At first glance, sumac seems to be a textbook trash tree. Big and coarse, it shows up unannounced and unwelcome, quickly establishing colonies in vacant lots, roadsides and gardens. Not fussy about soil type, it thrives on polluted city air, sprouting in gutters or cracks in the pavement. It grows rapidly, producing brittle wood and multiple suckers that, unmanaged, soon overtake small gardens. Compounding sumac’s image problem is an unfortunate confusion with poison sumac (Toxicodendron vernix), a relative that grows exclusively in boggy areas. Urushiol, the oily organic substance and culprit responsible for poison ivy’s (T. radicans) nasty reputation, is also the allergen in the sap of poison sumac.

Two species of sumac tree are native to North America, smooth (Rhus glabra) and staghorn (R. typhina). Found in all of the forty-eight mainland United States and into Canada and Mexico, sumac is a member of the cashew family, Anacardiaceae, which includes such diverse plants as mango (Mangifera indica), smoke tree (Cotinus sp.) and pistachio (Pistacia vera). This deciduous, woody perennial produces alternate, compound leaves that grow 12- 24 inches long and are composed of 11-31 leaflets, each 2 to 5 inches long. Red fruits form in compact, upright clusters that resemble fuzzy cones perched at the tips of branches. Sumac reproduces itself by the seeds (distributed by birds) and by rhizomes, the horizontal underground stems that produce its vigorous suckers. It thrives in any type of soil except for wet, poorly drained locations. Foliage of sumac resembles that of Ailanthus altissima (Tree-of-Heaven) and, to a lesser degree, black walnut (Juglans nigra).

Tree of Heaven (Photo: McInnis)

Sumac spice, the dried fruit (botanically a drupe, as is peach, plum, and cherry), is a staple in Middle Eastern cuisine. The culinary sumac of the Mediterranean region is R. coriaria, which can be found growing wild in Sicily. Its tart flavor is a refreshing alternative to lemon or vinegar.

Sumac is a popular condiment in Turkey and Iran, where the ground dried fruits are liberally sprinkled over rice. Mixed with freshly cut onions, it is frequently eaten as an appetizer. The Turkish fast food specialty döner kebap is sometimes flavored with sumac powder. Another use of sumac comes from Lebanon, Syria and Egypt. The fruits are cooked with water into a thick, very sour essence which is then added to meat and vegetable dishes; this preparation dates to Roman times. Sumac species from the Old and New World have similar flavor.

Sumac fruit (Photo: McInnis)

Here in North America, a tart and flavorful beverage of Native American origin can be prepared from sumac. The recipe is as follows: harvest seed clusters when they are fully mature, usually in July to early August. Sample each cluster for taste; a dark red color is a good indicator that the flavor is fully developed. (Half a dozen clusters will be enough to produce a pitcherful.) Mash the clusters with a potato masher, wooden spoon or your fingers. Cover fruit with cold water and let it steep for a few hours. (Don’t use hot water; it will produce a bitter brew.) Strain through cheesecloth or a coffee filter and sweeten, if you like. This sumac-ade can also be used instead of plain water when preparing jelly or jam with fruits that benefit from a bit of tartness.

The young, tender tips of sumac shoots (especially the staghorn type), collected in early summer, can be peeled and eaten raw or cooked. They are sweet and delicious, much like raspberry stalks. Because of its relationship to cashews or mangoes, those with allergies to these should avoid consuming sumac. Ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) contributes to the astringent quality of the fruit. In addition to antioxidant and antimicrobial properties, sumac is reputed to benefit digestion and help to reduce a fever. Tannins are found in all parts of the plant, with particularly high concentrations in bark and root. These plant parts were used for tanning leather since antiquity and also in folk medicine. The fleshy pericarp’s dark red color is from the anthocyanin pigments. Sumac fruits contain 15% fatty oil.

The word “sumac” is of Semitic origin, meaning “to be red.” The name came to European languages via Arabic as-summaq [السماق]. The German name Essigbaum “vinegar tree” refers to the tart flavor of the berries, as does the Dutch zuurkruid, “sour condiment.”

The fuzzy stems of staghorn sumac (Photo: McInnis)

Despite its weedy reputation, sumac is not without landscape value. Too sprawling perhaps for a tiny garden, it excels as erosion control on a hillside. In the garden, combine with other large-leaved ornamentals and big blooms for a lush tropical effect. A grouping of sumac planted along the west side of a porch or breezeway will provide seasonal privacy in summer. It will shade the interior from the hot afternoon sun, but allow its warming rays in the winter. If sumac is surrounded by lawn it can be kept in bounds by mowing. Suckers are easily removed from planting beds by pulling.

Foliage of Rhus typhina ‘Laciniata’ (Photo: McInnis)

The laceleaf form of Staghorn Sumac, ‘Laciniata’ or ‘Dissecta’, forms a delicate, ferny mass of foliage similar to Japanese Maple. In the fall, sumac rivals or outshines the most brilliant native maples for vivid autumn color. It is displayed to its best advantage backlit against a dark background. In winter, the branched stems of staghorn sumac, covered with soft hairs, are said to resemble deer antlers in velvet.

Not too shabby for a trash tree.

Sumac shines in autumn (Photo: University of Wisconsin-Madison)

J. McInnis