"Rhus" redirects here. For plural of RHU, see radioisotope heater unit. For the commune in France, see Épiais-Rhus.
For poison sumac, see Toxicodendron vernix. For other uses, see Sumac (disambiguation).
Sumac fruit in the autumn season
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Plantae
(unranked): Angiosperms
(unranked): Eudicots
(unranked): Rosids
Order: Sapindales
Family: Anacardiaceae
Subfamily: Anacardioideae
Genus: Rhus (syn. Searsia)
Type species
Rhus coriaria

About 35 species; see text

Sumac (Assyrian Neo-Aramaic: ܣܘܼܡܵܩܵܐ summāqāʾ (red, red shift, turning red), Arabic: سمّاق summāq; /ˈsjmæk/, /ˈʃmæk/ or /ˈsmæk/; also spelled sumach, sumaq) is any one of about 35 species of flowering plants in the genus Rhus and related genera, in the family Anacardiaceae. Sumacs grow in subtropical and temperate regions throughout the world, especially in East Asia, Africa and North America.[3][4]

Sumacs are shrubs and small trees that can reach a height of 1–10 m (3.3–32.8 ft). The leaves are spirally arranged; they are usually pinnately compound, though some species have trifoliate or simple leaves. The flowers are in dense panicles or spikes 5–30 cm (2.0–11.8 in) long, each flower very small, greenish, creamy white or red, with five petals. The fruits form dense clusters of reddish drupes called sumac bobs. The dried drupes of some species are ground to produce a tangy crimson spice.[5][6]

Sumacs propagate both by seed (spread by birds and other animals through their droppings), and by new shoots from rhizomes, forming large clonal colonies.

The word 'sumac' traces its etymology from Old French sumac (13th century), from Mediaeval Latin sumach, from Arabic summāq (سماق), from Syriac summāq (ܣܡܘܩ)- meaning "red".[7]

Cultivation and uses

Sumac spice

Species including the fragrant sumac (R. aromatica), the littleleaf sumac (R. microphylla), the skunkbush sumac (R. trilobata), the smooth sumac, and the staghorn sumac are grown for ornament, either as the wild types or as cultivars.

Spice and beverage flavoring

The fruits (drupes) of the genus Rhus are ground into a reddish-purple powder used as a spice in Middle Eastern cuisine to add a tart, lemony taste to salads or meat.[5] In Arab cuisine, it is used as a garnish on meze dishes such as hummus and tashi is added to salads in the Levant. In Iranian (Persian and Kurdish) cuisines, sumac is added to rice or kebab. In Jordanian and Turkish cuisines, it is added to salad-servings of kebab and lahmacun. Rhus coriaria is used in the spice mixture za'atar.[8][9]

In North America, the smooth sumac (R. glabra) and the staghorn sumac (R. typhina) are sometimes used to make a beverage termed "sumac-ade", "Indian lemonade", or "rhus juice". This drink is made by soaking the drupes in cool water, rubbing them to extract the essence, straining the liquid through a cotton cloth, and sweetening it. Native Americans also use the leaves and drupes of the smooth and staghorn sumacs combined with tobacco in traditional smoking mixtures.

Dye and tanning agent

The leaves of certain sumacs yield tannin (mostly pyrogallol-type), a substance used in vegetable tanning. Notable sources include the leaves of R. coriaria, Chinese gall on R. chinensis, and wood and roots of R. pentaphylla. Leather tanned with sumac is flexible, light in weight, and light in color. One type of leather made with sumac tannins is morocco leather.[10]

The dyeing property of sumac needed to be considered when it was shipped as a fine floury substance in sacks as a light cargo accompanying heavy cargoes such as marble. Sumac was "especially dangerous" to marble. "When sumac dust settles on white marble, the result is not immediately apparent; but if it once becomes wet, or even damp, it becomes a powerful purple dye, which penetrates the marble to an extraordinary depth."[11]

Medicinal use

Sumac was used as a treatment for half a dozen different ailments in medieval medicine, primarily in Middle-Eastern countries (where sumac was more readily available than in Europe). An 11th-century shipwreck off the coast of Rhodes, excavated by archeologists in the 1970s, contained commercial quantities of sumac drupes. These could have been intended for use as medicine, as a culinary spice, or as a dye.[12] Staghorn sumac is a powerful antioxidant, with ORAC rating over 1500 μmol TE/g.[13]

Other uses

Some beekeepers use dried sumac bobs as a source of fuel for their smokers.[14]

Sumac stems also have a soft pith in the center that is useful in traditional Native American pipemaking. They were commonly used as pipe stems in the northern United States.[15]

Dried sumac wood fluoresces under long-wave ultraviolet radiation.[16]

Toxicity and control

Some species formerly recognized in Rhus, such as poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans, syn.Rhus toxicodendron), poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum, syn. Rhus diversiloba) and poison sumac (Toxicodendron vernix, syn. Rhus vernix), have the allergen urushiol and can cause severe allergic reactions. Poison sumac may be identified by its white drupes, which are quite different from the red drupes of true Rhus species.

