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Sacred Tree Profile: The Medicine, Magic, and Uses of Staghorn Sumac (Rhus Typhina)

A lovely stand of staghorn sumac in bloom!

A lovely stand of staghorn sumac in bloom!

As we begin the march from summer into fall, the Staghorn Sumac are now in bloom.  With their flaming flower heads reaching into the sky, the Staghorn sumac are striking upon our landscape.  As fall comes, the Staghorn Sumac leaves turn fiery red before dropping and leaving their beautiful, antler-like, and hairy stems behind.  All through the winter months, the Staghorn Sumac stems stand like antlers reaching into the heavens, until they bud and spring returns again.  This post explores the medicine, magic, ecology, herbalism, craft, and bushcraft uses, and lore surrounding these amazing trees.

This post is a part of my Sacred Trees in the Americas series, which is my long-running series where I focus on trees that are dominant along the Eastern USA and Midwest USA, centering on Western PA, where I live.  Previous trees in this series have included: Chestnut, Cherry, Juniper, Birch, Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, White Pine, Black Locust, and Oak.  For information on how to work with trees spiritually, you can see my Druid Tree Working series including finding the face of the tree, communicating on the outer planes, communicating on the inner planes, establishing deep connections with trees, working with urban treestree energy,  seasonal workings, and helping tree spirits pass.

Ecology

Staghorn Sumac is a large shrub or small tree in the cashew family that typically grow 8-20 feet high, but can sometimes reach as far as 35 feet tall.  New growth on the trees will be covered with a velvet-like hair, very similar to new stag horns that are also covered in velvet, hence the name).  The leaves are opposite and compound, looking similar to black walnut, with almost a tropical look. Staghorn Sumac is probably best recognized in the late summer to early fall when a large, red, fuzzy berry cluster rises from the tips of the trees.

Staghorn sumac is known in some parts of the US as “velvet tree” or “vinegar tree.”  Velvet refers to the velvety texture of the fuzz on the outer branches that are first year (which is also where we get “stag horn” which refers to the stag’s velvet horns when they are first grown out).  I suspect that vinegar refers to its tart taste (I can’t find any references to people actually brewing vinegar from staghorn sumac, but maybe they did!)

Staghorn Sumac prefers full sun locations and disturbed soil, which is part of why they are so ubiquitous along highways and roads.  Here in Western PA, you can’t drive even a few miles without seeing many clusters of Staghorn Sumac.

The Staghorn Sumac is a delightful tree that sometimes often gets a bad rap because people think its Poison Sumac (Toxicodendron vernix).  While the two do have similar looking leaves, the open cluster of white berries on the poison sumac is a way to tell the two apart.  Poison sumac also prefers to grow in wet clay-type soils, so you are most likely to find it in a swamp, bog, or another very wet area, where Staghorn Sumac grows in a much wider range of growing conditions.

Close-up of Staghorn Sumac berries

Close-up of Staghorn Sumac berries

According to John Eastman’s Book of Forest and Thicket, you can count the age of the stem by counting the number of branching angles from the top of the branch to the bottom of the crown – each new branching angle is another year of growth. Early in the season, the flower clusters are greenish-yellow and pollinated by insects, but later in the year, these flower clusters grow the bright fuzzy berry clusters, often looking like a flame.  You can often see these berry clusters persist well into the winter and early spring.  Eastman notes that nearly a hundred different bird species eat the berries including pheasant, grouse, turkey, crow, thrush, bluebird, catbird, cardinals, and robins.  The stalks can also be home to wasp species

Craft and Bushcraft Uses

Because Staghorn Sumac has a hollow stem on young plants and young shoots (similar to black elder) you can use it for any number of things.  Once the soft pith is removed (using a thin stick or thin dowel rod), you can use a longer hollewed stick as a blower to stoke the fires.  You can cut them shorter and use them as taps for maple trees (as Native Americans did, along with Elder), or sliced in small segments, as beads or decorations.  I haven’t yet played around with staghorn sumac as a possible flute, but I wonder about that as well!

