This week’s plant for #WildEdibleWednesday is Rhus typhina, or Staghorn Sumac. Dramatic and exotic-looking with its bright red fruiting bodies, sumac is part of the Anacardiaceae family of plants that includes cashews, mangoes, and pistachios, as well as Brazilian pepper, poison ivy, and poison oak. There are 250 or so various sumac species which are common throughout the Northern hemisphere. Although we’re focusing on Staghorn Sumac today, the same edible and medicinal qualities apply to nearly every species in the genus.
Before we continue, a word on Poison Sumac – Staghorn Sumac only has one deadly mimic, but it’s a doozie. Poison sumac is the most contact-toxic plant in North America, and it’s just as nasty when ingested. Some botanists claim it’s the most toxic plant on the continent, period. That means it beats out Poison Hemlock, Castor Bean, Foxglove, and Jimsonweed, among many others, which is no joke whatsoever. The smoke can cause death by pulmonary edema when inhaled, so don’t burn any sumac unless you’ve got a positive ID on it. The good news is, it’s not too difficult to distinguish from the good sumacs. First off, it’s rare. Poison sumac is not a common plant. Its distribution is sporadic, it’s slow and inefficient to germinate, and it’s limited to a very specific habitat. I’ve only seen maybe three groves of it in my lifetime. Secondly, it does not share habitat with other sumacs. Poison sumac is exclusively a water-loving plant, growing only in swampy areas, river banks, and creek bottoms. Edible sumacs are found in upland areas and don’t like to get their feet wet. Thirdly, it has white, waxy berries. All edible sumacs have red, rough-textured ones. Now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about the edible sumacs.
Staghorn sumac, winged sumac, and smooth sumac are the most common sumac species in Georgia. Sumacs are a transitional species in most forests. They grow out of freshly disturbed areas, and live 10-15 years before being crowded out by larger trees. They are found around field edges, in pastures, waste areas like abandoned home sites, roadsides, and are occasionally cultivated. They prefer dry, upland areas, and are very tolerant of poor soil. In fact, they’ll grow where few other things will. They are tropical-looking large shrubs or small trees ranging from 3-35' tall, with twisted branches and umbrella-shaped leaf sets. They never grow straight. Staghorn sumac has alternate, pinnately compound leaves, 1’-2’ long, with serrated edges. They are spectacular in the fall… sumac is some of the best autumn foliage around, turning brilliant shades of red, orange, and yellow. The bark is smooth and silvery, interrupted by rough black nodes. The plant flowers from May-July with huge whitish-yellow clusters of tiny flowers. The most dramatic feature of this plant, however, is its fruit. The clusters of berries (technically drupes) are a rich scarlet red, and are presented on 1’-2’ long fruiting spikes that jut out from the crown of the plant. They are unmistakable, and can’t be missed. The fruits themselves are tiny (about the size of a BB), and have a unique velvety texture.
Speaking of those berries… they’re one of the highest plant sources of vitamin C around. In fact, when the berries are fresh, they’ll be frosted with a thin, white coat of malic acid, secreted through their skin. They are edible on their own, but the most effective way to enjoy them is by making the traditional Cherokee beverage known as Quallah. There are several ways of making it, but all revolve around the principle of a lukewarm or cold-water infusion. Your ratio is a dozen or so large seedheads to a gallon of water. (This is an inexact science.) Take your seedheads, cover them with cold water, and crush them up with your hands. Be thorough – roll them in between your palms, make sure they all come off the stems, etc. Allow the mixture to soak for 15-20 minutes. When it’s time, start cleaning the mixture by pulling out the stems and scooping out the seeds. Once you’ve done your initial cleaning, you can filter it through a shemagh, cheesecloth, or strainer to get the rest of the seeds, stem pieces, dead bugs, etc. Add sugar or honey to taste (you’ll definitely want to – it’s sour enough to turn your mouth wrongside out if you don’t), and you’re left with a pinkish-red “Cherokee lemonade,” which is highly refreshing on a hot day. In addition to being delicious, Quallah also has an array of medicinal properties. It is excellent medicine for your kidneys. It is a diuretic and nephrotic, so it helps flush your kidneys and improves their function. It’s excellent for removing the uric acid crystals which can lead to kidney stones. One of its most interesting qualities is as a refrigerant – meaning that even if the beverage isn’t cold, it makes you feel cooler. This makes it a great thing to give someone who’s really suffering from a fever. Sumac is also a winter wild edible – the berries hang on the plant well into the winter, and can be used to make Quallah up into February or March.
