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  • Betty Girardeau

Do You Know What This Is?


I think it is a cluster of dried sumac berries. Sumac grows all over the world, and there are fifteen varieties of it that can be found in North America. Atop Buck Bald mountain on Sunday afternoon I saw lots of these seed heads. They were at the tops of stalks that had already shed their leaves. But I think this may be the seed head of a staghorn sumac. While I have noticed this plant on the side of the road and in fields in the countryside all my life, I have never known that much about it. It's a pretty amazing plant. For one thing the berries are edible if they are red. White seed heads are produced by poison sumac. Those won't necessarily kill you if ingested, but they will make you feel pretty sick. However, all the red ones are edible. You can harvest the red ones, though, and, with a bit of work, and several days of that, you can create a seasoning powder that can be used on meats and in salads as well as in middle eastern dishes like hummus and falafel to add a tart lemony taste. You can also make "sumac-ade," which is supposed to taste a lot like pink lemonade, by steeping crushed berry clusters for several hours. The process of harvesting and creating your own sumac powder seems a bit more labor intensive than I would like to try for myself, especially when you can buy it from several on-line sources, including Amazon. The leaves and bark contain a lot of tannins and have been used to create leather. They also have medicinal qualities that have been found to lower blood pressure. Sumac steams have a soft pith which is easily removed, making them useful as pipe stems by Native Americans, who also often added added the leaves and flowers to their smoking mixtures. Sumac dyes create deep red and purple colors which especially penetrate marble to an extraordinary depth, which is probably not a good thing. All in all, this, if it indeed sumac, is a very interesting, multi-useful plant. I think I will just continue to photograph it.

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