However, you won’t find it lauded too much on the most popular websites, herbals, or materia medicas out there compared to wonders like goldenseal, echinacea, or ginseng – nor are supplements and tinctures of it too easy to come by.
An understated astringent, tonic, remarkable antibiotic and digestive aid, this bright crimson-berried shrub of late summer and fall holds a healing song that goes unsung.
Yet there is one enduring tradition involving sumac that gets sung loudly every year during sumac season: sumac-ade!
In the form of this tart and tangy beverage, you can enjoy some of the plant’s healing and nutritive effects for yourself, and it’s pretty simple to make as you’ll find in the recipe below.
You don’t have to enjoy it plain (though a very strong, cold infusion on its own with no additions will arguably be the most medicinal). Mix it up with your favorite mixers, liqueurs, or even your own favorite homemade healing shrub or hand-crafted simple syrupfor a truly herbal beverage.
Sumac-Ade History in Brief
You might not know it, but sumac-ade (made from either smooth sumac Rhus glabra, or staghorn sumac Rhus typhina) is in fact a tasty herbal relic and beverage straight from the Iowa area of ancient times, as well as the rest of the heart of the Midwest.
The First Nation civilization and major economic center known as Cahokia, an extensive city and network of commerce among many ancient peoples in the Midwest, had quite the reach and influence all along the Mississippi River – including the Upper Mississippi area of Iowa, as evidenced by the many mounds still present there today.
Thick-clustered stands of sumac still grow on the banks of the Mississippi, strongly presumed to be planted or managed purposefully by Cahokian agriculturists as an important food source. It’s not hard to surmise that they were grown for medicine, too – and in the form of sumac-ade, a cold-steeped infusion of the berries, they perfected a recipe that worked as both food and medicine.
Healing and Nutritional Benefits
We all know sumac-ade as being purely, simply, and tartly delicious. But as the ancient First Nation peoples who crafted and enjoyed the beverage knew quite well too, there was much more to the cooling berry than that.
Demonstrated blood sugar-regulating activity, good for diabetics
Lowers bad cholesterol, while boosting good cholesterol
Could prevent atherosclerosis, thus prevent heart disease (1)
Regulates the gut and remedies diarrhea
Studies today support the above-mentioned health benefits, while in traditional folk herbalism, sumac was used for fevers, urinary complaints, and digestive imbalances because due to its perceived ability to cool the body down. Its antimicrobial content was also great for righting the wrongs of stomach infections.
Make and take a swig of sumac-ade for yourself, and you’ll agree – it quenches your thirst, while opening your pores to allow a cooling sweat to break even in the worst of heat.
By all means, making yourself a pitcher of sumac-ade won’t exactly replace diabetes medication, combat kidney disease, make your cholesterol plummet, or work exactly like an antibiotic for the stomach flu overnight!
On the other hand, it can be perceived as a nutritious and gut healing drink. At its very core, a glass of this rosy-red summer tonic is essentially quite healthy – you could even say healing.
Research has shown that the acids and tannins found in sumac help destroy harmful bacteria and fungi in the body, including Candida albicans, the dreaded yeast that may emerge after excessive antibiotic use and which can contribute to gut dysbiosis: an unhealthy digestive system.(2)
The bigger point to be made: this could be an excellent healthy beverage to boost your vitamin C, give your gut a bit of help, or to just make you feel guilt-free about enjoying this wild drink (though if you really want it to be healthy – skimp on that sugar!)
Make Your Own Sumac-Ade
Sumac is also a well-known culinary spice, somehow managing to have a flavor both earthy and sour that pairs well with white meats and white wines.
Both chefs and herbalists might compare it to hibiscus: it tastes tart, cooling, and dry, with a very notable rosy astringency. Similar to hibiscus, sumac is a cool, drying, tonifying, and astringent herb.
The only thing that really sets it apart is an undertone of bitterness that somehow grounds sumac more than any other floral or berry astringent out there. For that reason, as a delicious sumac-ade drink, its flavor is unparalleled – and you know you’re not just drinking something tart and delicious, you’re also drinking a medicine!
5-10 sumac berry bunches, clusters, or “drupes” (twigs and all)
1-2 gallons water
Note: the general ratio of water-to-berries should be about 1 parts berries to 2 parts sumac, when all is said and done, for the most flavorful and potent infusion.
-Harvest your sumac berry drupes by gently snapping them off by the stem from a mature shrub (of course, make sure the berries are red – leave any sumac with white berries well alone, these are poison sumac, caustic and harmful to the skin like poison ivy.)