Mowing of sumac is not a good control measure, since the wood is springy, resulting in jagged, sharp-pointed stumps when mown. The plant will quickly recover with new growth after mowing.[17] Goats have long been considered an efficient and quick removal method, as they eat the bark, which helps prevent new shoots. Sumac propagates by rhizome. Small shoots will be found growing near a more mature sumac tree via a shallow running root quite some distance from the primary tree. Thus root pruning is a means of control without eliminating the species altogether.


Drupes of a staghorn sumac in Coudersport, PA
A young branch of staghorn sumac
Rhus lancea fruit
Staghorn sumac bob, Hamilton, Ontario
Winged Sumac leaves and flowers
Rhus malloryi fossil. ~49.5 million years old. Early Ypresian, Klondike Mountain Formation, Washington

At times Rhus has held over 250 species. Recent molecular phylogeny research suggests breaking Rhus sensu lato into Actinocheita, Baronia, Cotinus, Malosma, Searsia, Toxicodendron, and Rhus sensu stricto. If this is done, about 35 species would remain in Rhus. However, the data are not yet clear enough to settle the proper placement of all species into these genera.[18][19]

Selected species

Africa (all of these species have been transferred to the genus Searsia)
  • Rhus acocksii Moffett
  • Rhus albomarginata Sond.
  • Rhus angustifolia L.
  • Rhus batophylla Codd
  • Rhus baurii Schönl.
  • Rhus bolusii Sond. ex Engl.
  • Rhus brenanii Kokwaro
  • Rhus burchellii Sond. ex Engl.
  • Rhus carnosula Schönl.
  • Rhus chirindensis Bakh.f.
  • Rhus ciliata Licht. ex Schult.
  • Rhus crenata Thunb.
  • Rhus cuneifolia L.
  • Rhus dentata Thunb.
  • Rhus discolor E.Mey. ex Sond.
  • Rhus dissecta Thunb.
  • Rhus divaricata Eckl. & Zeyh.
  • Rhus dracomontana Moffett
  • Rhus dregeana Sond.
  • Rhus dura Schönl.
  • Rhus engleri Britt.
  • Rhus erosa Thunb.
  • Rhus fastigiata Eckl. & Zeyh.
  • Rhus gerrardii (Harv. ex Engl.) Diels.
  • Rhus glauca Thunb.
  • Rhus gracillima Engl.
  • Rhus grandidens Harv. ex Engl.
  • Rhus gueinzii Sond.
  • Rhus harveyi Moffett
  • Rhus horrida Eckl. & Zeyh.
  • Rhus incisa L.f.
  • Rhus kirkii Oliv.
  • Rhus keetii Schönl.
  • Rhus krebsiana Presl ex Engl.
  • Rhus laevigata L.
  • Rhus lancea L.f. (syn. Searsia lancea)
  • Rhus leptodictya Diels.
  • Rhus loemnodia Ruckt.
  • Rhus longipes Engl.(1883)
  • Rhus longispina Eckl. & Zeyh.
  • Rhus lucens Hutch.
  • Rhus lucida L.
  • Rhus macowanii Schönl.
  • Rhus magalismontana Sond.
  • Rhus maricoana Moffett
  • Rhus marlothii Engl.
  • Rhus microcarpa Schönl.
  • Rhus montana Diels
  • Rhus natalensis Bernh. ex Krauss
  • Rhus nebulosa Schönl.
  • Rhus pallens Eckl. & Zeyh.
  • Rhus pendulina Jacq.
  • Rhus pentheri Zahlbr.
  • Rhus pondoensis Schönl.
  • Rhus populifolia E.Mey. ex Sond.
  • Rhus problematodes Merxm. & Roessl.
  • Rhus pterota Presl
  • Rhus pygmaea Moffett
  • Rhus pyroides Burch.
  • Rhus quartiniana A.Rich.
  • Rhus refracta Eckl. & Zeyh.
  • Rhus rehmanniana Engl.
  • Rhus rigida Mill.
  • Rhus rimosa Eckl. & Zeyh.
  • Rhus rogersii Schönl.
  • Rhus rosmarinifolia Vahl
  • Rhus rudatisii Engl.
  • Rhus scytophylla Eckl. & Zeyh.
  • Rhus sekhukhuniensis Moffett
  • Rhus stenophylla Eckl. & Zeyh.
  • Rhus tenuinervis Engl.
  • Rhus tomentosa L.
  • Rhus transvaalensis Engl.
  • Rhus tridactyla Burch.
  • Rhus tumulicola S.Moore
  • Rhus undulata Jacq.
  • Rhus volkii Suesseng.
  • Rhus wilmsii Diels.
  • Rhus zeyheri Sond.
Australia, Pacific
Mediterranean Basin
Middle East (all of these species have been transferred to the genus Searsia)
Eastern North America
Western North America
Mexico and Central America
  • Rhus muelleri - Müller's sumac (northeast Mexico)

