some thickets prefer to grow in more shade or moisture than others, but they all employ the strategy of clonal reproduction, or making many many more of themselves by sending out structures like rhizomes underneath the ground. Some sumac rhizomes can go further than 10’ horizontally from the main plant! And this is where thickets and people do not always mix so well. Thickets can take over grasslands and pastures, and they do need to be managed by cutting, mowing or burning in smaller spaces. People often do not want to fool with this maintenance, so they destroy the whole thicket. Many thicketing species are on the decline because of this.

However, almost all thicketing species are directly useful to people. For instance, sumac has a long history of being used medically to treat indigestion, dying wool, tanning leather, and is DELICIOUS when used in cooking. In fact, sumac is a standard ingredient in za’atar, the spice blend often used in Mediterranean dishes. And sumac makes excellent flavoring in lemonade. The leaves are incredibly attractive and turn shocking shades of red, orange, and yellow in the fall. And it tolerates very aggressive pruning! You can keep the thicket as small as you want/have the time to prune for.

Sumac also has flowers which are incredibly important to pollinators and the berries help feed birds. Many animals feed on sumac. These plants are potent for biodiversity.

If you have the space, consider housing a thicketing species. We think they are worth the effort!

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