The wood itself, when 2″ or more across, is stunningly beautiful.  This spring, my neighbor went to war with the Staghorn sumac grove on the border of our properties.  While I was absolutely devastated by his cutting of this beautiful grove of staghorn, he allowed me to harvest a lot of the wood.  Since then, I have been working deeply with this amazing wood and have been learning just how wonderful it is to work with.  Slices of the branches, trunks, and roots reveal brilliantly colored wood with green bands when fresh, eventually fading to darker olive and brown.  The wood has a fairly loose grain, so can be difficult to sand, but woodburns beautifully and is really unqiue and beautiful to behold.  Some of the slices that I sliced (using my miter saw) of both the trunks and roots are outstanding art in and of themselves.

Although I do not have personal experience with this yet, John Eastman reports that due to their high tannin content in the bark, leaves, and berries, Staghorn Sumac can be used for leather tanning (similar to oak, which would be a veg tan).

Edible and Herbal Qualities

Staghorn Sumac berries as medicine

Staghorn Sumac berries as medicine and food

Staghorn Sumac is an absolute blessing to humanity and all life and has a wide range of uses from craft to beekeeping, from herbal to edible. The berries are high in Vitamin C and have incredible amounts of antioxidants, making them a wonderful healthful food. Here are just some of the uses that I have direct experience with.

Jim McDonald taught me much about Staghorn Sumac and its uses as an herbal medicine.  Staghorn Sumac is a fantastic astringent, and can be used in any cases where astringency is needed: when tissues are soft and lack structure or when moist/damp conditions are present.  Thus, Staghorn is great as a wash for acne or a mouth rinse for soft and bleeding gums.  It can be used to tone or tighten skin, for reduce inflammation, and remove oil from the skin. It can also be safely used internally.

If you are interested in making your own herbal smoking blends, Staghorn Sumac leaves, harvested when bright red in the fall, is a fantastic addition.  They will not only add color, but will produce a smooth smoke, especially due to their high astringency.  I often will make “beat the nicotine” blends for people and Staghorn is one of my main ingredients (along with lobelia, damiana, and mullen).

Staghorn Sumac also makes a great spice.  If you look into any middle eastern recipes, sumac berries are used to spice up hummus, chicken, and many other dishes.  Why buy sumac berries when you can forage them yourself!

My favorite way to prepare Staghorn Sumac is sumac-aid or Sumac ‘lemonade.  Starting in late July and into August, keep an eye on the Staghorn sumac berries-. As the berries go to a deep red (and ideally, before a big rain as the rain can wash away some of the tartness) gather up your staghorn sumac berry heads.  As you gather them, make sure to knock off any bugs living in them (I like to bang them on the side of my bucket to invite crawly ones to exit!) .  You can make some fresh and dry the rest. I like to dry out the berries (using a simple air dehydrator) and store in a jar till I’m ready to enjoy.  Crush up 6-8 heads and pour cold water over them.  Let them sit about an hour, then strain with a cheesecloth and add honey, maple syrup, or sugar.  You will have a delicious and extremely nutritious drink.  This is also a very cooling drink and is thus wonderful for those very hot and humid summer days.

I have not personally done it, but I know that some people also use Staghorn Sumac as a start to brewing a wine.  If you boil the berries, you lose a lot of the flavor, so you start with a cold brew and pitch yeast into it.  Here’s one such recipe.

Finally, because of the astringency present, the berry heads are my absolute favorite thing to use in my smoker for beekeeping.  If you dry out Staghorn Sumac heads, you can keep them for several years and when you are ready to open your hive, use them in your smoker.  They will smolder nicely and produce a very calming smoke (even better, add some dried chamomile).  My bees were always much calmer with this rather than the commercial crap they try to sell you to put in your smoker!

As a final caveat, Staghorn sumac is in the cashew family, and so anyone who has an allergy in that family (e.g. allergic to cashews or mangoes) should not consume any Staghorn Sumac.  I have also known folks with severe allergies who can break out if they handle or touch the leaves or berries, but this is pretty rare!

