|Winged sumac I found|
on a recent foraging trip
Much like Goldenrod, Sumac has gotten a bad rap... I can't tell you how many times people have told me to look out for the "Poison Sumac" when I tell them I am going out to forage for sumac. So to start with I am going to say this... unless you are wading into a marsh to forage for Cattails, you will never be in danger of running into poison sumac, more on this later in the post. Sumac, from the genus of Rhus, is a large woody shrub raging from 3ft to as high as 30 ft, depending on species. They have pinnate leaves, feather-like leaf divisions arising on either side of a center axis, like a palm frond or a fern. The leave "fronds" are arranged in a spiral formation around the branches. The flowers form in dense pannicles of tiny greenish to creamy white flowers. The fruit drupes that form in a cluster known as a"bob", are reddish purple and borne above the leaves The Sumac bobs ripen in August to September in our area, but if weather is dry in the fall you can still find some sumac that is fit to pick as late as October.
There are many varieties of sumac in the U.S.A. Here in the Piedmont of North Carolina, the most common species are the Winged Sumac and the Smooth Sumac, but I have seen the Staghorn sumac, that is usually found in the mountains of western N.C., growing here in the here in the Piedmont as well. Usually the Staghorn sumac found wild in the Piedmont has been planted as a landscape feature by human hands and the birds have scattered the seed in the wild places. On my most recent sumac search I found all three varieties in a hours drive through the country. You can do an online search for the varieties that grow in your locale, there are usually even some good photos of what the species look like.
|Winged sumac air drying|
The leaves can be harvested and used fresh or collected while they are still green and dried for later use, the bark can be collected at any time and dried or peeled and used fresh when needed. For medicinal purposes, use one tsp. of either bark or leaves steeped 1/2 hour hot water. When cool consume 2-4 cups a day. Use as a gargle or mouthwash for oral issues. In tincture, a dose is 10-20 drops in some water 2 times a day.
Now for a few words about poison sumac before I go on to talk about harvesting, storing and using sumac. Sumac, Rhus coriaria and Poison Sumac, Toxicodendron vernix, are members of the same family as poison ivy and cashews. Poison sumac grows in boggy areas and wetlands. In North Carolina it is only found in Coastal areas and swampy areas of the Sandhills. It is also found in the swamps of the deep south and marshy areas throughout the New England and Great Lake states. The plant grows directly in the water or in the boggy areas very close to the water. It is a shrub or small tree. The leaves can look similar to poison ivy and the stem that connect the leaflets to the branches are red and some of the leaves, particularly the newest leaves have a reddish tinge. The woody parts of the plant are grey and smooth, and the mature berries which are borne underneath the leaves in loose clusters, are greenish white. To get into poison sumac is unlikely unless you are wading in a marsh, foraging cattail or wapato in areas where it is common. But if you are likely to do that, it would be advisable to know what it looks like and to steer clear of it, because it is extremely irritating to the skin, like poison ivy on steroids... The blisters go very deep and can persist for weeks on end.
Start watching for the ripening sumac in August. It is possible to still find viable bobs well into October but they earlier ones will be more likely to have the highest content of malic and ascorbic acid. To harvest Sumac, look for plants that are in open places, away from traffic and road runoff. Also it is important to look at the ground and make sure that there is no swaths of dead brown vegetation that would indicate that an herbicide has been sprayed in the area. Choose fresh bobs that have no mold or insect infestations and cut the bob stems an inch or so below the last berries in the cluster. Some varieties are fuzzy and thickly clustered together, (Staghorn sumac), other are loosely clustered with shiny berries sticky with malic acid, (Winged sumac). All varieties are useful.
|Staghorn sumac in the fall.|
To dry the sumac bobs, spread them out in an area that gets good air circulation, but is out of the weather. Turn the bobs every couple days to make sure they are drying uniformly. They should be dry enough to grind in a week or so. A dehydrator on fan, no heat, can be used as well. I have a mesh hanging dryer made by Stack!t that I use to dry my sumac and I am very happy with the results.
|In dry weather the Stack!t hangs under the cover of our veranda. If it is rainy,|
I hang it in the house and point a box fan at it.
One hint, the berries that are sticky do not ever seem dry due to the amount of sticky residue on the berries but after a week or so the skin on the berry will be dry enough for grinding. Once dry, the berries can be stored as bobs in an airtight container for use later or they can separated from the stems and picked through for undesirable berries and then the remaining berries can be ground in a spice mill just long enough to loosen the dried fruit from the seeds.Then sift through a flour sifter or strainer with mesh large enough to let the fruit flakes go through but small enough to keep the seeds in the strainer. If all the fruit fibers didn't come off the first time through, return to the spice mill and sift again until all the fruit fibers have been removed. The red flakes that come off the seeds are what can be made into za'atar or other seasonings.
Here is a simple recipe for Za'atar:
1/4 cup dried and ground sumac fruit
2 Tblsp. dried thyme
1 Tblsp. white sesame seeds, toasted
1 tsp. sea salt or dulse
Combine and mix well. Store in an airtight jar and use within a year, since ground sumac loses its potency over time. The Za'atar can be used to season chicken or fish,sprinkled on soft cheese or hummus, but my favorite thing to do with it is to brush pita bread with extra virgin olive oil and freshly pressed garlic, then sprinkle a nice thick coat on of the za'atar on top and broil until the top of the spice is lightly toasted. I cut it like a pizza and serve with a Mediterranean meal or as an appetizer with hummus. Yum!
Sumac bobs may be soaked for several hours or overnight in room temperature water, then strained and sweetened with honey for sumac-ade, a natural look alike for pink lemonade. Since hot water draws out the tannins, making the water bitter, only use room temperature water for making sumac beverages.
Sumac is also a very effective agent for tanning hides for leather since it is high in tannins. The tannins also make sumac a desirable plant for those who dye yarn or fabric, since they do not need a mordant. The tannins also make for color fast dyes in colors ranging from beige and yellow to pinkish red and black, depending on what part of the plant is used.
So, this sadly misunderstood plant is actually of great value to the forager, healer, tanner and dyer. As a Prepper, knowing where to find the medicinal herbs and forage foods in your area is a good idea. I hope you will keep your eyes peeled for stand of sumac to forage from and maybe add them to your herbal pharmacy and forage pantry!
The above information is for educational purposes and is not intended to treat or diagnose illness. It is the responsibility of the individual to research and educate themselves before making health choices for themselves and their families.