Sumacs are a family of native plants that grow througout most of North America, and are widely thought of as a common weed. Here in WNC, sumac grows along the highways and in trashed-out urban lots, among other places. It's a tough plant.
I've heard sumac's growth habit described as rangy or scrappy, but if you look at stands that have been allowed to mature, the plants cluster together and take on a graceful, curvy, elegant form that I think is quite beautiful.
In the summer, sumac looks like a bushy green shrub or small tree, eventually bearing huge yellow flowers. In the fall, the leaves turn deep crimson and the flowers dry on the plant, becoming a gorgeous shade of red. After the leaves are gone, bright red fruit clusters remain on the tips of the long thin branches.
Below: two photos of Sumac that I took across the river at Warren Wilson College today - neither of these shots captures the color but you can get a sense of the shapes of sumac trees.
Coming across a stand of sumac in the winter feels to me like witnessing a ritual of some kind. A mature patch of sumac with its branches bare looks like a gathering of lanky, sinewy women, arms and legs intertwined, reaching up to the sky. In the winter the sumac sisters, those tough leafy warriors, shed their red dresses and stand still together, their arms snaking throuh the air, holding up offerings of bright red fruit. Magical.
Each red sumac pod is made up of a cluster of tiny bright red berries. Birds and animals feast on the fruits as long as they last--the fruit is a rare treat for wildlife in a winter landscape.
Food and medicine traditions of many native peoples include sumac, and for good reason. The dried fruit makes a deliciously tart beverage, and the tiny hairs on each of the small red fruits are jam-packed with vitamin C. In addition to the high C content, sumac fruits contain potent natural antibiotics (Foster/Duke). According to Peterson's field guide to medicinal herbs, sumac was used to treat and prevent a wide variety of maladies in native traditions throughout North America. For more on sumac's medicinal qualities, see this overview.)
So back to our sumac. In the fall, Christopher remembered that an old friend of his, Lalynn, used to make a tea from dried sumac heads to drink during the winter, and decided he wanted to harvest some for us. So he picked some dried heads of sumac and we broke them apart and let them air dry inside (see photo above) before jarring them up. We left plenty behind for the birds and other wildlife, and ended up with about a half gallon of dry sumac berries. I snacked on the tiny berries as we processed the heads, and the zingy, tart flavor was so strong it sometimes made my eyes water. This winter we'll use the berries to make hot sumac tea or steep and then cool and strain to produce refreshing sumac-ade.
I appreciate sumac as food and medicine, but most of all because I see it as a plant that goes where others can't, takes root, and grows like wild. Sumac is often found growing in neglected areas, along roadsides, in old railroad beds, and in places where woods have been recently cleared or there has been a fire.
Above: Sumac and rivercane growing on a roadside in Swannanoa, December.
I see Sumac as a guerilla gardener of the plant world, with dandelion and mullien and other tough front-line plants, dropping seeds in wastelands and bringing bare earth back to life.
Sumac is one of the first plants to come in as living systems begin to recover and regenerate. It is drought-tolerant and can survive conditions that would kill many other kinds of plants, and it helps make way for a succession of plant and animal life gradually to renew and heal damaged places. (See the US Forest Service's page on Sumac for more information on sumac's role in rehabilitation of damaged and disturbed land, as well as other interesting facts about sumac).
I'm thankful to sumac for being one of the tough ones on the front lines of the healing of damaged ecosystems. And for its beauty and healing power, and its tenacious presence as an ancient native medicinal plant.
Long live sumac--graceful, strong, and powerful plant warrior adorned in flaming red!
Foster, Steven and James A. Duke. A Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs of Eastern and Central North America, Second Edition. Houghton Mifflin, 2000.