Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina) and Smooth Sumac (Rhus glabra)
Imbolc is just around the corner, and the season of skeletal sticks is upon us. There is little color lighting up our wild world here in Southern Appalachia. This is why the deep crimson splashes of Sumac I see along back roads bring a light to my mind, like dark red blood dotting the grey and golden roadways. If you’ve wondered what that beautiful plant was, as you whiz by it, let me introduce you.
Sumac is indigenous to North America and is a member of the Anacardiaceae, or Cashew family. There are about 35 species in the Rhus genus. And don’t worry, despite its name, Sumac is not easily confused for Poison Sumac (Toxicodendron vernix) which has whitish berries. Here in Western North Carolina, I have never encountered it. It is considered rarer than Poison Oak and Poison Ivy, however it’s still good to know how to clearly ID both plants.
The name typhina is explained in Linnaeus's and Ericus Torner's description of the plant with the phrase "Ramis hirtis uti typhi cervini" meaning "the branches are rough like antlers in velvet". If you run your fingers along the branches you’ll feel the soft velvet for sure. (1)
Sumac has a long history in Southern Appalachian folk medicine. Indigenous people all over North American used and still use the Sumac for its healing and edibile parts. The Smooth Sumac was used as an antiemetic, antidiarrheal, antihemorrhagic, blister treatment, cold remedy, emetic, mouthwash, asthma treatment, tuberculosis remedy, sore throat treatment, ear medicine, eye medicine, astringent, heart medicine, venereal aid, ulcer treatment, and to treat rashes. Staghorn Sumac parts were used in similar medicinal remedies. The Natchez used the Fragrant Sumac (Rhus aromatica) root to treat boils. The Ojibwa took a decoction of Fragrant Sumac root to stop diarrhea. The berries, roots, inner bark, and leaves of Smooth and Staghorn Sumac were used to make dyes of various colors. (2) The Cherokee historically used a decoction for blisters. They took a mixture of the barks of Rhus copallina Rhus typlrina and Rhus glabra, make a decoction and pour over the offending blisters. The root decoction was used by Creek peoples to treat dysentery internally as well due to it’s powerful astringency.
Alabama herbalist Tommie Bass used them as a cough remedy and also for kidney medicine. He used it specifically for Bright’s disease of the kidneys. He spoke of them as a good blood purifier, as well as a gargle for sore throat and mouth. It’s interesting to note the use of this medicine for both kidney’s and blood in Bright’s disease, as it is often associated with high blood pressure and heart disease. He suggested harvesting the berries before the first frost, which would kill the Vitamin C. This was also used as a remedy for scurvy, for as many foragers today can attest, the tart, lemonade like taste of the berries stands witness to their ascorbic acid content.
From Minnie Stamps Gosney of Raleigh, North Carolina in the Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore: Sarsaparilla roots, Red Sumac, and Bitter Root, and bark from Wild Cherry and Wild Poplar Roots should be cooked together; this brew is then mixed with hard cider and water, and taken three times daily, a half a cup at a time for jaundice. “Shoemake” or Sumac was also used for “skin poison”, or eruptions caused by ulcers, boils, Poison Ivy or other irritants in North Carolina’s folkloric past.
A lot of Sumac’s healing powers lie in its astringent properties and interestingly enough it has a special affinity throughout its history as a healer of issues specific to the mouth. Ulcers, sores, inflammation and infection of the mouth could be treated with Sumac inner and outer bark decoction or berry decoction. In modern studies, a tincture of Smooth Sumac’s berries showed efficacy against certain strains of bacteria, including Staph, E. Coli, Salmonella, and the much-feared yeast Candida. The Middle Eastern species of Sumac, Rhus coriara, was able to destroy Streptococcus bacteria, the cause for Strep Throat. Sumac is rich in Gallic acid, which is one of the ways it acts against bacteria, fungal infections and even certain viruses. (3)
It was also used historically to treat disease which caused discharge like leucorrhea and venereal disease like Gonorrhea. Madame Grieve describes its virtues in such conditions,
“The bark, in decoction or syrup, has been found useful in gonorrhoea, leucorrhoea, diarrhoea, dysentery, hectic fever, scrofula and profuse perspiration from debility. Combined with the barks of slippery elm and white pine and taken freely, the decoction is said to have been greatly beneficial in syphilis. As an injection for prolapsus uteri and ani, and for leucorrhoea, and as a wash in many skin complaints, the decoction is valuable. For scald-head it can be simmered in lard, or the powdered root-bark can be applied as a poultice to old ulcers, forming a good antiseptic.”
