Some of my favorite memories from my youth are of going out on long walks with my mother in late fall or winter, collecting items for a wintry bouquet or wreath. The luminescent money plant, nandina and holly berries, pine cones, cattails, twisted bits of vine-strangled boughs, beautyberry, and at the center of it all—the center of all this after-splendor—was always sumac. At that time of year, long straight grayish stalk, any memories of its leaves now fallen away, with a flame-shaped plume of strangely fuzzy and blood-red berries. Even on the coldest days, the very sight of those berries made me think home. hearth. safety. comfort…

Other names:
Sumac, Sumach, Smooth Sumac

Anacardiaceae—Cashew family

Sumac berries from last fall

Parts used:
Bark, roots, berries, leaves

Astringent, antiseptic, tonic, antibiotic, and amphoteric. The bark is sometimes considered a galactagogue, and the root tea is emetic and diuretic (Foster, 281). “Of 100 medicinal plants screened for antibiotic activity, this species was most active, attributed to content of gallic acid, 4-methoxygallic acid, and methyl gallate,” (Foster, 281).

The most common indication is ulcers, both internal and external. In Cherokee tradition, sumac is used to treat sunburn and skin ulcers (Garrett, 141), specifically, a tea is poured “over sunburn blisters; bark tea drunk to make human milk flow abundantly; chew red berries to stop bedwetting; eat to stop vomiting,” (Hamel, 57). American Indians also smoked sumac leaves for asthma, and “leaf tea used for asthma, diarrhea, stomatosis (mouth diseases), dysentery,” (Foster, 281), as well as chronic cases of inflammation, irritation, and ulcers on both internal and external mucous membranes (Ellingwood). Steven Foster also recommends sumac for scrofula, “leukorrhea, and anal and uterine prolapse,” (Foster, 281). Matthew Wood concurs with the anxiety-related indications and ulcers, but also adds the mental indications of low self-esteem or cowardice, fearfulness or impatience, as well as diarrhea or constipation, poor appetite or excessive appetite, “weakness of attention and memory,” (Wood, 304), all of which makes me think that this is good Vata medicine (referring to the Vata dosha in Ayurveda), what with the mental indications and the systemic polar extremes.

Volatile oils, tannins, resin, “gallic acid, albumen, gum, starch. The berries contain malic acid in combination with lime,” (Ellingwood).

Sumac - Rhus glabra

Growing information:
Native shrub that grows in fields or woodland clearings throughout America’s Eastern states, smooth, toothed leaves and branches with tight flame-like clusters of slightly fuzzy red berries.

“The bark is collected in the spring, when the sap is running… The outer bark, though easily peeled, should be kept attached to the inner bark. The berries are collected as soon as they are ripe and are tinctured fresh to prevent growth of worms,” (Wood, 303).

Tincture for berries, tincture or decoction for bark, dried powdered berries as seasoning for food

Sumac has been used as a food source and herbal medicine in Native American tradition (Eastern) for hundreds of years, some of which is related in the “Indications” section above. It has also been used for black and red dyes in North America (Wood, 297).

Not to be confused with its cousin, the Poison Sumac, “which has white fruits and toothless leaves and grows in or near swamps,” (Foster, 281).