-In a glass or stainless steel bowl or pan, pull off the berries with the tips of your fingers, they should be easy to remove. If you get a few twigs into the mix, no problem – they are good for their astringency, though a few too many may impact the flavor.
-Mash your berries around in the bottom of the container with a wooden spoon, muddler, or other utensil for a bit to make them more yielding to impart their flavors to the water. Something I like to do: throw the berries and a few twigs into a food processor or grinder, chop them to a powder, then add them in – this guarantees some unlocked flavor.
You can also wait until the steeping stage to mash your berries directly in the water, too.
-Pour your water over the berries, cover your container, and let it sit for about 24 hours for the best extraction (though Ava Chin from the New York Times suggests that 4 hours at least should be enough). Mash them a bit here and there with your utensil if you like to unlock yet more flavor and properties.
-After cold steeping for the allotted time, pour both berries and water through a strainer into a new clean container or pitcher. Put on ice and flavor to taste with lemon, lime, sugar, herbs like mint or lemon balm – whatever you like.
-Serve in a chilled glass and enjoy.
Foster, Duke;Eastern/Central Medicinal Plants and Herbs, p. 281.
**Disclaimer** The information in this article on sumac is NOT intended to assess, diagnose, prescribe, or promise cure. Its intent is to be purely educational; if suffering serious illness, please contact a professional healthcare provider.
When I was a little girl playing in my family’s big sloped garden in Utah, I would spend a lot of time in the little stand of Sumac there. I remember it clearly – and for that I consider Sumac a childhood friend of sorts.
A patch of Sumac is the perfect place for a kid to play and pretend they’re in a different world, completely hidden from an adult’s prying eyes.
As an herbalist and wild food fan, my friendship with Sumac has continued to the present. In a chef’s words, the flavor profileof Sumac is sour and light; in an herbalist’s words, its “energetics” are cool and dry, sour and astringent. Sound similar, right?
That might be because Sumac has been a popular wild food, culinary spice, and folk medicine for hundreds of years among many cultures. When a single herb crosses over into all these categories, then you really know it’s a good food and herb.
A huge lover of Sumac, I will sometimes try to talk about how awesome this plant really is for you, healing-wise and nutritionally. Most of the time I’ll get a glazed, unknowing, fairly uninterested look.
One response I got was: “Oh, you mean those long, branching, pokey things you see along the highway, with the fiery berries?” Yes, those.
Sumac’s Healing and Nutritional Properties
For starters, the species of Sumac I’m most familiar with is a robust Midwestern version: Smooth Sumac, scientific name Rhus glabra.
There aren’t many tinctures, bitters, capsules, or supplements of Sumac available for you to try at your local natural foods store (though I do make my own tinctures and bitters available in my shop). Thus hardly anybody knows what to say about it, even the majority of herbalists. But Sumac deserves its own attention outside the mainstream – and I just love an underdog.
If you want to go out there and get to know this plant and its exceptional qualities, it will require a hike or a short walk rather than a trip to the whole foods store. Though you can find “culinary” Sumac, a sour, burgundy-red powder and popular Middle Eastern spice at some local shops. Experiment with that, if you like, though its effects and health properties are not something I’m familiar with.
Otherwise, you can walk up to this plant and with your fingers or a knife, and gently snap off or cut away the clusters of soft, red berries…respectfully, of course.
High in Vitamin C for immunity
Antioxidants for cellular protection
Gallic acids – potent antimicrobials
Not only does Sumac contain ample Vitamin C and Antioxidants like its contemporaries Hibiscus, Rose, and Raspberry – it also hosts powerful Gallic Acids that make it a worthy opponent for bacteria, fungus, even viruses alike.
Yes, there are studies to prove it: “…of 100 medicinal plants screened for antibiotic activity, [Rhus glabra] was most active, attributed to content of gallic acid, 4-methoxygallic acid, and methyl gallate. Alcoholic extracts had the strongest activity.” (Foster, Duke; Eastern/Central Medicinal Plants and Herbs, p. 281).
Another study demonstrated Smooth Sumac’s (tincture of the berry) efficacy against certain strains of bacteria, including Staph, E. Coli, Salmonella, and the much-feared yeast Candida. The Middle Eastern species of Sumac, Rhus coriara, was able to destroy Streptococcus bacteria, the cause for Strep Throat. (1)
Studies aren’t needed to support this one, but powdered Sumac (or whole berries) make an excellent cooling beverage when mixed with some lemon, classically called “Sumac-Ade.” Plus, the powdered berry from its roots as a Middle Eastern culinary spice (known as za’atar), is an excellent food pairing with grilled fish or chicken!
