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How to Correctly Distinguish Invasive Tree of Heaven from Native Sumac

Invasive plant species are an ever-present problem for land managers and conservationists. Properly managing invasive species is a task that many within the conservation world deal with on a regular basis. Being able to properly identify invasive species of plants is crucial so effective action can be taken to remove or manage the identified species. Conversely it is also very important to be able to correctly identify beneficial native plants that may look very similar to an invasive plant species. Properly distinguishing “lookalikes” ensures that native plants are not mistakenly removed or chemically treated during management projects.

One of the best examples of such lookalikes is Ainlanthus altissima (Tree of Heaven) and two native sumacs to the region, Rhus typhina (staghorn sumac) and Rhus glabra (smooth sumac).  At a quick glance Tree of Heaven and native sumac may seem indistinguishable, or at least confusing, but upon closer inspection there are several key characteristics to look for that will quickly distinguish the invasive Ailanthus from the native sumacs.

If you can reach the leaves or a stem of the tree and break off a leaf or small twig you will be able to decipher which plant you have encountered. Ailanthus has a very pungent aroma at a broken section of a twig or crushed leaf. Some describe it as rancid peanut butter or burnt rubber. Sumac on the other hand does not have a very pungent odor and the leaves will have an average, mild vegetative scent. 

Each plants’ leaves are also different, which can be observed on the leaflets (both 

species have compound leaves where there are numerous leaflets along one leaf stem). The leaflets of both sumacs are serrated or toothed while Ailanthus has almost entirely smooth leaflet edges (sumac on the left, ailanthus on the right in the picture to the right).


 Also, Ailanthus leaflets contain one or more glands that can be found at the base of the leaflet. These glands are not present on sumac leaves.

One last distinguishing trait of each plant can be observed in late summer or early fall and that is the seed or fruit cluster. If the tree has finished flowering and produced fruit or seed, this is a great way to quickly identify the tree, even if at a distance. Sumacs have a panicle of flowers that produces a deep red cluster of fuzzy fruits which can easily persist into winter.  Ailanthus produces samaras that hang in clusters and turn a dull orange/brown color.

Using these characteristics (barring winter months when seeds and leaves may not be present) it can be very easy, even for an average property owner to distinguish Ailanthus from our native sumacs. Don’t rush to judgment though, look closely for the key characteristics. 


Ailanthus seeds

Native sumac offers a great food source and habitat when found in natural areas and NJ Audubon encourages property owners to leave it if found. Ailanthus on the other hand should be removed using appropriate techniques, see http://wiki.bugwood.org/Ailanthus_altissima for removal guidance.

 

 (Photo Chuck Bargeron, University of Georgie, bugwood.org)

 Proper plant identification is one of the many skillsets NJ Audubon staff use to ensure that we are undertaking stewardship activities and managing habitat to produce the most positive ecological results. 

 Text and all photos except Ailanthus seeds by Ryan Hasko.

Bobwhite Nest for Third Consecutive Year at NJA Pine Barren Study Site

The first quail nest of 2017 was discovered by NJA’s researchers at the Pine Island Cranberry Study Site in Chatsworth, Burlington County. The nest, as well as1st 2017 nest at PI (phil Coppola) three more discovered in June, marks the third consecutive year of successful breeding by the translocated birds; further evidence of a turning tide in Bobwhite Quail recovery in New Jersey.

“We have seen a substantial decline in quail and yet, with proper habitat management, we believe we can bring them back, which is why we are bringing them in to reestablish their population,” explained John Cecil, Vice President for Stewardship, NJA.

2017 marks the third year of release of wild Bobwhite captured from Georgia and translocated to the Pine Island Quail flush at PIC (photo by John Parke)Cranberry study site in Chatsworth, NJ.  Since the spring release, the birds have been tracked via radio telemetry by researchers from the University of Delaware contracted by NJA.  One exciting element to the radio tracking this season  is that four 2016 released quail (that still have working radio collars) have been confirmed to have paired up with this year’s released birds! Additionally, one uncollared bird, which indicates an offspring from previous years, has also paired up with a 2017 released bird!

“We are working to create permanence with Northern Bobwhite in New Jersey,” said John Parke, Answer the callStewardship Project Director - North Region, NJA. “In reviewing the data collected over the last few years and seeing these wild birds adapt to their new surroundings and successfully nest is a testament to how important active management is to maintain forest health and wildlife diversity,” Parke said. “The Northern Bobwhite Restoration Initiative has implications for quail recovery in the Mid-Atlantic, is providing information on other species that use these same managed forest habitat, and is motivating others to implement forest management. We are excited by the progress of the project, the hard work of the project partners and collaborators and eager to see Bobwhite thrive again in New Jersey,” he added.

ANSWER THE CALL and be part of this historic reintroduction and recovery of this beloved iconic species and support the Bobwhite Recovery Initiative! Go to NJ Audubon's Bobwhite Quail webpage: https://community.njaudubon.org/pages/quail-restoration-initiative-donation-page

Photos by Phil Coppola and John Parke