Lemon Sumach (Rhus aromatica)

R. canadensis. R. crenata. non Thunb. Toxicodendron crenatum.
Common Name Latin Name Plant Family
Lemon Sumach
Rhus aromatica

The leaves are rich in tannin (up to 25%) and can be collected as they fall in the autumn then used as a brown dye or as a mordant[169]. The bark is also a good source of tannin[4].

An oil is extracted from the seeds[4]. It attains a tallow-like consistency on standing and is used to make candles. These burn brilliantly, though they emit a pungent smoke[4].

The plant has an extensive root system and is sometimes planted to prevent soil erosion[200].

The split stems are used in basket making[4, 46, 61].

  • Medicinal Use

    The leaves are astringent and diuretic[61, 222]. They were used in the treatment of colds, stomach aches and bleeding[222].

    The root bark is astringent and diuretic[4, 222]. An infusion can be used in the treatment of diarrhoea, dysentery. Used externally, it is used to treat excessive vaginal discharge and skin eruptions and also as a gargle for sore throats[254]. Its use is contraindicated if inflammation is present[222]. The root is harvested in the autumn and dried for later use[254].

    The fruits are astringent and diuretic[254]. They have been chewed in the treatment of stomach aches, toothaches and gripe[222] and used as a gargle to treat mouth and throat complaints[254]. They help reduce fevers and may be of help in treating late-onset diabetes[254].

    Some caution is advised in the use of the leaves and stems of this plant, see the notes above on toxicity.

  • Edible Use

    Fruit – raw or cooked[2, 22]. The fruit is small with very little flesh, but it is easily harvested and when soaked for 10 – 30 minutes in hot or cold water makes a very refreshing lemonade-like drink (without any fizz of course)[61, 85, 183, K]. The mixture should not be boiled since this will release tannic acids and make the drink astringent. The fruit can also be dried and ground into a powder then mixed with corn meal and used in cakes, porridges etc[183].

  • Cautionary Notes

    There are some suggestions that the sap of this species can cause a skin rash in susceptible people, but this has not been substantiated. See also notes in 'Cultivation Details'.

Cultivation & Habitat

Seed – best sown in a cold frame as soon as it is ripe. Pre-soak the seed for 24 hours in hot water (starting at a temperature of 80 – 90c and allowing it to cool) prior to sowing in order to leach out any germination inhibitors[200]. This soak water can be drunk and has a delicious lemon-flavour. The stored seed also needs hot water treatment and can be sown in early spring in a cold frame[200]. When they are large enough to handle, prick the seedlings out into individual pots and grow them on in the greenhouse for their first winter. Plant them out into their permanent positions in late spring or early summer, after the last expected frosts. Cuttings of half-ripe wood, 10cm with a heel, July/August in a frame[200]. Root cuttings 4cm long taken in December and potted up vertically in a greenhouse. Good percentage[78, 200]. Suckers in late autumn to winter[200].
Succeeds in a well-drained fertile soil in full sun[11, 200]. Tolerates poor soils[169, 200]. Established plants are drought resistant[169]. A very hardy plant when fully dormant, tolerating temperatures down to about -25¡c[184]. However, the young growth in spring can be damaged by late frosts. Many of the species in this genus are highly toxic and can also cause severe irritation to the skin of some people, whilst other species such as this one are not poisonous. It is relatively simple to distinguish which is which, the poisonous species have axillary panicles and smooth fruits whilst non-poisonous species have compound terminal panicles and fruits covered with acid crimson hairs[1, 4]. The toxic species are sometimes separated into their own genus, Toxicodendron, by some botanists[200]. This species is a low suckering shrub[182]. There is a specially low growing form, var. arenaria, that is found growing on sand dunes in the mid-west of N. America[184]. A polymorphic species[43]. Plants are susceptible to coral spot fungus[11]. Plants have brittle branches that are easily damaged in very strong winds[11]. Plants in this genus are notably resistant to honey fungus[200]. This species transplants easily[169]. The plant has an offensive smell[149]. Or, to go by another nose, the bruised leaves emit a delicious resinous scent[245]. Dioecious. Male and female plants must be grown if seed is required.
Eastern N. America – Quebec to Florida and Indiana to Texas.

Become ungovernable, break the chains of the matrix; grow and forage your own food and medicine.

*None of the information on this website qualifies as professional medical advice. Take only what resonates with your heart and use your own personal responsibility for what’s best for you. For more information [brackets] [000], see bibliography.