I will stop and say here that yes, Sumac-Ade is quite delicious – and you can learn how to make it here.But if you want a potent healing infusion of Sumac berries, simply cold-steeping to get only the pleasantly sour aspect will produce a weak and hardly effective tea.That’s right…you’ve got to boil it or at the very least heat it in some way, until the water is a darker, vivid yellowish-red color.
Don’t worry, it will still be plenty sour, though it will also have an earthy, bitter taste that might repel most people – unless you’re one of those people who knows, of course, that bitterness means the “medicine is working.”
Traditional Healing Uses of Sumac:
Opens the pores, promoting sweating and elimination – fever-supporting
Strengthens the kidneys
Relieves and prevents diarrhea
Fights colds, flus, and infection of the mouth and digestive tract
Sumac is a great digestive tonic, but definitely under-utilized as a wonderful bitters (though there are some great bitters out there). Interestingly, traditional and folk use seemed to emphasize its affinity to mouth infections specifically. It’s fun for me to say that my experiences lined up with that, too.
My Experiences With Sumac
Four years ago, a case of strep throat hit me in late November 2012. With no health insurance, being at least 30 miles away from a clinic and practically penniless, I rummaged my plant resources.
I didn’t have ideal strep-fighting herbs with me at the time, such as Usnea(Usnea spp.) or Red Root/New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americanus), so I set about trying to, somewhat creatively, figure out how I could kick the illness. Even then, take it from me though:if you can get access to healthcare to take care of your strep…DO IT!
Strep can be dangerous. I do not recommend going this route, as this was an option I faced in the desperation of wintertime poverty deep in rural Iowa.
For the first two days using various other herbs in teas, I didn’t see a whole lot of improvement. I then opted also for Smooth Sumac tincture added into the mixture I was using. I went out on a bit of a limb relying on this herb – though I had stumbled upon its anti-microbial research, and was intrigued.
I took the tincture internally, three times a day. But a gargle of Sumac tincture in water at least three times a day – allowing direct contact on my swollen, infected throat – was what I believe the biggest impact on Strep. I was a combination of surprised and pleased: every time I gargled with Sumac, there were very observable results day-to-day, and the infection progressively withdrew!
I did this for about a week, eventually chucking all the other herbs and mostly just relying on the Smooth Sumac. In spite of not having found any information or research yet on Sumac fighting Strep throat bacteria specifically, the infection hit the road.
From that time forward, I decided I really appreciated the stuff. I would be fated to make more if it, and I started to put it in almost everything (cause it tastes delicious, too)!
The experiences continued. In the next winter of 2013, after getting four wisdom teeth yanked out of my face, Sumac was my go-to remedy. I even preferred it over the prescription antibiotic mouth-rinse the dentists gave me afterward, and it still sits unused on my shelf even today.
Needless to say, I avoided the common post-surgery “dry-socket” problem. When one of the clots broke, it took a single swishing-session of Sumac tincture to stop the bleeding. The next gargle, I was amazed to feel that the hole had somehow pinched together and clotted, back on track to closing itself up.
Other’s Experiences With Sumac
Not long after my strep experience, a co-worker of mine at the time approached me with an abscessed tooth.
He fretted because it had been abscessed for a while. He didn’t just want to go to a doctor, pay the money, and get it taken care of, with antibiotics and penicillin and the like. The tooth had been hurting him the last few days, and it frightened him that it was getting infected.
Without thinking it would really take care of the problem – maybe just help it, a bit – I said “Hey, try Sumac tincture. It seemed to get rid of my strep throat.” It was an easy sell, considering my co-worker’s enthusiasm for herbal remedies.
Less than a week later, he came to me saying not only had the pain and infection gone, but the tooth was no longer abscessed! He seemed as shocked and awed as I was, but definitely happy.
Sumac: History, Information, Background, and Tradition
There are many different species of Sumac, all belonging to the genus Rhus.
There are other species of Sumac in Iowa. One other, Staghorn Sumac, (Rhus typhina) is also native to Iowa. Its range clings closely to the banks of the Upper Mississippi region and the Driftless region of the state, then spreads north and eastward.
