Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Herbal Medicine: Sumac

Staghorn Sumac
When I say the word, "Sumac" many of you might think "poisonous!"  In fact, Rhus vernix, or Poison Sumac, is just one species in a large genus that contains many safe and medicinal varieties such as Smooth Sumac (Rhus glabra), Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina), Winged Sumac (Rhus copallinum) and others of the red berried nature.

So let's get to the $1,000,000 question, how do you differentiate the poisonous variety?  There is a lot of confusion out there if you google pictures on the internet.  Knowing your plant ID is important, and Sumac makes it very easy for us to differentiate the poisonous plant from the non-toxic ones by the berries.  Poison Sumac fruits greenish-white berries that are sparsely scattered together. The safe varieties produce red berries in compact, clustered heads.  White berries are often (not always) a trademark of toxic plants--Poison Ivy bears white berries too.  "Berries of white, take flight" is an old adage.  Poison Sumac also enjoys mucky, swampy areas while other varieties tend to grow along roadsides, field edges and wood lines.

Poison Sumac

Poison sumac has an acrid sap that causes contact dermatitis.  Upon exposure and depending on your sensitivity, as with Poison Ivy, one can have an obnoxious rash or a more severe allergic reaction.  So it's best to know what species of sumac you are dealing with before clearing the landscape and especially before making medicine.

Let's talk about 3 of the varieties of safe, red-berried Sumac I mentioned earlier:  Smooth, Staghorn, and Winged.  Smooth Sumac is named such because the red berries are smooth.  Staghorn and Winged Sumacs have red, fuzzy berries.  Staghorn Sumac got its name because it grows very tall, bold, with the berry head growing in an upright fashion like antlers.  Matthew Wood points out that Sumac growing on the edge of the woods where the deer hang out classifies it as a "deer medicine"--a kidney medicine.  Winged Sumac derives its name from the leafy "wings" that grow along the branch between leaflets, kind of like a flying squirrel's "wings".

The red berries are tangy and delicious, containing malic acid that is found in apples and can be used to make a delicious, lemonade-like tea.  Because it is water soluble, a heavy rain will wash away all the taste (and most of the medicinal attributes), so one harvests the ripe berries before the rain comes or after it has been dry for a while.  However, if it is towards the end of the season and a big rain comes, you can say goodbye to harvesting for the year.  I postponed picking Sumac once and a hurricane came through.  After waiting about two weeks afterwards and it had been relatively dry, every single red Sumac cluster I could find was absolutely tasteless. 

If you look at the anatomy of the berry, especially that of Smooth Sumac, it looks like a red blood cell.  This is our first clue to one of Sumac's main medicines.  The red exterior is a blood red tacky, tangy, almost oily covering hiding a perfectly kidney shaped, tiny black seed.  So, blood and the kidneys, what is the connection there?  Sumac is superbly helpful in kidney anemia as was taught to me by Phyllis Light.  Sumac helps build blood because its action on the kidneys encourages them to release the hormone erythropoietin.  Erythropoietin is made by the kidneys and signals your bone marrow to produce more red blood cells.  

Phyllis also teaches that it brings the element of earth into watery conditions.  Indeed, Sumac will stop excess of fluids from the sinuses, armpits if you sweat too much, heavy menstrual flow, excessive salivary secretions or urination, etc.  Earth dams water.  She also considers it a great substitute for Elderberry with influenza and often combines the two together.  Sumac also helps the loss of water/diarrhea side of the flu.

The tangy Sumac berry is still used widely in the Middle East as a spice and seasoning.  So here, once again we have a food that can be medicine.  It is delicious on meat, in salad dressings, and makes a delicious infused vinegar if you macerate it in apple cider vinegar.  It is great to add in jellies or jam.  The tang of the Sumac cuts the sweetness of the sugar content and creates a more complex and satisfying flavor.  Herbal medicine can certainly compliment and boost your culinary skills to manage not just food's flavor profile but also your personal nutrition and health better.

Maybe you will be interested to see what types of Sumac grow near you!  The berries redden and ripen near the end of August, give or take a couple of weeks depending on your location.  There are male and female plants and only the females produce the berries.  Maybe this year you can safely enjoy this plant that the Native Americans used and cultures around the world still employ in their daily lives.

This information is not intended to be a replacement for advice from a licensed medical professional.  It is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.