RED SUMAC: ID, Names Info

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Smooth or Red sumac around the Great Lakes area grows in clumps of wide-spreading shrubby plants, like this one, whose bloom head is just beginning to turn to a spike of berries that will be covered by a reddish haze of fine hairs. The Ojibwe name for this plant is Makibug. Its botannical name is Rhus glabra, meaning smooth-barked sumac.

The red berries contain hard seeds. The main attraction is the hairs that cover them. These are loaded with ascorbic acid -- vitamin C. The fruit holds some, too, as well as some tannin, the astringent that's in ordinary tea.

Pick the whole head, and if you have access to an old wringer washer whose paddle still works, slosh them around for half an hour in cold water (after rinsing tub and paddles to make sure there's no soap on them!), and catch the pink tart juice pumped out Otherwise, pound the heads in water in a big tub or dishpan. Refrigerate or freeze the juice and sweeten with sugar or honey. The berries can be dried and removed from the stems -- do this over a plastic sheet to catch all the little hairs. Dried or fresh, the berries need to be pounded in water to yield up their vitamin C, flavor, and red color.

Red sumac doesn't get its name from its colorful berry spike, but from the way its leaves change to bright red well ahead of most fall foliage. Here a cluster of them is in a Wisconsin woodland, getting the jump on autumn at summer's end.

Sumac doesn't grow only as a shrubby bush, as it does around here. In warmer areas, on low foothills, it grows into a slender-trunked, attractive tree. This one was photographed somewhere in the southwest, apparently at night, one of what appears to be a group of them.