Eastern Shore Food Lab

Rhus copallinum - Shining Sumac

The attractive foliage of Rhus copallinum turns flaming red in the fall before losing its leaves. Harvest the drupes from early summer to late fall to make a refreshing lemonade-like drink or a culinary spice. Birds enjoy the fruits well into winter.

Scientific Name: Rhus copallinum, Rhus copallina
Common Name: shining sumac, flameleaf sumac, winged sumac, dwarf sumac
Plant Family: Anacardiaceae (cashew family)

Etymology: Rhus is the Greek name for sumac; copallinum means gummy or resinous.

Edible Parts

Harvest ripe berry-like drupes from June to September, but not after a rainstorm which can wash off the tasty malic acid flavor. Soak overnight in a jar of cool water to make sumac-ade, or grind the drupes to make a seasoning. Caution: individuals with cashew allergies may want to avoid Rhus copallinum, which is in the same family.

Historic Uses

Drupes eaten as an antiemetic; decoction of root used as an antidiarrheal; poultice of roots or infusion of leaves used for blisters, skin eruptions, and sunburns; drupes used to make mouthwash; infusion of root taken for venereal disease; decoction of leaves used as a bath and given to babies to make them walk; bark and drupes used; red and black drupes used to make dyes; leaves and root used in ceremonial tobacco mixture of Delaware and Oklahoma peoples. The leaf tea is recommended for asthma.

Habitat

Native to Eastern North America, Rhus copallinum can be found in disturbed sites, meadows, oldfields, thickets, edges, and gaps/clearings.

How to Identify

Greyish pubescence on new stems. Alternate compound leaves are oddly pinnate, individually consisting of 7-21 leaflets and a central leaf stalk that is conspicuously winged. Leaflets are ovate or ovate-lanceolate, with smooth margins and an upper surface that is glabrous or slightly pubescent. Panicle of flowers, each with 5 spreading petals, 5 stamens, and a central pistil. Clusters of drupes tend to cascade downward, unlike staghorn sumac, which has upright clusters.

Additional Information

Dried sumac wood is fluorescent under ultraviolet light. The drupes are high in calcium and potassium malates, and the leaves and bark contain gallic and tannic acid. Related to poison ivy, poison oak, poison sumac, as well as many subtropical and tropical plants including pistachio and mango.

Planting Considerations

  • USDA Hardiness Zone: 4-9
  • Native Range: Eastern United States
  • Forest Garden Layer: shrub, understory
  • Permaculture functions: bird habitat, culinary spice, medicine, tea, nectary
  • Soil moisture: xeric to mesic (dry to medium moisture)
  • Soil texture: clay, loamy, sandy Soil pH: garden soil, 6.1-7.0
  • Height: 7 to 15 feet
  • Spread: 10 to 20 feet
  • Growth rate: fast, sometimes forms colonies by rhizomes
  • Sun: full sun to part shade
  • Bloom: small yellow and green flowers form in clusters at the end of branches from May-July
  • Attracts: birds, butterflies
  • Tolerates: black walnut, drought, dry soil, erosion, rabbits, shallow-rocky soil
  • Drawbacks: dispersive, persistent

Sources

  • Ellis, Barbara W. Chesapeake Gardening and Landscaping: The Essential Green Guide. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 2015.
  • Elpel, Thomas J. Botany in a Day: The Patterns Method of Plant Identification. Pony, Montana: HOPS Press, LLC, 2013.
  • Jacke, D., and Toensmeier, E. Edible Forest Gardens: Volume Two: Ecological Design & Practice for Temperate Climate Permaculture. White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 2005.
  • Moerman, Daniel E. Native American Ethnobotany. Portland, Oregon: Timber Press, 1998.

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