The winter edition of Catfish Alley Magazine (http://catfishalleymag.com/) is out! I wanted to share my recent (unedited) article on sumac with you folks in the blog-o-sphere. Enjoy!
Have you noticed the brilliant, spiked, ruby-red berry clusters of sumac this year? They started ripening around July and will be 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, ranging from four 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. It’s at this point that I take time to demystify this largely misunderstood edible and medicinal plant.
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. However, poison sumac is the only poisonous species of sumac. And, I would call it irritating more than poisonous, something like poison ivy, although I have been told it is like poison ivy on steroids in terms of being a very toxic contact plant.
There are about 250 species of sumac in the world and about four that are native to Mississippi. In Mississippi, poison sumac is more commonly found in the southwest area and along the coast. In our area of central, eastern Mississippi, I have yet to see it.
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!
Secondly, the amateur botanists out there may have noticed the genus of poison sumac that I mentioned above, Toxicodendron. This is the same genus as poison ivy, so we can see that they are related. Further, poison ivy is in the same plant family as all sumac species, and even cashews for that matter. The plant family is called Anacardiaceae and members of this plant family are found mostly in the tropical regions of the world. Sumac and poison ivy (and poison oak) are the only plants of this family that have made it into the temperate world of North America.
Considering that plants in the Anacardiaceae family are known to cause skin and mucus membrane irritation, it is easy to see why there is a healthy precaution around these plants. Certain people even get rashes when they eat cashews or mangoes (which are also in this family). So, for those of you that are severely allergic to poison ivy, I would use a bit of caution with all sumac species. However, I have yet to see anyone have an allergic reaction to the red-berried sumac species.
For me, the safety of a plant can be realized with the extent of cultural or traditional uses it has. 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 respective 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). This was one of my first introductions to sumac, a plant native to my hometown in central eastern Mississippi that I knew so little about, then.
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 purchase it and try it!
The story of za’atar is just one testament to this plants safe edibility and tastiness! In the US, among plant foragers, it has become common practice to 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. It is best to harvest the berries when there has been little rain as the rain will wash off the malic acid which is needed for more tartness.
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 it loosely fills 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!
Since I have already begun to talk about how to ingest this plant, I should back up and explain how this plant is used medicinally and what its energetics are. The energetics of a plant (heating or cooling, moistening or drying) help herbalists and even chefs discern how a plant will behave in the body.
Sumac berries are cooling and drying and has a sour taste. However, the natives of eastern US and even the Bedouin people of the Middle East and Palestine area used more than just the berries. They would chew on the stalks of sumac as a strengthening tonic. They would also use the leaves as topical poultices for wounds and burns. However, I’m going to stick to the berries as this is what I’m familiar with.
They say that sumac’s genus name “rhus” refers to the Greek word for “flux” which is “rhu.” This speaks to the main medicinal usage of sumac which balances the fluids of the body whether that is blood, phlegm, or saliva.
Due to its astringent action on the tissues, it will balance excess or deficiency of these fluids. Therefore it has been used for runny noses, heavy menses, and even for dribbling urine. However, sumac is also an emmenagogue (brings on the menses if they are scanty or late), which points back to its Latin name and its Greek origins.
My teacher, Phyllis D Light, taught me to pair sumac berries with elder berries 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).
Phyllis also taught me to use sumac to strengthen 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 sneaked in 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 a 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.