Smooth Sumac

IntoTheWoods_SumacFruitStory Lindsay Wilson

Have you noticed the brilliant, spiked, ruby-red berry clusters of sumac this year? They started ripening around July and are ready to harvest from September into the winter months. You’ll want to experiment with these brilliant clusters to make a “lemonade” we plant people have come to call “sumac-ade.” This is also why sumac is also called “lemonade berry.” And as their deep green leaves begin to change into autumnal orange and red, you’ll realize that this medicinal plant is something to plant close to home, as it’s also a fantastic landscaping plant, with varieties ranging from 4 to 35 feet in height.

When I mention sumac in an herb class or plant walk, someone in the group always gets wide-eyed and asks, “Isn’t that poisonous?!” It never fails. Often, I can barely complete my first sentence on sumac before this is asked.

I think the confusion around this plant is rooted in two main points. One obvious one is that there is a plant out there called poison sumac (Toxicodendron vernix) which is quite different than the sumac species I’m referring to for medicine and food. 

However, considering that these words have been paired together, “sumac” and the word “poison,” it’s hard for people to separate that from other species of sumac.  There are about 250 species of sumac in the world and about four are native to Mississippi. In our area of central, eastern Mississippi, I have yet to see the poisonous variety. 

Poison sumac, with its white berries, is easy to differentiate from the red-berried smooth sumac (Rhus glabra), staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina), or winged sumac (Rhus copallinum).  Basically, any sumac with red berries is a medicine or a food. If it has white berries, steer clear!

One of my favorite traditional preparations with sumac is called za’atar. I was introduced to this flavorful seasoning when I lived in San Francisco, years ago. One of my friends was from Palestine and we often talked about culinary curiosities from each of our homes.

We would often get together and cook with another friend of hers from Palestine. My friend would put za’atar in olive oil and we would dip unleavened or pita bread into the oil and spice mix. It was simply divine. The sour taste of ground sumac berries mixed well with the pungent flavors of finely ground thyme, oregano, and marjoram and toasted sesame seeds (with a pinch of sea salt). 

Za’atar is a common spice mix in Middle Eastern countries and variations exist from region to region. However, Palestine is one of the hearths for this well-known spice mix. They spice chicken and other meats with it, use it as a bread dip with olive oil, and also top labneh with it (a kind of cream cheese cured in olive oil, just delicious!).  If you ever find this seasoning at an international market, I encourage you to try it.

Plant foragers in the U.S. make a sun tea or “sumac-ade” with the sour berries of smooth sumac (Rhus glabra). Smooth sumac has the most tart berries of the red-berried sumacs in our area, and it is my favorite species to work with.

My teacher and herbalist, Phyllis D. Light, taught me to pair sumac berries with elderberries for flus and colds that cause runny noses. I use this often and have found it to be very effective at fighting viruses and calming cold and flu symptoms (and, fortunately, it also tastes great). 

Sumac also strengthens the blood in the case of anemia.  It seems that sumac has a particular constituent in it that helps the red blood cells pick up iron better. Sumac has an affinity for the kidneys and urinary tract. And, like many other medicinal plants, it is also anti-inflammatory.

Sumac shows us the fine line many plants have between being a food and a medicine. It also reveals to us how traditional cultures all over the world have always mixed exotic flavors from local plants into common dishes. 

I think that small amounts of medicine in our meals are just what we need. And I think zesty and tangy sumac is a great place to start. Whether you try sumac-ade or make a spice rub for your chicken, I always encourage people to give back to the plant world.  We can do that by protecting our forests and encouraging plant diversity in the places that we live and work.

To make the sumac-ade, simply clip the spiked berry clusters off the sumac plant with pruning shears or sharp scissors. Place the berry clusters in a gallon jar until they loosely fill about ¼ of the jar.  Pour water over the berry clusters and place in the sun for about 2-4 hours. Add honey to taste and drink as you wish.