One of the great things about summer is the incredible bounty of wild foods that are available. By far the most popular are the wild fruits because they are easy to recognize and taste great. In the northern temperate regions, most indigenous fruits are berries that are not only delicious, they are very nutritious and loaded with antioxidants.
The berry season starts with gooseberries in late June and ends with blackberries in late August. When I’m out wandering around in the woods and fields, I’m always grateful when I come across a good crop of berries and can enjoy a handful or two and then carry on, leaving most of them for the birds and mammals that depend on them for their sustenance.
When it comes to berries, not all of them are what they appear to be. One of my favourites are not particularly juicy and don’t look very appetizing. They are the fruits of staghorn sumac (also spelled sumach). These clusters of fuzzy, red berry-like fruits make a refreshing drink that I love to enjoy on a warm summer day.
The best way to prepare it is to steep some of the fruits in water in a clear glass container placed in the sun for a couple of hours. This is what is called a sun tea. When it’s ready, it will be similar in colour to pink lemonade. Strain it through cheesecloth to remove the fine hairs, put it in the fridge or add some ice, and enjoy! The flavour is somewhere between lemonade and cranberry juice. You can add a sweetener if you want, but you will need to experiment with the amount of fruits to use. Everyone likes it a bit different. Just remember that, like lemon or lime, it can get really sour and astringent if you use too much. If that happens, just dilute it with more water.
Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) is the most common of three species that grow in Ontario. The other two are smooth sumac (R. glabra) and fragrant sumac (R. aromatica). They are members of the Cashew family. The only other genus from this family that occurs in Ontario is Toxicodendron, which includes poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac. These species, which contain a resin that many people react to, are very closely related to the sumacs and were formerly included in the Rhus genus. Although it is rare, a few people who are highly allergic to poison ivy may also react to sumac. Those most likely to react to it are people who also react to cashews, pistachios or mangos, which are from the same family. If you aren’t sure, before drinking sumac, rub some of the tea on the back of your hand and let it dry. If you don’t get a rash within an hour or so it should be fine to drink it.
STALKING SUMAC IN ONTARIO
Staghorn sumac is very common throughout most of Ontario. It is a small tree or shrub that grows up to about six meters high. It spreads partly by rhizomes and forms dense thickets that create a canopy of leaves at the top but have a lot of open space between the branches underneath, which provides excellent cover for birds and many mammals. It is one of the first tree species to colonize open areas that are left undisturbed for a period of time. Colonies of this species tend to grow in open fields, transition areas and along the edges of woodlands. You won’t find sumac in a mature forest because it isn’t very tall and doesn’t tolerate being shaded by larger tree species. In the fall, sumac leaves turn a variety of intense shades of red. They are incredibly beautiful while the color lasts.
The sumacs, particularly staghorn and smooth sumac, have a long history of use as medicinal species by Native Americans. The leaves, bark, roots and milky latex have all been used, but it is the fruits that are used the most. They are harvested when they first turn red, some time from mid to late July depending on the area and weather conditions in any given year. It is important not to let them mature beyond this point because they tend to get wormy and some of the important water-soluble constituents that occur in the bristly hairs will get washed away by the rain.
I only use staghorn sumac because it is the most common species in our area. Historically it has been used interchangeably with smooth sumac and to a lesser extent fragrant sumac. The fact that the first two species can hybridize in areas where their range overlaps is another strong indication of their close relationship and the likelihood that they have similar constituents and therapeutic properties. Therefore the information presented here is likely to apply to all three sumac species that are native to Ontario.
Staghorn sumac is an excellent herb for the treatment of inflammatory conditions of the urinary tract whether or not they are due to infection. It will reduce inflammation, promote tissue healing, and help reduce infection due to many kinds of bacteria as well as Candida albicans. Although I am not certain, I suspect that sumac will help reduce prostate inflammation as well.
Sumac also has more general anti-inflammatory properties and is beneficial in the treatment of rheumatic conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and gout.
Sumac is helpful for the treatment of fever and respiratory infections. It helps to dry out the sinuses in colds, sinus infections and allergies. It is a very safe herb and can be used for the treatment of childhood fevers such as chicken pox and measles.
Sumac is an excellent herb for the treatment of cardiovascular conditions. It improves circulation, helps lower blood pressure and is a mild heart tonic. It reduces inflammation of the blood vessels in conditions like varicose veins, hemorrhoids, and even more serious conditions such as arteriosclerosis.
Another traditional use of sumac is for the treatment of diabetes. In my practice I have found it to be very effective for this application but it isn’t clear whether it just lowers blood sugar levels or helps to restore pancreas function. I suspect the latter but I’m not certain yet.
Sumac has a moderate effect on the nervous system. It helps reduce nervousness, anxiety, tension headaches and general tension throughout the body. It also improves concentration and reduces mental fatigue.
Although sumac improves digestion somewhat, in the past it was primarily used to treat diarrhea. It also helps to improve other inflammatory conditions of the digestive tract such as gastritis and colitis.
Sadly, there is very little research available on the properties of our native sumac species. As is typically the case, most of the research is being done in Asia and to a lesser extent in Europe where researchers have been focusing on several Eurasian species. However, smooth sumac has demonstrated significant antimicrobial properties against a variety of bacteria and fungi. Based on my clinical experience, these properties definitely apply to staghorn sumac as well. Staghorn sumac has antioxidant activity that has been described as similar to and possibly even exceeding green tea.
PREPARATION AND DOSAGES (SUMAC SUN TEA)
The fruits can be dried and taken as a tea, or used fresh or dried to make a tincture. To make a tincture, use about 30% alcohol (three parts vodka to one part water). As with most herbs, I prefer to use the tincture of the fresh fruits. For topical use sumac can be used as a compress.
When using sumac as a medicine, the usual dosage is one cup of tea or 3-4 ml of either the 1:5 fresh fruit tincture, or 1:7 dried fruit tincture. These should be taken three times per day on an empty stomach, preferably 10-15 minutes before meals. To make the tea, add 2-3 teaspoons of the fresh or 1-2 teaspoons of the dried fruits to boiled water and allow it to steep for 15-20 minutes. It will taste much stronger than when it is prepared as a beverage.
Although it is a very safe herb, the degree of action of sumac on the female reproductive system is as yet undefined. For that reason I recommend that pregnant or nursing women not take it on a regular basis. As always, anyone who has a serious condition such as diabetes or heart disease, or is taking prescription medications should consult with an experienced herbalist or other natural health care practitioner who is familiar with this herb before using it.
TOPICAL USES OF SUMAC
Topically, sumac reduces bleeding or oozing from wounds, reduces inflammation and promotes healing. It will also help eliminate infection, being particularly useful for infected wounds and fungal infections such as ringworm. It is excellent for the treatment of burns and can be used topically to augment the internal treatment of vascular conditions such as varicose veins and spider veins.
The warm days of summer are a great time to make a commitment to spend a bit more time outdoors and connect with this beautiful world that we live in. If you happen to be out there mid summer and see some of those clusters of fuzzy red fruits growing on top of the sumac trees, take one home and try a sun tea. Hot or cold it’s a refreshing summer drink. Enjoy!