Among California's many riches are two remarkable native plants, Rhus integrifolia and Rhus ovata, both known as sumac. Along with many of the 250 other sumacs, our local varieties feature generous clusters of vibrant red berries, plentiful green leaves that turn bright red in the fall, and an incredible variety of applications including ornaments, dye, candle wax, pipe-making, leather-tanning, spices, and so much more. Just so you know, there is a plant known as Poison Sumac (Toxicodendron vernix) that bears a passing resemblance to true sumac. It primarily grows in the eastern half of the United States, but I wanted you to be warned as every part of that plant is toxic. Thankfully, our native California sumacs are not only non-toxic, they're delicious! Let's explore the many uses of sumac, from your garden to your table...
Rhus intergrifolia is an ideal garden plant: deer-resistant, popular with birds and butterflies, and requiring little water during the hot summer. And if a winter frost knocks it out of commission, you can expect it to have grow back by the next summer. The berry heads (also referred to as bobs, drupes, and fruit) are deep red even when the leaves are still green, providing a flash of color to summer gardens. And then when fall comes along...
Bam! I recently had the chance to visit a sumac-full prairie, and it was blazing red as far as the eye could see. Can you imagine how vibrant even just one sumac shrub would look in your yard? It simply glows in the autumn.
Quince & Quire demonstrates how wonderfully sumac contributes to a rich fall wreath. They took a simple metal wreath frame and wove it with burdock, rose hips, dried astilbe, grasses, asters, dusty miller, and berry-heavy sumac heads. This would be the perfect sort of thing to welcome Thanksgiving guests to your home.
Design*Sponge featured this lovely autumnal arrangement by Susan Woodward Floral Design in which "kumquats, meyer lemons, key limes, golden rain tree pods, hibiscus, hidden ginger, coleus, american beautyberry, sumac, and ornamental pepper" combine to form the perfect fall centerpiece.
Flowers By Busy B has created quite a few arrangements using sumac, including the ones above featuring hellebores, Icelandic poppies, Japanese spirea, jasmine, and anemones. Gorgeous!
One sumac native to California, Rhus integrifolia, is commonly known as lemonade berry or lemonade sumac -- and the reason why is clear. Chicks In The Road has very thorough instructions for making what they refer to as "the best lemonade ever." All you need are sumac berries or drupes, jars, water, a little sugar, a strainer, and a few hours!
If you'd like to go one step further and make sumac jelly, simply make a super-concentrated sumac infusion by continuously soaking fresh sumac in the same water, then follow Eat The Weeds' recipe. The lovely jars shown above were made by Summer Of Funner, who has some insight into the sumac jelly process.
The Kitchn has rounded up several great recipes featuring sumac, along with a ton of reader suggestions. Sumac is a key ingredient in za'atar, that fascinating combination of oregano, sesame seeds, marjoram, cumin, salt, sumac, and thyme or the eponymous za'atar. I especially love it on hummus and on tomato & chickpea flatbread.
This last one might be a stretch, even for the most devoted sumac fans out there. The oil in sumac seeds can be made into a candle wax, and companies like Japan's Isobe Rosoku-ten remain devoted to this hundreds-years-old tradition.
(All images as linked above.)