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Poison Sumac Trees

The Exception, Not the Rule

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Sumac in fall foliage color.

Non-poison sumac exhibits fall foliage color earlier than do most plants.

David Beaulieu

First some identification is in order. It is easy to distinguish poison sumac trees from their non-poison sumac relatives (discussed on Page 1), if you pick the right time of year. The time to make the identification is in the fall, when the berries have ripened to maturity. The plants have white berries in autumn, and the berries hang down. Non-poison sumac trees bear red berries in the autumn, and their berries grow upright. In addition, poison sumac plants grow in swamps, whereas non-poison sumac plants prefer precisely the opposite habitat -- soils that are well-drained. If you don't hang around swamps much, your chances of encountering poison sumac are pretty slim. It should be noted that by "non-poison" I allude to an absence of skin irritation from contact with the plant; but no part of the sumac plant should be ingested by anyone not thoroughly informed on the subject.

So don't run away scared at the mention of "sumac." Poison sumac is in a distinct minority amongst the sumacs. The remaining sumac trees (as in the picture to your right) not only produce no poison, but provide spectacular autumn color.

It can be rather surprising to learn that all the sumacs (both poison sumac and non-poison sumac trees), along with poison ivy (for photos of which, see my "Pictures of Poison Ivy" gallery) and poison oak, belong to the cashew family (Anacardiaceae). Also in this family, in addition to cashews themselves, are pistachios and mangos. All three of these foods produce allergic reactions in some people -- a fact that is perhaps easier to understand, once their connection with poison sumac is noted! "The raw cashew nut is enclosed in a tough, leathery shell that contains caustic, toxic substances including cardol and anacardic acid" and must be processed before it becomes edible, states the Living and Raw Foods Web site.

Even the berries of sumac (the non-poison sumac varieties, that is, with which the remainder of this article deals exclusively) have been used as a food product in a number of cultures. Floridata, an online plant database, points out that Native Americans made a drink from sumac tree seeds "which tastes like lemonade and has a high vitamin C content." As Gernot Katzer remarks on one of his "Spice Pages," sumac tree seeds contain citric and ascorbic acids. It is these acids that furnish them with the tanginess by which they can serve as a citrus-substitute. Katzer also mentions the ancient Romans' use of sumac tree berries to produce sour accents in their cuisine. But sumac's use as a spice is not relegated to the distant past. It is also used in modern Middle Eastern and Greek cuisine. For instance, in Greek restaurants, it's the spice sumac" that is sometimes used in wraps.

But the use of sumac trees has not been limited to the landscaping and culinary spheres. "Sumac bark and fruit are high in tannin, and were once used to tan leather," says Floridata. The wood harvested from larger sumacs is even prized by some woodturners. "Never available commercially, you’ll have to harvest your own but you’ll be rewarded with an exceptionally attractive wood that will season easily with a minimum of problems. A carver’s delight due to its softness, it also behaves well on the lathe," writes Don Eylat, who composes a "Wood of the Month" column for "Tidewater Turner's of Virginia."

To learn about more uses of sumac (other than poison sumac, which you should avoid), plus its one drawback, continue on to Page 3....

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