Sumac. It is a weedy shrub that fills in neglected pastures and spreads into your yard. But if you haven’t done so, stop and taste the red fruits.
There are twelve species of sumac native to the United States, 130 worldwide. All the actual sumacs, genus Rhus, have red fruits and are safe to eat. Poison sumac, Toxicodendron vernix, has white fruits and is classified with poison ivy, not sumacs. However, sumacs are in the plant family Anacardiaceae, which includes poison ivy and cashews; people sensitive to them should be wary of sumacs.
Rhus is the old Roman name for sumacs; they were important plants in Old World leather working and dyeing industries. The word sumac, in various spellings, goes back beyond Rome to a Syriac Aramaic word meaning red.
The most widespread American sumac is smooth sumac, Rhus glabra, found all across the United States and into Canada. It has smooth twigs and stems. The specific epithet glabra means smooth. Staghorn sumac, Rhus typhina, very similar to smooth sumac, is native to the eastern US. In its name, typhina means “like Typha,” cattails, referring to the fine fuzz on its leaves and twigs. That fuzz is the source of the name staghorn; the stems resemble velvet-covered new antlers. This post is about both species.
Smooth and staghorn sumacs are shrubs, growing to about 15 feet high, very quickly. They like full sun but tolerate some shade. Sumacs spread via underground stems (rhizomes) to form clumps or invade the flower bed across the path. The flowers are small and greenish-yellow, but the fruits form dramatic red clusters. The leaves are large and compound, with eight to fifteen 3-4” leaflets off the leaf’s center (rachis). They turn a spectacular red in the fall.
The American sumacs help reforest a disturbed site (ecological succession). They move in on grasses and herbaceous plants, shading them out as their thick leaves cut off the sun. But as taller plants grow in, maples, or aspen, or pines depending on where you are, they decline, shaded out themselves.
Birds love the red sumac fruits. Sumacs raise the fruits above the leaves, making them visible to birds and easy to eat. Birds digest the red flesh but pass the smooth seed through, to drop in feces. This disperses sumacs and helps them invade new areas.
People like sumac fruits too. (The small fruits normally called berries are technically drupes, fleshy fruits with a hard seed inside. Botanists have divided “berries” into several categories.) Sumac drupes are tasty, if astringent, and rich in nutrients including vitamin C. The traditional use is as a drink; steep the fruit in water, strain, serve cold. The taste is similar to lemonade and, like lemonade, may need sugar to appeal to you.
Don’t stop with drinking sumac-ade. It can be frozen into “popsicles,” or substituted for lemon juice, or made into jelly. Foragers eat the new shoots of smooth and staghorn sumac raw, after peeling.
Sumac does not appear much in European herbal medicine. The Chinese species (Rhus chinensis) was used to cure malaria, rheumatism, epidemic fevers, and other ailments. Native Americans used smooth sumac (fruits or roots or flowers) to stop or induce vomiting, to stop diarrhea or purge the body, for asthma, to sooth sunburn and other ailments. Traditional uses of smooth and staghorn sumac since settlement included a tea or syrup from the drupes for fever, a tea from bark to gargle for a sore throat, antiseptic leaf poultices, and a tea of leaves and drupes for urinary problems. Modern studies find the compounds in sumacs are antibiotic, anti-cancer, anti-oxidant and more, but there has been little scientific study of the efficacy of particular sumac remedies.
Like their European relatives, smooth and staghorn sumac are rich in tannins and form good natural dyes (black, yellow, tan, green) or can be used as a mordant to fix other dyes.
A pretty yard plant, a brilliant splash of fall color, a food source for birds and people, the sumacs are useful native shrubs.
For more on sumac, check out this article, also by Kathy Keeler :
As a former Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Kathy Keeler’s specialties range from ant-plant interactions to grass genetics to studies of prairie plants. Retired, she now pursues travel and history, endlessly fascinated by different places and times. And, wherever Kathy goes, she is irresistibly drawn to plants.
On this website and on her blog you can gain a deeper enjoyment of the natural world and discover information about plants that will delight and enchant you.
References for Using Sumac:
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Carroll, J. Sumac Tree Info: Learn About Common Sumac Varieties For Gardens. Gardening Know How. 2018. https://www.gardeningknowhow.com/ornamental/trees/sumac/sumac-tree-info.htm Accessed 2/08/20.
Deane, G. Sumac: More than Just Native Lemonade. Eat The Weeds. 2011. http://www.eattheweeds.com/sumac-more-than-just-native-lemonade/ Accessed 2/4/20.
Halwell, R. The ‘Lemonade Tree’: It’s Time to Harvest Sumac. The Edible East End. 2012. https://www.edibleeastend.com/2012/08/09/harvest-sumac/ Accessed 2/10/20.
McRae, B. A. Colors from Nature. Growing, Collecting and Using Natural Dyes. Storey Communications, Inc., Pownal, Vermont. 1992.
Moerman, D. E. Native American Ethnobotany. Timber Press, Portland, OR. 1998. Online: http://naeb.brit.org/uses/search/?string=Rhus.
Thayer, S. The Forager’s Harvest. Forager’s Harvest Press, Birchwood, WI. 2006.
Zachos, E. Backyard Foraging. Storey Publishers, North Adams, MA. 2013.
Li, S.-C. Chinese Medicinal Herbs. Dover Publications, NY. 1973
Lust, J. The Herb Book. Bantam Books, NY. 1974.
Millspaugh, C. F. American Medicinal Plants. (originally published 1892). Dover Publications, NY. 1974.
Rayne, S. and G. Mazza. Biological Activities of Extracts from Sumac (Rhus spp.): A Review. Nature Procedings. 2007. https://www.nature.com/articles/npre.2007.631.1.pdf Accessed 2/6/20.