Sumacs are dioecious shrubs and small trees in the family Anacardiadeae that can reach a height of 1–10 m (3.3–32.8 ft). The leaves 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 are reddish, thin-fleshed drupes covered in varying levels of hairs at maturity and form dense clusters at branch tips, sometimes called sumac bobs.
The leaves and bark of most sumac species contain high levels of tannins and have been used in the manufacturing of leather by many cultures around the world. The Hebrew name og ha-bursaka’im means “tanner’s sumac”. The dried fruits of some species are ground to produce a tangy, crimson spice popular in many countries. Fruits are also used to make a traditional “pink lemonade” beverage by steeping them in water before straining to remove hairs which may irritate the mouth or throat, sometimes adding sweeteners such as honey or sugar. Although widely and erroneously stated to be rich in vitamin C, most Rhus species contain only trace amounts and none should be considered a dietary source of this nutrient. It is high amounts of malic acid that produce the tart flavor. In comparative research, the fruits of Rhus coriaria were found to contain the highest levels of ascorbic acid at approximately 39 mg/kg, which would require an adult to consume several pounds daily to reach the US daily dietary reference intake of vitamin C. Sumacs were also cultivated in mishnaic times and are therefore reckoned with those fruits to which the law of pe’ah applied, but in Israel, where it grew wild abundantly, it was not very highly valued and a lenient attitude was adopted about pe’ah.
Sumacs propagate both by seed (spread by birds and other animals through their droppings), and by new shoots from rhizomes, forming large clonal colonies.
SUMAK WATER RECIPE
Add a teaspoon of soft water to a tea glass of boiled water, let it steep for 5 minutes, then strain and drink. If you want, you can drip 1-2 drops of thyme oil.