Sumacs are very common in our area, most often found in overgrown fields and areas that have been disturbed and exposed. While considered a weed to many landowners, it does have the virtues of providing cover and food for wildlife, and nice fall coloration for human enjoyment.
Sumacs, also called “shumate” by some, are woody shrubs that tend to grow as multi-stem clumps with fairly smooth brownish bark spattered with small lines or dots. The average sumac is around 7-10 feet tall, but can reach 25 feet. The leaves are compound (more than one leaf) and configured like a feather, having10 to 30 leaflets. The leaves are among the first to change color in the fall and are a brilliant red. Their flowers bloom in horn-like clumps at the tops of the branches, and around September those clumps form showy, bright red fruit that is quite striking. The shrubs are underutilized as a landscape plant for color and interesting form.
The two most common sumacs in our area include smooth sumac and winged sumac. There is also a small bush-like species called fragrant sumac that only has three leaflets. There is a poison sumac that can cause dermatitis like poison ivy, but it’s only found in swampy places and not in our area. Sumacs are in the same family as poison ivy, but most species lack the irritating qualities.
In the past, sumac had a number of uses. Native Americans rarely smoked pure tobacco, but would create blends that included cured sumac leaves. They also enjoyed making a lemonade-like beverage from the fall fruit. The berries are covered with tiny red hairs that contain malic acid, the same acid found in unripe apples. If you want to try the drink yourself, here’s a recipe and a warning: Be sure to correctly identify any wild food before eating, and try only small quantities at first in case you have a food allergy. Gather the ripe fruit clumps before hard rains wash out most of the acid. Put the heads in a large container and cover with water. Pound and stir for 10 minutes with a wooden pestle or potato masher. Strain the resulting juice through several layers of cloth to remove all the fine hairs. Sweeten to taste. Indians liked this drink so well they used to gather large quantities of the heads in their prime and dried them indoors, so they could be used all winter.
Native Americans also used sumac to treat quite a few maladies. A tea made from the leaves was used to treat diarrhea, asthma, and mouth disease. A tea made from the bark was used to treat dysentery and fever. Tea made from the roots was used to induce vomiting.
Birds are the main wildlife users of sumac for food, especially during the important winter months. Grouse, turkey, quail, bluebird, cardinal, and crow all consume the fruit, while rabbit and deer will eat the twigs, fruit and bark.