Besides the berries, the peeled shoots of Sumac are also edible. They are best gathered in the spring when they’re fresh. When you snap them off, make sure they don’t have a white pithy core. It’s not bad for you, it just doesn’t taste good. These shoots can be eaten raw, steamed, boiled, roasted, sautéed, or added to soups and stews. They have a mild, grassy, asparagus-like flavor. Other cultures around the world where sumac is native make good use of it as well. Throughout the Mediterranean, North and East Africa and the Middle East, sumac berries are dried and ground into a spice called za’atar. It gives a tart, lemony flavor to dishes, and is especially used for seasoning meat. If you’ve ever had Ethiopian food and wondered what they seasoned their lamb with, it was probably powdered sumac berries.
In addition to the wonders of Quallah, there are other ways Sumac shines as a medicinal plant. A hot infusion (tea) of the berries is great as a cold and flu treatment, partly because of its powerhouse levels of vitamin C. An infusion made from the roots or inner bark is a powerful antiseptic, astringent, and diuretic. It has similar properties to the berries, but far more powerful: It’s great for treating any issues with the urinary tract, whether it’s kidney or bladder infections, retention of water, kidney and bladder stones, or painful urination. It also has the property of stimulating breast milk flow, which is great for women who are breastfeeding. Externally, the leaves can be used as a poultice to treat skin rashes, including, ironically, contact dermatitis from poison sumac. When dried, powdered, and made into a salve, the inner bark is awesome as an external antiseptic, and can be used in place of any over-the-counter antibiotic ointment. Just be sure to collect the bark during the growing season – it’s the sap that has the medicinal qualities, and when the plant is dormant, the bark is much less effective. If you’re really serious about using it as medicine, collect the bark in spring when the sap rises, and dry it over the summer. Sumac is generally considered a very safe plant, even for pregnant or nursing women. However, a word of caution: If you’re allergic to mangoes, cashews, or pistachios, check with your doctor before trying anything with sumac. Since it’s so closely related to those above plants and has many of the same chemical compounds, you may be allergic to it as well. (Natalie Collins, if you’re reading this, take note.
Sumac also has some practical uses for bushcraft and pioneering – if you think the red berries would stain fabric, you’re absolutely right. They can be used to make red, black, or brown fabric dye, depending on what stage you harvest them at, and how you prepare them. When the stems are cut or broken, sumac releases lots of white, milky sap. This sap is high in tannic acid and gallic acid, and can be used for tanning leather.
Sumac is kind of an oddball. It’s closest relative is a cashew, but you can make lemonade out of it. One species is arguably the deadliest plant on the continent, while the others are healers who can help mitigate its effects. It was sacred to the Cherokee, as it is often the first plant to change color in the fall and is considered a herald of the change of seasons. It was also the source of their favorite drink, one that can easily go head-to-head with any citrus lemonade. It’s a tree, but at the same time, it really isn’t. At any rate, it’s a wonderfully unique and valuable plant, and well worth getting to know.
Have you ever made Quallah? Or used sumac medicinally? Or had a bad experience with poison sumac? Tell us in the comments!
And if you’re a fan of #WildEdibleWednesday, we’ve got two events that you’re going to love. One is our Sunday Afternoon Bushcraft: Bug Repellent course coming up this Sunday, August 26th from 2pm-7pm. It’s going to feature salves, sprays, and a whole host of medicinal plants. Register for it here at www.sarcraft.com/sunday-afternoon-bushcraft. And if you want to try Quallah and learn how to make it yourself, come to REI Alpharetta on Wednesday, August 29th for our FREE Summer Wild Edibles seminar. You can register for that one here: https://www.rei.com/event/summer-wild-edibles-with-sarcraft/alpharetta/216823
See you soon!