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Sumac (Rhus coriaria L.)


AlbanianCërmendell, Shqeme, Shqemja, Shtjemëz
Summaaq, Summaq
BasqueTano, Zumake
蓝肤木 [lán fū mù], 盐肤木 [yán fū mù]
Lan fu mu, Yan fu mu (Rhus chinensis)
CzechSumah, Koření sumac, Sumac, Škumpa koželužská
DutchSumak, Zuurkruid
EnglishShumac, Sicilian sumac
EstonianSumahh, Lõhnav sumahh
GermanSumach, Gewürzsumach, Färberbaum, Gerbersumach, Essigbaum
GreekΡούδι, Σουμάκι
Roudi, Soumaki
Greek (Old)Ῥόον, Ῥοῦς
Rhoon, Rhous
Sumak, Sumaq
HungarianSzömörce, Cserszömörce, Cserző szömörce
LatinRhois, Rus, Sumacum
MalteseXumakk tal-Konz
MizoKhawmhma (Rh. chinensis)
Nepaliभक्मिलो, अमीलो
Bhakmilo, Amilo (Rh. chinensis)
PortugueseSumagre, Arbore das pelucas
Punjabiਅਰਕੋਲ, ਤਿਤਰੀ
Arkol, Titri
SerbianГроздасти руј, Сумак
Grozdasti ruj, Sumak
SlovakSumach, Škumpa koželužská
TurkishSumak, Somak
Yiddishסומאק, גאָרבערבױם
Sumak, Gorberboym
Rhus coriaria: Sicilian Sumac infrutescence
Close-up to sumac with withered fruits

Rhus coriaria: Somagh inflorescence
Sumac flowers

Several re­lated plants are more or less common orna­mentals both in Europe and in North­ern America. It is generally believed that members of genus Rhus are only mildly toxic or even mostly harm­less, for exam­ple the orna­mental tree stag­horn sumac (Rhus typhina). Never­theless, it should be borne in mind that the orna­mental varieties are not identical to the variety yielding the spice sumac, and that ingestion of those ornamentals may have adverse effects.

Toxicodendron vernicifluum: Japanese Poison Sumac
Danger: Japanese Laquer Tree, Toxicodendron vernicifluum (urushi [ウルシ]), belongs to the group of poisonous sumacs
Toxicodendron radicans: Poison ivy fruits
Allergenic: The fruits of poison ivy (T. radicans) are not to be touched

The closely re­lated genus Toxico­dendron contains a group of trees distributed over the New World and the Pacific Rim. As can be inferred from the genus name poisonous tree, these species are highly toxic. They have formerly been listed under genus Rhus and are often referred to as sumac in common speach: Toxicodendron radicans (Poison Ivy), Toxicodendron diversilobum (Poison Oak), Toxicodendron vernix (Poison Sumac). All those contain urushiols (3-alkyl pyrocatechol derivatives with long side chains) that are extremely powerful allergenes: If applied to the intact skin they cause painful dermatitis in sensitive people. Sensitivity is acquired on previous contact to the urushiols, without any symptoms. The toxines are effective in sub-μg amounts. Lethal poisonings have been reported, particularly on ingestion or inhalation, which allows the urushiols to attack the mucous membranes of mouth, nose and intestines. Note that the fruits of Toxicodendron species are white to pale ochre, not red.

Allergenes of urushiol type (also alkyl resorcines) are commonly found in the Anacardiaceae family, e. g., in cashew shell oil or (in traces) unripe mangoes. See also pink pepper.

Rhus coriaria: Dried sumach fruits
Dried sumach fruits
Rhus coriaria: Ground sumac
Ground sumac
Rhus glabra: North American smooth sumac fruits
Dried fruits of Rh. glabra
Rhus coriaria: Sumac shrub
Sumac tree

Used plant part

Dried fruits, usually sold ground (purple–reddish powder, often mixed with salt).

In Europe, on­ly Rh. coriaria is com­mercially available. In North America, however, two indi­genous species (Rh. glabra and Rh. aromatica) have some small market share; their dried fruits have been used by North American Indians to prepare traditional sour beverages, but are rarely used today. Sumac species from the Old and the New World have very similar flavour.

Plant family

Anacardiaceae (cashew family).

Rhus glabra: Ripe fruits of North American Sumac
Ripe fruits of smooth sumac, Rh. glabra
Rhus coriaria: Sumac inflorencence and infrutescence
Sumac flowers and last year’s fruits
Sensory qual­ity

Tart and sour, with slightly astringent overtones.

Main con­stituents

The astrin­gent–acidic flavour of sumac spice mostly goes back to two different types of con­stituents: Tannines (gallo­tannines, together 4%) and organic acids (malic, citric, and tatric acid plus smaller amounts of succinic, maleic, fumaric and ascorbic acid). Tannines are found in all parts of the plant, with par­ti­cu­lar­ly high con­cen­tra­tions in bark and root. These plant parts were, thus, used for tann­ing leather since anti­quity; more­over, they are part of anti-dia­rrhoeic con­coctions in folk med­icine.

