By Kathleen Hale, Western Reserve Herb Society and Herb Society of America
I am not a witch. But I have a strong sympathy for the ladies who historically lived on the fringes of settlements — bright, colorful, and bringing with them the whisper of sinister stories which are probably false.
Which brings us to sumac. Sumac flourishes, lush and unbidden, along roadsides and at the edges of parking lots. It is not discreet. It is a towering plant that flames with bursts of scarlet drupes. And many of us grew up sure it was POISON. It’s not.
The word “sumac” is of Arabic origin and conveys the idea of redness or becoming reddened. The dried and powdered drupes of some varieties are a valued component of Middle Eastern and South Asian cooking. Za’atar, a spice blend that includes sumac with thyme, sesame seeds, oregano and marjoram, is a favorite.
The sumac family (Anacardiacae) includes several plants in the genus Rhus that are North American natives. The drupes have an acrid taste, but have been soaked to extract a reddish drink, high in vitamin C. Powdered sumac lends a lemony taste when used in cooking, and was used in American Colonial times as additive to lemonade. It made it pink. In fact, one of the common names for staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) is “lemonade tree.”
The scraped bark of Rhus glabra and Rhus typhina was used in the Iroquois tradition in preparations intended to heal or prevent small pox and syphilis.
You can purchase sumac, both in Za’atar blends and on its own, from many online sources.
Now, about that poison aspect. Poison sumac, Toxicodendron vernix, is not really a sumac. It is part of that poison ivy and poison oak crowd. They all contain rash-inducing urushiol, and they all thrive in wetland habitats in eastern North America.
So how do we tell these two apart? Non-poisonous sumac has jagged, toothed edged leaves. Poison sumac has smooth edged leaves. The drupes of poison sumac are white, not red. Keep these differences in mind before using sumac. But if you pick the right one (in the language of flowers) sumac means splendor and intellectual excellence. A perfect offering to any fiercely splendid person you may know.