Foods Indigenous to the Western Hemisphere

Smooth, Staghorn, and Fragrant Sumac

Rhus glabra L., Rhus hirta (L.) and Rhus aromatica Ait.

By Adam Benfer

Smooth, Staghorn, and Fragrant sumac are three of the most common species of Rhus, which not only resembled each other, but were used similarly. The sumacs are members of the Anacardiaceae (or Cashew Family), like cashews, mangos, and a few common poisonous species. Although they are close cousins of poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac, they have notably different appearances. All of these poisonous relatives have white or yellowish berries. Remember that all edible sumac berries are red and you will never have a problem misidentifying them. However, anyone with known allergies to any member of the Cashew Family should avoid consuming sumac. These edible plants are also known as smooth upland sumac, scarlet sumac, dwarf sumac, lemonade tree, vinegar tree, shining sumac, mountain sumac, hairy sumac, velvet sumac, Virginian sumac, and winged sumac (Angier [2008] 1974: 224; Kindscher 1987: 191; Medve and Medve 1990: 183).


Smooth sumac appears much like a small 3 to 5 meters (9 to 15 feet) tall rapidly growing tree. They tend to grow close together forming dense thickets. The 7 to 9 centimeters (23/4 to 31/2 inches) long lance-shaped leaves of this plant alternate along each stem. Each compound leaf has between 11 to 31 leaflets, has toothed margins, and a shiny dark green upper surface. The small greenish, 5-petaled flowers bloom in large groups at the ends of branches during May and June. The round, red, fleshy, and hairy fruits grow to have a diameter of between 3.5 and 4.5 mm (1/8 to 3/16 inches) when they ripen in August and September. The fragrant sumac is very similar, but has only 3 leaflets and yellow flowers (Kindscher 1987: 191). The staghorn sumac commonly grows a few inches higher than the smooth sumac, but has few other apparent differences (Angier [2008] 1974: 224).

Geographic Distribution

Edible sumacs grow in most regions of southern Canada and the United States in open, sunny, moist habitats such as upland prairies, pastures, meadows, orchard edges, borders and openings of woods, along fences, roads, stream banks and along railroads (Angier [2008] 1974: 224; Kindscher 1987: 191).

Food Use

The most commonly eaten parts of sumac plants are the ripe red berries. These acidic and tart berries can be eaten raw or dried, though they’re most popularly used in the form of a berry tea or sumac-ade. Sumac-ade is best when sweetened with maple sugar and can be served hot or cold (Moerman 1998: 471-473). The fruits can be gathered in late summer or early spring, before rains have leached out the desirable flavor from the red hairs of the fruits. Pick the fruit in clusters and separate the fruits from the twigs and rinse them later. In order to make sumac-ade crush the fruits of several clusters worth of berries and soak them in a quart of cold water over night. Do not boil the berries, because it will release large quantities of bitter tannic acid into the water. Filter the mixture through a double layer of cloth in order to remove all of the small fruit hairs. The beverage can then be sweetened with sugar or honey and spiced with cloves or cinnamon (Medve and Medve 1990: 183). The roots and shoots of these sumac plants are also eaten peeled and raw during the spring. Apache children ate the bark of smooth sumac as a delicacy (Moerman 1998: 471-473).

Other Uses

Parts of smooth sumac have been used by various Native American tribes as an antiemetic, antidiarrheal, antihemorrhagic, blister treatment, cold remedy, emetic, mouthwash, asthma treatment, tuberculosis remedy, sore throat treatment, ear medicine, eye medicine, astringent, heart medicine, venereal aid, ulcer treatment, and to treat rashes. Staghorn sumac parts were used in similar medicinal remedies. The Natchez used the root of fragrant sumac to treat boils. The Ojibwa took a decoction of fragrant sumac root to stop diarrhea. The berries, roots, inner bark, and leaves of smooth and staghorn sumac were used to make dyes of various colors. The leaves of fragrant, staghorn and smooth sumac were mixed with tobacco and smoked by many tribes of the plains region (Moerman 1998: 471-473).


Angier, Bradford
[2008] 1974 Field guide to edible wild plants (revised & updated). 2 ed. Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books. Kindscher, Kelly
1987 Edible wild plants of the prairie : an ethnobotanical guide. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas. Medve, Richard J., and Mary Lee Medve 1990 Edible wild plants of Pennsylvania and neighboring states. University Park [Pa.]: Pennsylvania State University Press. Moerman, Daniel E.
1998 Native American ethnobotany. Portland, Or.: Timber Press.