Outdoor Encounters, 7/6

By Nathan Bolls on July 6, 2017

I suspect few people know that the various species of sumac plants have to their credit an especially long list of medicinal uses by Europeans in ages past, by American Indians, by our pioneers, and by early American physicians.  Even the name “sumac” is thought to be of Arabian origin. We usually notice our sumac species—the smooth, or dwarf, sumac—only in late summer or early fall after its leaves and fruit have turned to that beautiful red. Unfortunately, I have space to mention only a smattering of the many ways the sumacs have been used medicinally throughout human history.

Kelly Kindscher's 1992 book, Medicinal Plants of the Prairie, quotes the works of several authors as they describe sumac uses by various peoples through the ages. American folk uses of the various sumac species can be traced back to Europe, and many uses were similar on both continents. For example, below are some of the European sumac uses given in the Gerarde herbal, printed in 1636: the leaves boiled in wine and drank can reduce or stop blood flow; a decoction of the leaves can make the hair black; the leaves, made into an ointment with honey and vinegar, stops the spread of gangrene; the seeds pounded and mixed with honey and the powder from oak coals can heal hemorrhoids; and a gummy substance that oozes from the cut sumac stems can be put into the empty “dry” tooth socket to stop the pain.

In 1830, Constantine Rafinesque recorded some of the early uses of sumac in the eastern United States, excluding, of course, a certain toxic eastern species. Applications include the use of roots by Indians as an anti-syphilitic and to dye wood red; and the use of the tannin-rich leaves to tan leather, to dye wool and silk black, and as an astringent to slow bleeding. Ink was made from the bark and berries, and the berries were used to treat rheumatism, dysentery, sore throat, hemorrhage, gangrene, and warts.  Some Indians made flutes from the hollow stems, and several Indian tribes smoked the dried and ground red leaves. Numerous central and western Indian tribes also used sumac in a variety of ways.  

Nineteenth Century physicians, using ground smooth sumac bark boiled in equal parts milk and water, made a poultice to treat burns. Some Indians also used the berries to treat sunburn and various sores. Smooth sumac from the Missouri Ozarks contains a highly active antibiotic substance that is effective in preventing tooth decay. Dental “chew sticks” can be made from small sumac stems by removing the bark and chewing on the stick to soften the fibers. This stick can be used to both clean teeth and massage gums.

Perhaps, in this time of desperately needing to enhance our concern and reverence for the natural world, we might, when appropriate, pause and appreciate the roles played by the sumacs of our world. They rank far above mere weeds.