Furthermore, the fruits contain traces of a volatile oil (0.02%) made up of aldehydes (2E-decenal, nonanal, 2E,4E-decadienal) and terpenoids (β-caryo­phyllene, α-pinene, α-terpineol, carvacrol and the diterpene hydro­carbon cembrene).

The pericarp owes its dark red colour to anthocyanin pigments, of which chrys­anthemin, myrtillin and delphinidin have yet been identified. Lastly, the sumac fruits contain 15% fixed oil.

Rhus coriaria: Ripening Sumac berries
Sumach infrutescence
Rhus glabra: American sumac infrutescence
Smooth sumac (Rh. glabra) with fruits
Rhus coriaria: Sumac inflorescence
Sumac flowers

Several species of the genus Rhus grow around the Medi­terranean Sea; of these, only Rh. coriaria yields sumac spice. Rh. coriaria grows wild in Sicily, Western Asia and parts of Arabia and Central Asia.


Sumac is of Semitic origin, deriving from a root SMQ or ŚMQ to be red. In the Aramaic language, sumaqa [ܣܘܡܩܐ, ܣܡܩ] both designates the colour dark red and the sumac berries, while Modern Hebrew sumak [סומאק] means the spice exclusively. The name was transported to European languages via Arabic as-summaq [السماق] sumac.

The botanic genus name Rhus is a latinization of the plant’s Greek name, rhous [ῥοῦς], whose origin is not known to me. The species name coriarius refers to the usage of the plant for tanning (Latin corium leather).

The German name Essigbaum vinegar tree (mostly used for Rh. typhina, stag­horn sumac, an ornamental common in Europe) originally referred to Rh. coriaria and is motivated by the sour taste of the berries. A similar idea stands behind Dutch zuurkruid sour condiment.

The scientific genus name Toxicodendron is a neo-Greek compound, whose second part (meaning tree) is discussed under juniper. The first element derives from classical Greek toxon [τόξον] bow, or rather the adjective toxikon [τοξικόν] of/for a bow, which was often used in the term toxikon pharmakon [τοξικὸν φάρμακον] poison for arrows (literally medicine for bows); for that reason, the stem tox- has aquired the meaning poison in modern scientific terminology (which does not follow classical habits here). The further origin of these words is not known for sure, but usually they are assumed to have been borrowed by Greek from an Iranian language, probably the tongue of the Scythians, famous horseriders and archers. Possibly, there is a distant and indirect kinship with Latin taxus yew, as yew-wood is one of the most popular materials for high-quality bows (cf. Beleg Strongbow).

Selected Links

The Epicentre: Sumac Medical Spice Exhibit: Sumac (via (via Rezept von Zatar-Gewürzmischung [زعتر, זעתר] Le Marché du Levant: Zaatar Spice Mix (red thyme) Wildman Steve Brill: Poison Ivy

Rhus coriaria: Sumac fruits
Sumac fruits on a tree

Rhus coriaria: Sumac inflorescence
Flowering sumac
Sumac is a very popular condi­ment in Turkey and Iran, where the ground fruits are liberally sprinkled over rice. Mixed with freshly cut onions, it is fre­quently eaten as an appetizer. The well-known Turkish fast food specialty döner kebap is sometimes flavoured with sumac powder.

In Jordan, a spice mixture called zahtar (za'tar [زعتر]) is extremely popular; it took its name from a local species of marjoram which is one of its main ingredients. Since this West Asian marjoram is hardly available outside of the region, it must be substituted by a mixture of marjoram with some thyme or oregano. Zahtar is, then, made by combining the dried marjoram herb with nutty sesame seeds, acidic sumac, salt and optionally some pepper. Similar mixtures are reported from Syria and Israel. Zahtar is mostly used to spice up fried and barbecued meat up to taste; combined with olive oil, it can also be used as a bread dip like the closely related Egypt spice mixture dukka [دقه] (see thyme).

Another use of sumac is recorded from Lebanon, Syria and Egypt: The fruits are cooked with water to a thick, very sour essence, which is, then, added to meat and vegetable dishes; this method was also common as early as in Roman times (see silphion for details of Roman cookery) and finds a close parallel in the usage of tamarind in contemporary Indian and Indonesian cuisines.

Outside of the Middle East, the true sumac spice is not known; yet, there are sumac species with culinary merit also further in the East. For example, Rh. chinensis (Chinese Sumac) grows in the Himalayas, in China and South East Asia. In Nepal, it is used to prepare a delicious sour and fruity pickle (amilo achar [अमिलो अचार] by some Himalayan ethnicities like the Thakali. In the North East Indian states Nagaland and Mizoram, sumac fruits are dried, coarsely ground and used as table condiment, or (often mixed with salt and chile powder) just enjoyed between meals.

For an account on sour spices, see mango.

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