There is a plant which always signals the coming of Fall before all others. It is the Sumach (also called Sumac), one of the most prevailing plants throughout Canada.
In late September and early October the Sumach starts to show its brilliant red fall colour. On a recent photo trip at the Collingwood Arboretum to record the fall foliage colours, the Sumach was the only plant with colored leaves.
Sumach belongs to the plant family Rhus and is one of about 35 species of flowering plants in that family. It is related to the cashew family, and grows abundantly in subtropical and temperate regions in the world, as shrubs or small trees from 1 to 10 meters tall. It is found in East Asia, Africa and North America. It grows in colonies with crooked trunks and picturesque velvety branches and twigs.
I first met up with this plant when I was studying Euell Gibbons’ book Stalking the Wild Asparagus in 1952. It was all about surviving in the wilderness by finding and eating naturally occurring foods. Sumach bark and leaves are rich in tannin and its fruits were supposed to be a food of several animals. The local Indians made a lemonade-like drink from it. When I first boiled a batch of the fruits to make the tea, I found the furry fruits somewhat disturbing, but the sour taste was quite distinctive.
My wife, an excellent traditional cook, was not too impressed with Euell Gibons’ cooking suggestions and, quite frankly, I was also not a happy “puller-upper” of cattail plants in a swamp, so I was really never exposed to the results of his recipes. But then or later, I also had no plans to ever getting lost in the bush and having to exist on natural foods.
Euell Gibbons was often mistaken for a Survivalist, but he was an advocate of nutritious and neglected plants. He became a cook utilizing such plants and often gave “wild parties” to serve them to his friends and guests. Rose hips, dandelion shoots, stinging nettle and cattails were part of his kitchen repertoire. Although he was not an Herbalist, many of the plants he advocated were later found to have medicinal properties as well.