There is a wide variety of baakwaanaatig (Anishnaabee, translated roughly as “vinegar tree”) or sumac that grows worldwide, from Europe to the Middle East, and across North America. Prior to lemons being introduced to Europe and North america and used widely, sumac was the go-to flavouring in recipes for that tangy, lemony zest.
Poison Sumac – Not edible
The berries and structure of poison sumac are very different from the edible kind. The berries are small and yellow and hang downwards. It has smooth, hairless twigs and buds as opposed to the hairy, edible kinds. Poison sumac looks like this:
Poison sumac is found in more swampy, moist areas and can cause an allergic reaction similar to poison ivy. It should be avoided!
If you do come into contact with this variety, wash immediately and thoroughly with soap as if you were covered in grease and use the sap of the jewelweed (which conveniently usually grows nearby) to help relieve the itch.
Staghorn sumac is an invasive, but plentiful species commonly found on roadsides or in open drier or hilly areas in Ontario, seeking as much sun as possible.
In early spring, some of the blossoms that appear can be collected and dried to make a tea good for stomach upset.
In late summer-early fall, the leaves or the staghorn begin to turn a rusty colour and the wine red berries, which are covered in a light down fuzz begin to ripen. They grow in a tight upright clump.
It is best to pick staghorn sumac that is growing away from the roadside and only in the middle of dry days so it takes less time to dry, doesn’t mould, and so that the rain doesn’t dilute the acidity of the berries. The berries can be harvested by snipping the cone of berries right where it meets the tree. They can be used in tea or lemonade, but require straining to remove the fine hairs. Or the berries and red fluff can be separated from the seeds in a blender and pushed through a fine screen, then baked in the oven on a parchment lined tray for 8-10 minutes at 300 degrees and stored for usage as a spice for up to a year in airtight jars. The separated seeds can also be eaten on salads or as a flavour enhancement.
The leaves and bark of the sumac have been traditionally used in the tanning of hides, and as a dyeing agent, while the wood makes for excellent pipe making, and when carved creates it’s own shellac on it’s outer surface. A wire coat hanger heated in fire can be used to bore a hole through the wood and the inside pulp is also a useful dyeing agent.
Smooth sumac is native to North America and was found almost from coast to coast, though in smaller numbers in southern Ontario in the present day. It produces a similar looking berry cluster to the staghorn and can be used in the same ways.
The smooth sumac’s fresh twigs, however, can be peeled and eaten in salads. The leaves and the young twigs of the smooth sumac were also traditionally used to make tea as a wash to stop bleeding after pregnancy, and to alleviate asthma or breathing conditions and diarrhea, while the roots could be boiled and used as an antiseptic.
The berries can make a purple or red dye. Fermented berries make an orange or brown dye. Twigs and leaves when mixed with ochre and resin can make a black dye, and the roots can make a yellow dye. It is said that the leaves and berries of the sumac were also used to smoke, or as an additive to enhance the flavour and medicinal qualities of the tobacco.
What are your favourite uses or recipes for sumac?