This plant belongs to the family Anacardiadeae, which includes the terebinth and the pistachio. Though sumacs are generally encountered as shrubs or small trees, they can grow up to 40 ft tall. Sumacs propagate both by seed (spread by birds and other animals), and by new shoots from rhizomes, forming large clonal colonies. The leaves are spirally arranged; though some species have trifoliate or simple leaves. The leaves contain a high proportion of tannin which is used in the manufacture of leather, giving rise to its Hebrew name, og ha-bursaka’im (“tanner’s sumac”).

The flowers appear in dense spikes 11” long. These greenish, creamy white or red flowers are very small and each has five petals. The female trees bear reddish fruits (in Syriac sumac means “red”) arranged in dense clusters called “drupes” or “sumac bobs”. The fruits are shaped like lentils, and are hairy with an acrid taste. The dried drupes of some species are ground to produce a tangy, crimson spice.

Sumac was used in drinks in the colonial United States, giving rise to the tradition of “pink lemonade”. The fruit (Rhus typhina, staghorn sumac) can be soaked in cold water to make a refreshing, vitamin C-rich beverage. Ground sumac powder can be used as a spice to add a tart, lemony taste to salads or meat. In Arab cuisine, it is used as a garnish on dishes such as hummus and tashi, and is added to salads in the Levant. It is also one of the main ingredients in Palestine’s national dish, musakhan.

In Afghan, Armenian, Bangladeshi, Indian, Iranian, Mizrahi, and Pakistani cuisines, sumac is added to rice or kebab. In Azerbaijani, Central Asian, Jordanian and Turkish cuisines, it is added to salads, kebab and lahmajoun. The variety Rhus coriaria is used in the spice mixture za’atar.