Historically, sumac species were used by Native Americans for a variety of medicinal purposes — to control vomiting and fever, treat scurvy, and as a poultice for skin ailments.
The tart fruits have been chewed as a breath freshener, and old-timers and wild-edibles enthusiasts make sumac tea from the fruits. The beverage is somewhat lemony, and many people add honey or other sweeteners to make a kind of wild lemonade. (There are many tips online.) Be advised that sumac berries may contain trace amounts of the same chemicals that are abundant in poison ivy, so a very small percentage of people who are highly sensitive to poison ivy may develop a strong allergic reaction to drinking sumac tea.
As summer draws to a close, Missouri’s roadsides, fields, and open woodlands begin to show the colors of autumn. Sumacs are a big part of our early fall color season, delighting travelers with their clusters of bright red foliage. Usually, sumacs drop their leaves before the climax of fall color in mid to late October.
You may have eaten Mediterranean food with a sour, maroon-colored power sprinkled over the top. That is za’atar (zatar), an ancient seasoning blend made with the dried, ground berries of Sicilian or elm-leaved sumac (Rhus coriaria), plus certain varieties of thyme, oregano, savory, toasted sesame seeds, and/or other ingredients.
In the Old World, sumac foliage was used to tan leather. The famously soft Morocco leather was traditionally tanned with sumac.
Sumacs are in the same family as poison ivy, but this is also the same family as several economically important fruits and nuts, including pistachio, mango, and cashew. To some degree and in at least certain parts of the plants, all contain urushiols — the same chemicals that cause dermatitis from poison ivy. One reason why cashews are so expensive is that the process of preparing them for sale and export releases a caustic resin that can cause skin to blister.
Some sumacs, especially fragrant and winged sumac, have grown in popularity as landscaping shrubs. One big benefit is their brilliant fall color. Their thicket-forming growth make them good for parking lot and highway-median plantings. They generally need a lot of space where they can be allowed to spread and form colonies. Smooth sumac is less widely planted, because it can spread aggressively from its tough rootstocks and can be tough to eradicate. Fragrant sumac can make a good foundation planting or a good screen during the growing season; there are a selection of varieties and cultivars available.
The word “sumac” has come to our language, via French and Latin, from a similar-sounding ancient Syrian/Aramaic word meaning “red.”