Summing Up Sumac
By Audrey Stallsmith
"Well, he won't like that, nor you either; it's poisonous, and I shouldn't wonder if you'd got poisoned, Bab. Don't touch it! Swamp-sumach is horrid stuff, --Miss Celia said so. . ."
Louisa May Alcott, Under the Lilacs
As indicated above, some of its relatives have given sumac a bad name! The rhus family includes poison ivy as well as poison sumac. Either of which can inflict a nasty and long-lasting rash!
But it's pretty easy to tell the "bad" sumac from its "good" brothers, since the black sheep--strangely enough--has white berries! Maybe we should come up with a new rhyme along the line of "leaves of three, let them be." "White berry, be thou wary" perhaps!
Also, poison sumac grows mostly in swamps and marshes, while the red-fruited types like dry ground. Although the "reds" are harmless--and even beneficial--to most people, folks who are super-sensitive to other members of the family should probably give all of them a wide berth!
The "good" sumacs' torches, cone-shaped clusters of fuzzy berries, light up the otherwise drab late autumn landscape. Not to mention that they are an important source of food for winter-foraging birds. But they can come in handy during the warmer months as well.
Native Americans peeled and ate the raw young stems and roots. They also brewed a pink lemonade in late summer by soaking the red berries in cold water. If you want to try this, you should strain off the hairs before downing the tart drink! And perhaps add a little sweetener as well. Don't try to remove those hairs before brewing, however, as they are what contribute the acidic flavor that once won sumac the designation "vinegar tree."
Native Americans also smoked the dried berries, usually in combination with dogwood's inner bark and/or actual tobacco. This type of "smoke" was even popular in Europe for a while. Mark Twain's fantasy about A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court relates that "Sandy was so grateful and so comforted that she charged a couple of church-wardens with willow-bark and sumach-tobacco for us."
The most common sumac here is probably rhus glabra (the "smooth" type) which is also known--appropriately enough--as Pennsylvania sumac. It's very similar, however, to typhina ("resembling cat tails"), also known as staghorn or velvet sumac. James Duke reports in his Handbook of Edible Weeds, that glabra's twigs are "smooth and 3-sided (not hairy and round, as in the staghorn sumac)." Staghorn also tends to have more leaflets in its fronds. But, as the two varieties frequently cross with each other, you may be hard-pressed to tell them apart!
Sumac is antiseptic, astringent, and tonic. So its berries, bark, and hardened white sap have been used to treat a wide variety of physical problems, including sores, diarrhea, and urinary tract infections. It is also supposed to be effective against hay fever, probably due to its high quercetin content.
Duke says "I have found that eating these fruits [sumac berries], even chewing up the seed, tends to quench the thirst, leaving a pleasant taste in the mouth." (They are also reputed to cure bedwetting!) Duke suggests mixing sumac with sassafras in tea, or adding an extract of the berries to jellies.
Pamela Jones recommends those berries, dried and pounded, as a substitute for citrus flavoring. The resulting powder "looks like paprika and tastes like lemon," she writes in Just Weeds, "and usually wins new members for the sumac fan club." The plant's common name derives from the Arabic summaq, as rhus coriaria ("leather" sumac) is native to the Middle East and its pulverized berries much used in cooking there.
As indicated by that "leather" and by one of the plant's nicknames, "white shoemake," sumac's high tannin content once made it galls popular for the tanning of hides. Though the quercetin is said to add a yellow tinge to that white. Coriaria supposedly produces the best leather.
Sumac berries have long been employed as dyes as well. My brother uses them to stain his traps black, and they will add a variety of red, brown, or black hues to wool--depending, probably on what mordant is used.
Perhaps this wilding's quercetin will someday make its berries as popular a health food as pomegranate. But, in the meantime, please don't touch any sumac unless you are certain it is the red-fruited type. And repeat after me, "White berry; be thou wary!"
Rhus sumach image is from Herbarium Blackwellianum by Elizabeth Blackwell, courtesy of the Missouri Botanical Garden