Sumac (Wu Bei Zi / Yan Fu Zi)
Botanical Name: Western – Rhus typhina, R. hirta, R. coriaria. Eastern – R. chinensis.
Sumac is a spice made from sumac berries that is especially popular in Middle Eastern cooking. It has a lovely sour flavor and bright red color. (Poisonous white sumac (R. glabra) is a different plant, native to North America, with white berries, not red ones; and the commonly called Chinese Sumac (Wu Bei Zi / R. chinensis) is actually a gallnut caused by the insect Maliphis. It has yellow-green blossoms. These are each different plants though they are all in the same Rhus family.) Sumac (Rhus typhina, R. hirta, R. coriaria, R. chinensis) is one of the most powerful anti-inflammatory herbs available. Rich in a wide variety of polyphenols and flavonoids, it helps lower blood pressure, stabilize blood sugar, and reduce bone loss.
Watch a short video, from Ann Christensen, Founder and Creator of White Rabbit Institute of Healing™ – Sumac East, West, or Poisonous?
Below is an overview of sumac, combining the best of Western Science, Oriental Medicine, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), Shamanism, Folklore, and a wide range of healing modalities. Gain a balanced and thorough understanding of the healing properties of sumac.
How to take FULL advantage of Sumac's healing powers...
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Western Name: Sumac
Also Known As: Sumach, Sumak, Soumak, Sumaq, Staghorn Sumac, Elm-Leaved Sumac, Sicilian Sumac, Tanner’s Sumac, Forager’s Friend
Organs/Systems: Immune, Cardiovascular, Digestive, Kidneys
Key Actions: Antioxidant, Anti-inflammatory, Diuretic, Astringent, Tonic, Antiseptic, Diaphoretic, Antibacterial
Medicinal Uses: Lowers blood cholesterol and blood pressure. Stabilizes blood sugar. Reduces muscle pain and bone loss. Helps prevent heart disease. Promotes sweating. Supports kidneys and the immune system. Treats diabetes, osteoporosis, fevers, diarrhea, colds and flu, excessive uterine bleeding, kidney infections, bed-wetting, urinary difficulties.
Pin Yin: Wu Bei Zi (Chinese Sumac Nutgall), Yan Fu Zi (Translates as “Chinese Sumac Fruit”)
Also Known As: Qi Shu
Meridians: Lung, Liver
Key Actions: Clears Toxins, Moistens the Lungs, Clears Heat, Expels Phlegm, Promotes Secretion of Saliva, Stops Sweating
Medicinal Uses: Asthma, diarrhea, dysentery, colds, flu, detoxification, night sweats, jaundice, phlegmy cough, dandruff, stubborn dermatitis, sores, boils, dry cough, sore throats, aching muscles and joints.
Basic Habitat / Botany:
More than 200 species of sumac exist. It belongs to the Rhus genus in the Anacardiaceae family of plants. Commonly called red sumac has bright red clusters of berries that rise above the foliage. It is a bushy shrub that can grow 10 feet tall with light gray or reddish stems that will exude a resin when cut. The young branches and the underside of the leaves are hairy. In fall the leaves turn a bright red. White flowers are followed by conical clusters of fruit, each enclosed in a reddish-brown hairy covering.
Red sumac is native to South Asia and the Middle East with native varieties, especially white sumac (R. glabra) also found in North America.
Parts Most Frequently Used: Western – Berry, Leaf. Eastern – Gall.
Flavors/Temps: Sour, Pungent, Bitter, Slightly Sweet, Slightly Salty, Astringent, Drying, Cool
Caution: Considered safe. Can be too drying if overused.
Key Constituents: Polyphenols, Flavonoids, Gallic acid, Methyl gallate, Kaempferol, Quercetin, Tannins, Limonene, Vitamin C
History/Folklore: Sumac has been used as a culinary spice and medicine for many thousands of years. The berries can be dried, ground, and sprinkled into cooking or mashed to release their juice. Historically, it has been used to promote breast milk production, soothe sore throats, ease digestive issues, promote heart health, and ease muscle pain.
The Greek physician Dioscorides mentioned sumac in his De Materia Medica as a tonic, astringent, and immune-enhancing herb.
