Herb: Smooth Sumach

Latin name: Rhus glabra

Family: Anacardiaceae (Cashew Family, Sumac Family)

Medicinal use of Smooth Sumach:

Smooth sumach was employed medicinally by various native North American Indian tribes who used it to treat a variety of complaints. It is occasionally used in modern herbalism where it is valued for its astringent and antiseptic qualities. Some caution should be employed in the use of this species since it can possibly cause skin irritations. It is best only used under the supervision of a qualified practitioner. A tea made from the bark or root bark is alterative, antiseptic, astringent, galactogogue, haemostatic, rubefacient and tonic. It is used in the treatment of diarrhoea, fevers, general debility, sore mouths, rectal bleeding, uterine prolapse etc. It is used as a gargle to treat sore throats and applied externally to treat excessive vaginal discharge, burns and skin eruptions. The powdered bark can be applied as a poultice to old ulcers, it is a good antiseptic. A tea made from the roots is appetizer, astringent, diuretic and emetic. An infusion is used in the treatment of colds, sore throats, painful urination, retention of urine and dysentery. The root is harvested in the autumn and dried for later use. An infusion of the green or dried branches has been used in the treatment of TB. A decoction of the branches, with the seed heads, has been used to treat itchy scalps and as a bathing water for frost-bitten limbs. The milky latex from the plant has been used as a salve on sores. A tea made from the leaves was used in the treatment of asthma, diarrhoea and stomatitis. A poultice of the leaves has been used to treat skin rashes. The leaves have been chewed to treat sore gums and they have been rubbed on the lips to treat sore lips. The berries are diuretic, emetic, emmenagogue, purgative and refrigerant. They are used in the treatment of late-onset diabetes, stranguary bowel complaints, febrile diseases, dysmenorrhoea etc. They have been chewed as a remedy for bed-wetting. The blossoms have been chewed as a treatment for sore mouths. A decoction of the blossoms has been used as a mouthwash for teething children. An infusion of the blossoms has been used as an eye wash for sore eyes.

Description of the plant:


3 m
(9 3/4 foot)

July to

Habitat of the herb:

Thickets and waste ground on dry soil and by streams. The best specimens are found in rich moist soil.

Edible parts of Smooth Sumach:

Fruit - raw or cooked. An acid flavour, it has been used as a substitute for lemon juice. The fruit is rather small and with very little flesh, but it is produced on fairly large panicles and so is easily harvested. When soaked for 10 - 30 minutes in hot or cold water it makes a very refreshing lemonade-like drink (without any fizz of course). The mixture should not be boiled since this will release tannic acids and make the drink astringent. Root - peeled and eaten raw. This report should be treated with some caution due to possible toxicity. Young shoots - peeled and eaten raw. This report should be treated with some caution due to possible toxicity. The bark has been eaten as a delicacy by children. This report should be treated with some caution due to possible toxicity.

Other uses of the herb:

The leaves are rich in tannin, containing about 10 - 25%. Up to 31.2% has been obtained from some plants. They can be collected as they fall in the autumn and used as a brown dye or as a mordant. The twigs and root are also rich in tannin. A black and a red dye is obtained from the fruit. A black dye is obtained from the leaves, bark and roots. An orange or yellow dye is obtained from the roots harvested in spring. A light yellow dye is obtained from the pulp of the stems. The inner bark, mixed with bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) and the inner bark of wild plum (Prunus sp.) has been used to make a yellow dye. An oil is extracted from the seeds. It attains a tallow-like consistency on standing and is used to make candles. These burn brilliantly, though they emit a pungent smoke. The plant has an extensive root system and is fairly wind tolerant, though branches can be broken off in very strong winds. It is planted for soil stabilization and as a shelter screen. It can quickly establish itself in open sunny locations and so can be used as a pioneer species for establishing woodlands. Wood - soft, light, brittle.

Propagation of Smooth Sumach:

Seed - best sown in a cold frame as soon as it is ripe. Pre-soak the seed for 24 hours in hot water (starting at a temperature of 80 - 90c and allowing it to cool) prior to sowing in order to leach out any germination inhibitors. This soak water can be drunk and has a delicious lemon-flavour. The stored seed also needs hot water treatment and can be sown in early spring in a cold frame. When they are large enough to handle, prick the seedlings out into individual pots and grow them on in the greenhouse for their first winter. Plant them out into their permanent positions in late spring or early summer, after the last expected frosts. Cuttings of half-ripe wood, 10cm with a heel, July/August in a frame. Root cuttings 4cm long taken in December and potted up vertically in a greenhouse. Good percentage. Suckers in late autumn to winter.

Cultivation of the herb:

Thickets and waste ground on dry soil and by streams. The best specimens are found in rich moist soil.

Known hazards of Rhus glabra:

There are some suggestions that the sap of this species can cause a skin rash in susceptible people, but this has not been substantiated. See also notes in 'Cultivation Details'.

Plant information taken from the Plants For A Future.