Magical Lore in the Western Traditions

Staghorn Sumac from the Plant Spirit Oracle

Sumac as a species more generally is used in the Hoodoo traditions, more generally for addressing difficulty and bringing harmony among people. According to Cat Yronwode’s Hoodoo Herb and Root Magic, you can make a homemade triple strength peace water by using sumac leaves and berries in a bottle of existing peace water and adding some of your personal fluids. Shake that bottle up and then use it in the house as a floor wash or spritz (any way you’d use regular peace water) (p. 194). Sumac can also be used in court cases–if you have already been found guilty, gather up nine sumac berries and put them in your pocket when you got to get your sentence. Your sentence will be lighter with the berries supporting you.

Beyond uses in Hoodoo, I wasn’t able to find any other mentions of Staghorn Sumac in the Western Magical traditions (which honestly, surprises me just a bit because the tree is such a beautiful and powerful one).

Using the doctrine of signatures and basic elemental theory, I can draw some of my own conclusions surrounding the symbolism of this tree. The bright red “flame” of berries, the firey bright leaves, the powerful astringency, and the connection to the stag are all indications of the connection to this tree to the element of fire, to the quickness of the stag, and to the sacred fires and smoke that this tree can produce.  Let’s now turn to the Native American lore to see what else might be indicated.

Lore in the Native American Traditions

Staghorn SumacWild eneergy.

Sumac was certainly used by Native American peoples for a host of sacred purposes.  For example, in “Dancing Gods: Indian Ceremonials of New Mexico and Arizona” by Erna Fergusson (1931), the nahikàï is a wand used as part of a Navajo shamanistic healing ceremony.  It is sumac, made about 3 feet long and about ½” thick.  Eagle down is attached to the end of the wand, and it is burned off as part of the ceremony.  In the Hopi “Legend of Palotquopi” a young boy, Kochoilaftiyo, asks his grandmother what to do about a ghost that is coming to the village.  Young men in the village have been attempting to catch the ghost to no avail.  Grandmother has him go get a sumac branch, and with this branch and prayer plumes made of cotton and feathers, she creates a pipe and smokes a prayer over him that he might prevail. In The Religion of the Luiseño Indians of Southern California, by Constance Goddard DuBois, (1908), describes an initiation ceremony where young girls are initiated as women into the tribe.  As part of this ceremony, a young girl is placed in a sumac and sedge-lined hole, where she says for three days, while members of her tribe dance and sing night and day around the hole.  This practice is part of a larger ceremony of womanhood.

There are also a few stories of bear. In the Musqauake legend, “Chasing the Bear” a group fo hunters are trailing a bear.  Eventually, they catch him and slaughter him on a pile of maple, and sumac ledge Bear is slaughtered on pile of maple and sumac branches.  According to this legend, this is why their leaves now turn “blood red” in the fall.  In a second bear legend, this from the Apache, called “Turkey makes the corn and Coyote plants it” a brother and a sister are hungry.  Turkey overhears this and shakes his feathers and fruits and food come out.  Bear comes and brings juniper nuts, various kinds of nuts, and sumac.

Magic and Meanings of the Staghorn Sumac

Staghorn sumac presents a compelling tree to work with in a variety of ways: magically, herbally, through craft and bushcraft uses, and just as a great tree to spend time with.  Given everything above, here are some of the magical uses and meanings you might consider for Staghorn Sumac:

Energy of the wild.  Because of the strong connections to the stag, the staghorn sumac offers energy of the hunt, the wilds, and the energy of nature in its more wild form.  Staghorn sumac is a tree that expresses the wild energy of nature in all its forms.

Energy of Fire. Staghorn Sumac, perhaps more than any deciduous tree located in the Eastern US, has a  strong connection to fire.  The asringent properties of staghorn, its striking berries and blood-red leaves in the fall, and its bushcraft uses all speak to the strong power of fire that this tree holds.

Vitaility. A final conneciton, again tying to its ecological function as well as herbal and medicinal uses, is one of vitality.  This is a tree of life, of energy, of movement.  This tree colonizes damaged areas and brings life back into disurpted spaces.  If you are looking for a tree ally to vitalize you, consider working with Staghorn Sumac!

Dear readers, do you have experience with this tree? If so, please share–I’d love to hear your thoughts.