In Persia, sumac symbolizes the color of sunrise. It is included as one of seven key items placed on a table that are used during their 13-day New Year celebration called “Nowruz” or “Norouz”, marks the transition from winter to spring, and celebrates the beginning of spring and the rebirth of nature.
In North America, Native Americans used the local sumac for its fragrance and flavor to make a kind of beer.
Traditionally it has been used to help open the pores, promote sweating, and urination.
Sumac is a member of the Rhus family of plants which includes poison ivy and poison oak. Poisonous white sumac (R. glabra), as it can be commonly called, is easy to distinguish from sumac, also called red sumac. White sumac is not edible and every part is toxic and can cause significant skin rashes upon contact. Poisonous white sumac has white berries versus the stunning red berries of the edible and medicinal sumac varieties. The variety R. glabra (aka white sumac) is found in North America.
The leaves from red sumac (Rhus typhina, R. hirta, R. coriaria) have excellent diuretic functions that help to move deep, stagnant water out of the body, reducing edema, and water retention. They are very helpful for reducing swollen tissues and even varicose veins. As a tea, the tannins in the leaves can help counter diarrhea, profuse mucus discharge, and other damp flowing tissue conditions from postnasal drip to watery slimy stools.
Used topically, the leaves’ antifungal properties make it effective for preventing possible fungal infections, especially fungal infections incurred in moist locations such as the tropics, pools, or gymnasiums. As a mouthwash, sumac is useful for treating canker sores or loose gums.
The red berries’ sour, astringing, and draining properties help to relieve diabetic fluid retention, insulin resistance, and manage blood sugar levels. Sumac berries blend well with schisandra (LINK), another sour tonic herb. Together they enhance each of the individual herb’s tonic and immune-supporting properties.
Both the leaves and berries of red sumac have antibacterial properties that have been shown to help fight E. coli and other respiratory and intestinal bacteria. A cup of sumac tea can help prevent cold and flu infections as well as improve recovery time.
The difference between sumac and turmeric, which are both bright orange/red spices with powerful antioxidant properties, is that turmeric contains large quantities of curcumin, a powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant compound, while sumac does not. Instead, sumac contains a wide variety of anti-inflammatory and antioxidant compounds with no emphasis on a particular compound. Their taste profiles are also different. Sumac is tangy and sour tasting, like lemon. Turmeric is pungent, earthy, and slightly bitter tasting.
Sumac is high in tannin content and is consequently used as a medicine as well as in the tanning industry. In foods and herbs, tannins are known to be high in antioxidant properties, and all varieties of sumac contain high levels of tannins.
Do not confuse the red berry sumac (Rhus typhina, R. hirta, R. coriaria) with R. chinensis commonly called Gall of Chinese Sumac or Chinese Sumac Nutgall (Wu Bei Zi), which is caused by the insect Melaphis. They are different plants. The common Western species of red sumac makes use of the leaves and berries while the Chinese species, R. chinensis (Wu Bei Zi), makes use of the gall. All of these varieties are astringent with strong anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, sumac is used to help astringe damp conditions. The herb’s sour astringent taste is associated with the Liver and Wood Element and as such is used to help cleanse the liver and digestive system after the cold winter months in preparation for spring and summer. Sour flavors are typically used in small amounts, as too much can overwhelm the liver or dry out the system. Emotionally, sour foods are thought to help balance the heart and mind and strengthen the flow of breath when powerful emotions arise.
Sumac is said to bring harmony and help to resolve difficulties. Folklore says that if you are going to court, wear 9 red berries on your person and you will receive a lighter sentence. The juice has been used to bring harmony to relationships. The leaves and berry clusters can be added to smudge sticks to calm and aid creative approaches to thinking and problem-solving.
Robins, the northern mockingbird, eastern bluebird, wood thrush, hermit thrush, ring-necked pheasant, common crow, ruffed grouse, and European starling are a few of the birds that seek out sumac as a preferred source of food in the winter. The spring flowers are attractive to Honeybees.
In Greece, the wood of sumac has been used to make a lovely yellow tone dye used to dye woolen fabrics, and in Italy, the entire plant has been used for tanning leather.
Sumac v. Poison Sumac
Sumac and oak gallnuts contain the highest levels of naturally occurring tannin: about 50-75%! Tannins are known for their strong bitter taste and astringent and antioxidant properties.
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