Common Name: Sumac
Scientific Names: Rhus species
Family: Anacardiaceae (the Cashew or Sumac family)
- Lemon/Fragrant Sumac (Rhus aromatica)
- Winged/Shining/Dwarf Sumac (Rhus copallina)
- Elm-Leaved Sumac (Rhus coriaria)
- Smooth Sumac (Rhus glabra)
- Staghorn Sumac (Rhus hirta/typhina)
- Punjab Sumac (Rhus punjabensis)
- Sourberry/Skunkbush (Rhus trilobata)
- Northern Hybrid Sumac (Rhux x pulvinata)
Sumacs are a large family of shrubs, about 250 species, that primarily originate from North America and Africa. The shrubs from North America are best known for its lemony-tart fruit which was used by natives to make natural “pink lemonade”. In the Mediterranean, the flesh of the sumac berry is dried, ground, and used as a lemony spice. This was a common seasoning I really enjoyed while living in Turkey. All sumacs are drought resistant once established, larger species can be used as windbreaks, and smaller species are used as ornamentals. Many varieties are now being used around the world for prevention of soil erosion. They are all fantastic nectar and pollen sources for bees and other beneficial insects as well as providing Winter food and shelter in the thickets these plants can form if allowed.
Native to North America and Africa, Sumac plants were used by natives for food (drink) and medicine. In more recent times, they have been “discovered” by landscapers and used as ornamental plants; however, there has been very little development of these plants, and so they remain rather “wild”.
- While closely related to Poison Sumac (Rhus toxicodendron), Poison oak (Rhus diversiloba) and Poison sumac (Rhus vernix), the species listed in this article are not poisonous.
- The powdered spice from the fruit of the Elm-Leaved Sumac (R. coriaria) is mixed with Syrian Oregano (Origanum vulgare syriacum) and other available spices (Basil, Thyme, etc) in the famous spice mix, Za’atar
Fresh Eating – the fruit from Sumacs are small and very tart, so few people choose to eat them fresh
Tea or Drink made from the berries – traditionally, you can place fruit into water and let soak in the sun to make a “pink lemonade”. Too hot of water releases the bitter tannins. But you can get a more concentrated juice by using some modern technology (here is a link to a site with a fantastic explanation of how to do this)
Dried fruit may be ground (without the seed) and used as a spice – popular in Middle Eastern cuisine
Immature fruit of some species (R. coriaria) can be used as a caper substitute
Ornamental plant – flowers in Spring, fruit in the Summer, and crimson foliage in Autumn
General insect (especially bees) nectar plant
- Food source for wildlife – especially birds in Winter
- Thickets can create habitat for small birds and mammals and other wildlife
- Windbreaks (small to large) – can form thickets that are great at blocking or directing wind
- Prevention of soil erosion – thanks to fibrous network of roots
- Dyes can be made from all parts of the plant (leaves – brown, roots – yellow, inner bark – orange).
- It is also used as a mordant (substance that sets the dye).
- Ink – boiling leaves and fruit.
- Shoots can be used to make strong “pipes” which have been used for tapping maple trees and making flutes
- Some species can grow in maritime enviroments (Staghorn Sumac for sure, not clear on the other species)
Harvesting: October – December.
Storage: Best used fresh or dried
USDA Hardiness Zone: 3-8
AHS Heat Zone: No reliable information available
Chill Requirement:Likely considering the Hardiness Zone and the flowering nature of the plant, but there is no reliable information available
Plant Type: Small Tree, Large Shrub, Medium Shrub, and Small Shrub (depending on the species)
Leaf Type: Deciduous
Forest Garden Use: Canopy Tree for small Forest Garden, Sub-Canopy (Understory), Shrub Layer, or Groundcover (depending on the species/cultivar)
Cultivars/Varieties: Very few cultivars have been produced. This is a very “wild” plant
Pollination: Staghorn Sumacs are dioecious (meaning there are male and female plants)
Flowering: Summer. June-August.
Years to Begin Bearing: 3-5 years
Years of Useful Life: Likely between 30-50 years (less for smaller specimens), but as this plant suckers so easily, this may be irrelevant.
- Lemon/Fragrant Sumac (R. aromatica) – 2-8 feet (0.6-2.4 meters) tall and 6-10 feet (1.8-3 meters) wide
- Winged/Shining/Dwarf Sumac (R. copallina) – 10-20 feet (3-6 meters) tall and wide, much smaller than the Staghorn Sumac, its relative that grows in the same parts of North America
- Elm-Leaved Sumac (R. coriaria) – 10 feet (3 meters) tall and wide
- Smooth Sumac (R. glabra) – 10-15 feet (3-4.5 meters) tall and wide
- Staghorn Sumac (R. hirta/typhina) – 35-50 feet (10-15 meters) tall and wide, often much shorter
- Punjab Sumac (R. punjabensis) – 30-40 feet (9-12 meters) tall
- Sourberry/Skunkbush (R. trilobata) – 4-6 feet (1-1.8 meters) tall and wide
- Northern Hybrid Sumac (R. x pulvinata) – 6-9 feet (1.8-2.7 meters) tall and 10-15 feet (3-4.5 meters) wide
Roots: Fibrous roots that send up suckers which can develop into new plants
Growth Rate: Medium – Fast
Light: Prefers full sun
Shade: Tolerates light shade
Moisture: Medium to dry soils, but can tolerate periods of drought once established
pH: most species prefer fairly neutral soil (6.1 – 7.0)
Minimal. If using this plant in the central portions of a Forest Garden, may need to keep the suckering roots from developing new plants – a quick snip of the clippers works well.
- Can spread easily through the suckering roots and/or through seed. This can be great if you are using it as a windbreak, but can create some additional work if you are using it in the middle of a Forest Garden.
- There are a number of unsubstantiated reports of Sumac being toxic or irritating to the skin, likely from this plant being related to Poison Sumac. This is not true in general; however, any person can develop an allergy to any plant at any time.
Original Article Here