Deciduous shrub growing to a height of about 6½ ft (2 m). Has straggling branches, compound leaves in pairs, large clusters of greenish-red flowers, and downy deep red berries.
Habitat & Cultivation
Native to North America, smooth sumac is found on the borders of woods, along fences and roadsides, and in neglected sites. The root bark is collected in autumn, the berries when ripe in late summer.
Root bark, berries.
Smooth sumac contains tannins. Its other constituents are unknown.
History & Folklore
Indigenous peoples across North America used smooth sumac and closely related species to treat hemorrhoids, rectal bleeding, dysentery, venereal disease, and bleeding after childbirth. John Josselyn, a 17th-century New England naturalist, observed: “the English use to boyl [the plant] in beer, and drink it for colds; and so do the Indians, from whom the English had the medicine.”
Medicinal Actions & Uses
The astringent root bark of smooth sumac is often used as a decoction. It is taken to alleviate diarrhea and dysentery, applied externally to treat excessive vaginal discharge and skin eruptions, and used as a gargle for sore throats. The berries are diuretic, help reduce fever, and may be of use in type 2 diabetes. The berries are also astringent and can be used as a gargle for both mouth and throat complaints.
Sweet sumac (R. aromatica) has a similar range of uses. Poison ivy (R. toxicodendron) was formerly used in herbal medicine as a treatment for rheumatism, paralysis, and certain skin disorders. It is itself highly irritant to the skin, and causes severe dermatitis.