Ark of Taste
Rhus trilobata Nutt.
Sumac has been harvested by Native Americans for centuries and has a multitude of uses. Sumac berries have traditionally been used by many Southwestern tribes (Hopi, Navajo, Ute, Apache, Hualapai) for a refreshing beverage. The leaves have been used as an holistic medicine. The berries are also been used for dyes. Hopi, Navajo, and Pueblo people mixed crushed sumac leaves and twigs with yellow ochre and piñon pine pitch to make black dye for wool and baskets. Navajo used fermented berries to produce an orange-brown dye. Three-leaf sumac continues to play a role in Southwestern Native communities who continue their artistic traditions and foodways.
Rhus trilobata grows along the western area of North America, from the Pacific coast to the Great Plains. Growing 0.5-2.5 meters tall in rounded, mound-like form, Sumac has deep branching roots. The alternate compound leaves with three leaflets can vary in size, shape, and margin. Generally wedge-shaped, shiny-glabrous above, they turn reddish-purple, brown, and orange in the fall. With its trifoliate leaves it resembles Rhus Aromatica, and small-leaved oaks, as well as western poison oak. It can be distinguished from the latter by its strong odor in the leaves and shoots.
The flowers are white or light yellow. The bush reproduces from seeds carried by animals that eat the berries, or from spreading rhizome shoots that sprout several meters away, forming thickets.
The edible berries, 5-7 mm in diameter, slightly hairy, are red and sticky, with a single seed, and a very sour taste that results from tannin and gallic acids. Persisting through winter, the fruits provide food for birds and small animals.
Berries are gathered when red-ripe, in spring through summer. Either fresh or dried, they can be brewed into a tea, added to a pudding mixture, or used for dye. They are tart and astringent, with a citrusy intensity.
Though sumac is not endangered as a species, the traditional uses of it might be forgotten with time. While the plant and its uses may be well known among tribal people over 40, the reality is that most young people do not carry on the traditions associated with wild, native plants and herbs. It is fortunate that there still exists a generation that remembers, and continues to harvest and use sumac for food, medicine and dyes.
Currently, sumac is mostly wild harvested for home consumption only. However, as of 2016, the Navajo Nation crop farm Navajo Agriculture Products Industries (NAPI) was growing and harvesting sumac berries for commercial distribution on the Navajo Nation. Chef Franco Lee utilizes the in traditional native cuisine and interprets it into contemporary dishes, which are served to the student body at Dine College. Recognizing the value of this delicious berry, and its relative abundance and traditional uses, it is possible that a commercial market can develop to create greater economic wealth and celebrate indigenous cultural heritage within native communities.