Name: Sumach (Rhus aromatica)
Otherwise known as: Sweet Sumach, Staghorn Sumach
Habitat: A deciduous shrub member of the Anacardiaceae family growing to about 5m in dry, open scrubland and native to North America. The bark is usually grey and sometimes dull red, with brownish stems carrying opposed lanceolate leaves, terminating in dense red panicles of flowers which produce sour red berries that are covered in crimson hairs.
What does it do: In herbal medicine Sumach is used primarily to treat infections of the genito-urinary system such as urinary incontinence and frequency; blood in the urine; inflammation of the bladder, rectum and colon; colitis, diverticulosis (pouching or blow-out of the colon), irritable bowel syndrome, bed-wetting and menopausal flooding. In the United States it is claimed that sumach will lower blood sugar and is employed to combat late onset diabetes. The plant was much favoured by the Eclectics, the early pioneer physicians that followed Native American botanical medicine.
The tannic properties of the leaves are used in the leather industry for processing and dyeing; they yield black, grey and yellow dyes. In Cyprus the plant is known as ‘soumaki’ and the dried fruits will often be encountered adorning the ‘souvlaki’ and was also used by the village wise women to treat diarrhea, intestinal infections and some skin disorders.
There are two very poisonous members of this species found in North America: R. venenata and R. toxicodendron which cause swelling of the limbs and sometimes the whole body simply by touching or picking a stem; the swelling is accompanied by intolerable pain.