See also


  1. "Rhus L.". Germplasm Resources Information Network. United States Department of Agriculture. 2009-11-23. Retrieved 2010-02-09.
  2. "Rhus L.". TROPICOS. Missouri Botanical Garden. Retrieved 2010-02-09.
  3. 12. Rhus Linnaeus, Flora of China
  4. Rhus L., USDA PLANTS
  5. 1 2 Sumac is also used as a tea substitute by boiling the dried leaves.Sumac - Ingredients -
  6. Poison Sumach and Good Sumac Shrubs
  7. Etymology of Sumac at and also at and . Etymology of Rhus at Quattrocchi, Umberto (2000). CRC World Dictionary of Plant Names: Common Names, Scientific Names, Eponyms, Synonyms, and Etymology. IV R-Z. Taylor & Francis US. p. 2306. ISBN 978-0-8493-2678-3.
  8. Christine Manfield, Charlie Trotter, Ashley Barber -Spice 2008 - Page 28 "Sumac This reddish ground spice is made from the berries of the sumac bush,"
  9. Aliza Green Field Guide to Herbs & Spices: How to Identify, Select, and Use ... 2006 - Page 257 "In Lebanon, Syria, and Egypt, sumac is cooked with water to a thick sour paste, which is added to meat and vegetable dishes; this method was also common in Roman times. Sumac appears in the Jordanian spice mixture za'atar (page 288) ..."
  10. Davis, Charles T. The Manufacture of Leather. Pub: Henry Carey Baird 1885. May be downloaded from:
  11. Lee, Arthur (1888). Marble and marble workers: a handbook for architects, artists, masons and students. London: Crosby Lockwood & Son. p. 19.
  12. Bass, George Fletcher; Allan, James W. (2003). Serçe Limanı: An Eleventh-century Shipwreck. Texas A&M University Press. p. 506. ISBN 978-0-89096-947-2.
  13. "Evaluation of antioxidant activities and chemical characterisation of staghorn sumac fruit (Rhus hirta L.).".
  14. Avitabile, Alphonse. Sammataro, Diana. The Beekeeper's Handbook. Publisher: Comstock 1998. ISBN 978-0801485039
  15. Lewis, Thomas H. The Medicine Men: Oglala Sioux Ceremony and Healing. Publisher: University of Nebraska Press. 1992. ISBN 978-0803279391
  16. Hoadley, R. Bruce (2000). "Chapter 5: Other Properties of Wood". Understanding Wood: a Craftsman's Guide to Wood Technology (2 ed.). Taunton Press. pp. 105–107. ISBN 978-1-56158-358-4.
  17. Ortmann, John; Miles, Katherine L.; Stubbendieck, James H.; Schacht, Walter (1997). "Management of Smooth Sumac on Grasslands". University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
  18. Miller, Allison J.; Young, David A.; Wen, Jun (2001). "Phylogeny and Biogeography of Rhus (Anacardiaceae) Based on ITS Sequence Data". International Journal of Plant Sciences. 162 (6): 1401–1407. doi:10.1086/322948.
  19. Pell, Susan Katherine (2004-02-18). "Molecular Systematics of the Cashew Family (Anacardiaceae)". Louisiana State University: 103–108.
  20. Miller, A. 2004. Rhus sp. nov. A. 2006 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Downloaded on 23 August 2007.

Further reading

  • RO Moffett. A Revision of Southern African Rhus species FSA (Flora of South Africa) vol 19 (3) Fascicle 1.
  • Schmidt, Ernst; Lötter, Mervyn; McCleland, Warren (2002). Trees and Shrubs of Mpumalanga and Kruger National Park. Jacana Media. ISBN 978-1-919777-30-6. 
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