Other Names: Sumach, Sicilian Sumac, Tanner’s Sumach, Sumak
Medicinal Uses: Bowel conditions, Cold, flu and fever, Water retention, Headaches, Kidney anemia
Sumac also spelled sumach is any one of approximately 250 species of flowering plants in the genus Rhus and related genera, in the family Anacardiaceae. Sumacs grow in subtropical and temperate regions throughout the world, especially in Africa and North America.
Sumacs are shrubs and small trees that can reach a height of 1–10 metres (3.3–33 ft). The leaves are spirally arranged; they are usually pinnately compound, though some species have trifoliate or simple leaves. The flowers are in dense panicles or spikes 5–30 centimetres (2.0–12 in) long, each flower very small, greenish, creamy white or red, with five petals. The fruits form dense clusters of reddish drupes called sumac bobs. The dried drupes of some species are ground to produce a tangy purple spice.
Sumacs propagate both by seed (spread by birds and other animals through their droppings), and by new shoots from rhizomes, forming large clonal colonies.
The word sumac traces its etymology from Old French sumac (13th century), from Medieval Latin sumach, from Arabic summāq (سماق), from Syriac summāq – meaning “red.”
The fruits (drupes) of the genus Rhus are ground into a deep-red or purple powder used as a spice in Middle Eastern cuisine to add a lemony taste to salads or meat. In Arab cuisine, it is used as a garnish on meze dishes such as hummus and is added to salads in the Levant. In Iranian (Persian and Kurdish) cuisine, sumac is added to rice or kebab. In Turkish cuisine, it is added to salad-servings of kebabs and lahmacun. Rhus coriaria is used in the spice mixture za’atar.
In North America, the Smooth Sumac (R. glabra) and the Staghorn Sumac (R. typhina) are sometimes used to make a beverage termed “sumac-ade,” “Indian lemonade” or “rhus juice”. This drink is made by soaking the drupes in cool water, rubbing them to extract the essence, straining the liquid through a cotton cloth and sweetening it. Native Americans also used the leaves and drupes of the Smooth and Staghorn Sumacs combined with tobacco in traditional smoking mixtures.
The leaves of certain sumacs yield tannin (mostly pyrogallol-type), a substance used in vegetable tanning. Notable sources include the leaves of R. coriaria, Chinese gall on R. chinensis, and wood and roots of R. pentaphylla. Leather tanned with sumac is flexible, light in weight, and light in color. One type of leather made with sumac tannins is morocco leather.
Sumac was used as a treatment for half a dozen different ailments in medieval medicine, primarily in Islamic countries (where sumac was more readily available than in Europe). An 11th-century shipwreck off the coast of Rhodes, excavated by archeologists in the 1970s, contained commercial quantities of sumac drupes. These could have been intended for use as medicine, or as a culinary spice, or as a dye.