Herb: Skunk Bush

Latin name: Rhus trilobata

Synonyms: Rhus aromatica trilobata

Family: Anacardiaceae (Cashew Family, Sumac Family)

Medicinal use of Skunk Bush:

Skunk bush was employed medicinally by several native North American Indian tribes, who valued it especially for its astringent qualities and used it to treat a range of complaints. It is little, if at all, used in modern herbalism. Due to its potentially toxic nature, it should be used with some caution and preferably only under the supervision of a qualified practitioner. The fruit is analgesic, astringent and stomachic. It has been eaten as a treatment for stomach problems and grippe. The dried berries have been ground into a powder and dusted onto smallpox pustules. The fruit has been chewed as a treatment for toothache and also used as a mouthwash. A decoction of the fruit has been used as a wash to prevent the hair falling out. The leaves are astringent, diuretic, emetic and haemostatic. An infusion of the leaves has been used in the treatment of head colds. A decoction of the leaves has been drunk to induce impotency as a method of contraception. A poultice of leaves has been used to treat itches. An infusion of the bark has been used as a douche after childbirth. The bark has been chewed, and the juice swallowed, as a treatment for colds and sore gums. A decoction of the root bark has been taken to facilitate easy delivery of the placenta. The roots have been used as a deodorant. The buds have been used on the body as a medicinal deodorant and perfume.

Description of the plant:


180 cm
(6 feet)


Habitat of the herb:

Foothills, canyons, slopes etc, usually on dry rocky soils and especially on limestone outcrops.

Edible parts of Skunk Bush:

Fruit - raw or cooked. The fruit can be eaten fresh, dried, mixed with cornmeal or made into a jam. The fruit is small with very little flesh, but it is produced in 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. The fruit is about 6mm in diameter.

Other uses of the herb:

The leaves are rich in tannin. They can be collected as they fall in the autumn and used as a black to brown dye or as a mordant. The fruits can also be used as a mordant. A yellow dye is obtained from the twigs. black dye can be obtained when the twigs are mixed with pine gum. A red-brown dye can be made from the bark and leaves. A pink-tan dye can be made from the fruit. The ashes of the plant can be used as a mordant to fix dyes. 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 roots have been used as a perfume and deodorant. The buds have been used on the body as a medicinal deodorant and perfume. The leaves have been rubbed on the body as an insect and snake repellent. Some caution should be employed here, see the notes above on toxicity. The branches are tough and slender, they are stripped of their bark and split into several strands then used in basket making.

Propagation of Skunk Bush:

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:

Foothills, canyons, slopes etc, usually on dry rocky soils and especially on limestone outcrops.

Known hazards of Rhus trilobata:

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.