If you’re a Georgia locavore, eco-consciously choosing to eat food grown locally, then you need to know sumac. It makes a refreshing lemonade substitute. While the Asian-native lemon is grown as close as Florida, the citrus crop is in the top 25 fruits with the highest pesticide load, spoiling our water and our health—consumers and farmworkers. As a substitute, any of the red-berried sumacs can be used interchangeably, though smooth sumac (Rhus glabra), according to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, is “the only shrub or tree species native to all 48 contiguous states.”
As a common roadside shrub, smooth sumac is easy to identify from its tropical look, having pink, hairless stems, and shiny compound leaves comprised of oval leaflets. The females have red berries rising above their leaves. Once you see the berries, you’ll know it’s not poison sumac, which has white berries drooping below the leaves, and a swampy habitat.
Year after year, sumac marks the change of seasons for North American inhabitants: blooming yellowish-white at blackberry-picking time, forming large ruby seedheads during late summer’s harvest, and, when the salmon are spawning in the Pacific Northwest, sumac becomes flames of scarlet leaves in the fall. In the winter, the elongated, pyramidal seedheads stand like darkened torches along roadways.
Historically among many American Indian nations, the young shoots of sumac were peeled and eaten raw, and the berries were either chewed as a thirst-quencher, or brewed as a drink. Also, sumac berry, leaf and root were used for life-threatening conditions, such as dysentery, kidney ailments, tuberculosis, and fevers. Not only is sumac astringent, but studies show it’s highly antibacterial. Other internal uses were as a blood tonic, or to chew the berries or leaves for sore throats, to stop bed-wetting or as a remedy for vomiting, or to make an infusion from the bark for a mother’s milk to flow more abundantly. Externally sumac was a wash for sore eyes, skin, and itchy scalps.
A popular use for sumac among Indian nations was to smoke the leaves. Reddened sumac leaves were harvested in the fall, then de-veined, dried and powdered for either a flavorful additive to tobacco, or a tobacco substitute.
Economically, sumac was valued for dyes, leather tanning, and ink among early European Americans and American Indians. Its berries make a dull, red dye, and its roots and inner bark make a yellow and brilliant black dye.
As a beverage, which looks and tastes like pink lemonade, sumac berries have a cooling, refrigerant quality appreciated on hot days. To make this Americana drink, I grind red sumac berries in a coffee grinder and add them in a large bowl of water, which I place in the fridge overnight. In the morning, I strain the mixture through a coffee filter and either drink as is, or sweeten with local honey.
Making a carbon-reducing step closer to self-sufficiency, you can harvest sumac from wild stands, or you can find sumac commercially, and easily grow an ornamental colony in your own yard.