Poison Sumac(Rhus toxicodendron) is quite similar looking to other sumacs, with white instead of red berries. However, it is incredibly uncommon in Iowa; the only place where you might stumble upon it would be on the banks of the Mississippi. Just make sure the Sumac you are harvesting has berries, and that they are definitely not white (not much of a challenge).
Like its namesake, Sumac is typically seen growing gingerly at the forest’s edge, in the shadows of clearings on the paths where deer are known to frequent. According to herbalist Matthew Wood, Sumac is a Deer Medicine.
Deer Medicine is a categorization of certain types of herbs originating from American Indian Medicine practices, though I couldn’t tell you which exact people or nations. Deer Medicines, as Wood puts them, are meant to be “juicy and beautiful, and plants that attract deer.”
I have seen many a deer hiding among stands of Sumac, blending right in with its graceful branches and jagged foliage. It is, indeed, the perfect haven for deer to hide.
Being an important part of herbal healing of past and future tradition, Sumac in my mind perfectly reflects and represents itself as a symbol of Iowa herbalism- a state and region where the deer themselves are incredibly prolific.
There is an incredible amount of knowledge going way, way back on the many uses of Sumacs, also spelled “sumach”; both from the acumen of historical texts and the rich lore of old traditional cultures, in North America, Europe, and Africa.
In Iowa, Sumacs- particularly Smooth Sumac- were important and prevalent medicines among some original cultures native to the state, or those who were known to pass through Iowa regularly. The Cahokia Indians, early agriculturists of Iowa, were thought to have cultivated Sumac along the Upper Mississippi as food, no doubt as medicine.
The Omahas most notably had a wide range of uses for it, along with the Meskwaki, who are the last-standing Indian nation with a settlement present here in Iowa. I personally think this long-time use of Sumac is a strong reason to consider it a vital herbal, especially one with strong cultural and regional ties to healing traditions rooted right here, in the state of Iowa.
The antique literature out there backs up Sumac’s usefulness as a medicine for the mouth, resonating with both its research and my own experiences. One herbal mentions its folk use in the Ozarks as a chew stick for cleaning teeth, by stripping the bark off a thin twig and massaging the gums.
A modern study confirms Smooth Sumac as a mouth medicine, due to examined and tested samples of the species from the Ozark mountains, which was shown to prevent tooth decay among rural Ozark inhabitants.
The old herbals don’t just stop there. Stemming from the use of Old World Rhus coriara in Europe, its subsequent adoption by pioneers was carried over to America – and a rhapsody of Old and New World uses, European and Native, developed into a robust tradition of medicinal use.
Old herbals praise its unique potency against various afflictions, among them diarrhea, dysentery, fevers, scrofula, and weakness with too much/not enough perspiration.
Sumac is noted to help tone the uterus and prevent its prolapse, like Raspberry. In fact, it is an all-around great Woman’s Medicine, regulating the cycle and preventing cramps through its actions on stabilizing the blood. As a bowel medicine, the herb helps against urinary complaints as a diuretic, acting through the kidneys. Historically, and in our present day, Sumac may be used to aid diabetes medication due to its kidney effect; Southeastern native tribes used it as their own regional analogue of more Western/Southwestern herbs like Brickelia (Brickellia spp.) or Nopal Cactus (Opuntia spp.).
A few famous herbalists of today discuss Sumacs of various species being medicines with a long history of successful use, Matthew Wood and Phyllis Light being its biggest proponents. Phyllis Light herself learned the uses of Sumac passed down from her grandmother in Southern Appalachia, a knowledge inherited from the Creek Indians. Wood compares the uses of Staghorn and Smooth Sumacs in his book The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism, and touches on the fact that Smooth Sumac is indeed a useful remedy in cases of mild putrefaction – this could include an illness like strep throat.
Next time you are driving along the highway, jogging, or passing through those more “thickety” parts of your town – I hope you stop to take a look at Sumac, if the gorgeous plant already doesn’t grab your eye.
Sumac could be a first step into a powerful pantheon of Iowa herbs, a plant that for many of us, could be just outside our window, waiting to yield its uses to us.
Although the stands of Sumac are widespread and numerous….please, harvest respectfully.
References: Eastern/Central Medicinal Plants and Herbs by Steven Foster and James A. Duke. The Practice of Traditional Western Herbalism by Matthew Wood. Cahokia: Domination and Ideology in the Mississippian World by K. Kris Hirst. Medicinal Wild Plants of the Prairie: An Ethnobotanical Guide by Kelly Kindscher. King’s American Dispensatory, 1898. Henriette’s Herbal Homepage. Personal Experience.