Sumac is not just a medicine but is also a prolific wild edible. The ripe, red berries of various species were are edible and tart. They can be eaten fresh or dried, but due to the large seed, my personal favorite way to ingest them in through making sumac “lemonade”. Soaking the berries in cold water infuses it with the tart taste of the vitamin C rich berries, and a little maple syrup or honey to taste makes a beverage very reminiscent of lemonade.
The young shoots of Smooth Sumac are also edible. They were also peeled and eaten historically by Apache people, especially relished by children. The shoots can be enjoyed by peeling away the green bark of the Smooth sumac and crunching away raw or cooked in Spring. Here is a good photo essay of just how to tell the Staghorn and Smooth Sumacs apart and how to enjoy the shoots. I look for the fresh shoots in Spring and make sure they crack off easily. Look for the ones with little to no white pithy core, for it doesn’t taste great but won’t hurt you. You can saute them, and season them with the berries!
There are Sumac species around the world used for food and medicine, and in some Middle Eastern and Northern and Eastern African countries the berries are used as a spice in a blend which is often known as za’tar. In Ethiopia, it’s often used to spice lamb. I use it to spice red meat, mushrooms and cooked greens dishes. Any time a zing of lemon would bring flavor to a dish, call on Sumac.
To use Sumac as a medicine today, the dosage is one cup of the infusion or 3-4 ml of either the 1:5 fresh fruit tincture, or 1:7 dried fruit tincture. These should be taken three times per day on an empty stomach, preferably 10-15 minutes before meals. To make the tea, add 2-3 teaspoons of the fresh or 1-2 teaspoons of the dried fruits to boiled water and allow it to steep for 15-20 minutes. It will taste much stronger than when it is prepared as a beverage. (4)
In folk medicine and herbal practice today, Sumac is considered refrigerant, meaning if you’re suffering from a fever it makes you feel cooler, astringent, diuretic, and antiseptic. The tincture and decoction of the bark and berries are both used for fever, diarrhea, sore mouth, painful urination and kidney stone. I gather the berries in a dry time when they first ripen red, and the bark in Spring when the sap is rising. The bark can then be tinctured or dried and used for decoction, while I dry berries for spice, make a vinegar, or tincture them fresh. Stephen Harrod Bruhner advises to tincture the root bark 1:5 in 50% alcohol, for a 20 to 40 drop dose up to 4x daily.
The leaves can be used as a poultice for skin eruptions, wounds and even rashes from Poison Ivy, Oak and Sumac. The inner bark can be made into an antibiotic salve for wounds. It has also been incorporated in uterine medicine, specifically preventing uterine prolapse and stabilizing the blood which can help with menstrual cramping. (5)
The vinegar is my favorite thing to make with the berries. I use it culinarily, and mix with water and drink whenever I have a UTI or urinary complaint. I used to get chronic UTI’s when I was still drinking alcohol, and my kidneys still need extra support even two and a half years after getting sober. I add 2 tablespoons of sumac vinegar to a quart jar of water and sip it to keep my kidneys flowing as an occasional tonic. I just strip the berries off the branches into a clean mason jar, cover with raw apple cider vinegar and give a gentle shake occasionally. Don’t forget to put a piece of parchment paper between your lid and the jar to prevent the metal from rusting. How do you enjoy and celebrate Sumac?
Cautions: Sumac is in the same family as poison ivy, cashews and mangoes and should be avoided by people with severe allergies to any of those plants.
To support me in my research and work, please consider donating. Every dollar helps!