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Smooth sumac - Rhus glabra (fruits)
The drupes (fruit) of Rhus glabra, the smooth sumac, are crimson red and can be fuzzy.

It’s one of the first things to turn brilliant red in the fall. It’s one of the first things to rhugreen up in the spring. Sumac. It grows in temperate regions (including ours) all over the world. It’s been around for millennia. If it’s been around that long, it must have a definite use and purpose. It does.

Several species from the genus Rhus are considered poisonous and leave people with an itch. Poison sumac, poison ivy and poison oak originally belonged to this genus. However, a new taxonomic classification has been made, changing the poison varieties to the genus Toxicodendron instead of Rhus.

The difference between poison sumac and “regular” sumac is pretty simple. Poison sumac only grows in very wet areas, bogs, swamps, and low-lying areas. Poison sumac has white berries (fruits) that droop, instead of the bright red pyramids discussed in this article.

Rous is the Greek word for sumac. Hence, the genus name. The word sumac, as we know it, has been used to describe the plant, even in many ancient languages. The French in the 13th century came up with the spelling we have today. Glabra means red.

Rhus glabra (smooth sumac) prefers a dry soil, but can adapt to a variety of soils and climate conditions. Smooth sumac is considered a native perennial. It grows in 48 of the 50 states and most Canadian provinces along roadsides, in fields, and at the edge of pine forests. It is considered a shrub most of the time, although it can be groomed to “tree” status.

In many areas and states, it’s considered an invasive weed. Sumac is considered a pioneer plant in those regions, being the first to take over a fallow field. It can grow to be 10 feet tall. Some farmers and ranchers plant smooth sumac as a windbreak, as it is quick to grow and perform.

Most people around here would be amused to find out that varieties of sumac are sold in tree and shrub catalogues. The plant is Zone 3 hardy and tolerates freezing temperatures well and is considered drought tolerant.

Sumac is described as large and loose, with pinnately compound leaves. There can be up to 31 leaflets per leaf, with a leaf length of up to 16 inches. The leaves are smooth with serrated edges. The shrub grows upright with a flat crown, branching out like an umbrella.

The flowers are small and arranged in panicles. That means that the flowers have lots of branches to the inflorescence. They are yellow to green. Some sumac grows in patches and tends to thatch. These are called “clones” and are actually connected underground as the same plant, kind of like a bunch of rhubarb.

Included in a long list of animals that eat the berries and feed on/shelter in sumac are: deer, rabbits, bobwhites, turkeys, mourning doves, bluebirds, cardinals, robins, juncos, finch... The list is quite lengthy. The animals spread the seeds and thus, the plant. This is a boon, as the smooth sumac only lives a few years.

The wood, leaves and roots of Rhus glabra are used in tanning leathers. For this reason, the plant has also been called “shoemake” as far back as medieval times.

A scientific bulletin that I recently read, by the U.S. Dept. of Commerce in 1920, details that with so much “free for the taking” sumac around, millions of dollars can be saved on importing tannins for leather from other countries. The report goes on to encourage the government as to the development of a US sumac industry to use our native plants instead of using imports.

I’ve been using natural dyes and tanning leather for years. I have used sumac bark and root both as a tanning agent itself, and as a mordant to set the tanning dye from walnut bark.

F.P. Veitch, in his booklet American Sumac: A Valuable Tanning Material and Dyestuff, details the gathering, curing, and handling of sumac for commercial use. I’ve noticed in my experience that the tannin content of sumac is more than suitable for the job. The leaves and bark produce a rich, very light brown. When root bark is added, the tanning bath takes on a golden color. The root itself yields a wonderful yellow dye.

Historically, as the leaves turn red in the autumn, they are gathered, spread and dried. Besides using the leaves to smoke bee hives, dried, red sumac leaves were smoked (in herb/tobacco blends) in calumets made from pipestone.

Kinnikinnick is native a pipe blend of ground or shredded herbs and tobacco. One popular woodland blend included sumac bark, red willow bark, native tobacco, spicebush (Lindera benzoin), and bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi). Pipe stems are also historically made from sumac (or ash), gathered in the spring, dried, and then hollowed out.

The drupes (fruit) of Rhus glabra are crimson red and can be fuzzy. A drupe is a fruit with four parts: a thin skin, fleshy body, pit and inner seed. Botanically, these are called: exocarp, mesocarp, pit and seed.

The fruit of some sumac varieties are much prized. They are extremely high in vitamin C. Delicious teas and “lemonades” have been made from the “berries” since the beginning. Almost every country and area has a “famous” drink made from sumac fruit. Just make sure the berries are ripe before they go into your pitcher.

The bright red globules are also dried, then ground, and sold as a spice. Right now, the powder is selling for over $10 an ounce. To use in cooking, the powder is either sprinkled onto the food, or macerated into hot water then added during the cooking process.

Arabic, Mediterranean, Turkish, and Lebanese cuisine use the spice frequently. A mixture of powdered sumac, sesame seeds and thyme is produced and sold under the name of za’atar. Za’atar has been around and used since the Sumerian and Akkadian empires.

Medicinal uses of the plant date back to the beginning as well. Besides the healthy drinks made from the fruit, and the spice it produces, sumac has other medicinal properties. Rhus glabra is listed as an essential herb in “Daniel Moerman’s Native American Medicinal Plants” as well as having over a page devoted to it in Grieve’s “A Modern Herbal,” and Duke’s “Handbook of Medicinal Herbs.”

All parts of the plant have been used for medicine, with each part used to treat a different ailment. It is listed as a broad spectrum antibiotic, an anti-diabetic, antiseptic, astringent, diuretic, and emetic. These are just the medically “proven” uses. It has been used throughout history as a treatment for fever, diarrhea, gangrene, gonorrhea, syphilis, urinary tract problems, and water retention. Sumac is listed over and over as a major player medicinally.

So, as you drive by the crimson, gold, and orange blazes along the roadsides this autumn, be sure to notice (and appreciate) the sumac.

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