Rhus copallinum (dwarf sumac)
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Painting by Meta Carr
I was awed by the brilliant, glowing colors of this plant in all its autumnal glory. The fiery reds, purples and oranges seemed to me to cry out to be painted.
A member of the cashew family, this sumac is abundant in the Eastern U.S. as well as areas as far west as Texas and as far north as Ontario. The Dwarf Sumac is found in tree or shrub form, usually in rocky, dry soil on hillsides, roadsides and forest verges. It is distinguishable from other Sumacs by its wing-like projections along the leaf stems. In autumn the Dwarf Sumac displays a brilliant array of vibrant fall colors.
The sumac was used by Native Americans and settlers alike for a wide variety of ailments. All parts of the plant, roots, berries, bark and leaves were employed in the healing arts. Boiled sumac roots yielded a liquid useful for treating colds, fevers, and urinary ailments. When pounded into a mash, both roots and berries were applied to warts, fever blisters, and hemorrhoids. The berries, containing malic, tannic, and gallic acids, were used as a poultice to stem bleeding, correct irregular menstrual periods, and in combination with other plant derivatives, were also employed in the treatment of respiratory complaints, diarrhea, fevers, dermatitis and diabetes. The dust of the ground berries was used to treat canker sores and ringworm. Sumac was most commonly used as a gargle for sore throats, and worked as an astringent for cleansing the mucous membrane of the stomach and bowels. In 1859 John W. Comfort wrote, “A strong decoction of the bark of the root of the dwarf sumac is employed as a sovereign remedy for venereal diseases, by the Chippewa Indians.” Remedies for syphilis combined decoctions of sumac bark with decoctions of slippery elm and white pine barks.