It's that time of year when many plants are in full bloom and we are spending more time outdoors - sometimes in unfamiliar areas - especially if you are hiking or camping. It's a good idea to learn to recognize some of the local plants in your area and to know which plants are poisonous and which are safe and even edible or medicinal. Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina), aka "Red Sumac", is a native tree that grows across the United States and thrives on the East Coast. Many people mistake it for poison sumac (Rhus vernix). In fact, when I was a young girl and my family first moved to Pasadena, Maryland, my father pointed out all the poisonous plants we should avoid and he called this plant "poison sumac" (we also had poison ivy and poison oak in our neighborhood). However, like many people, he confused this plant with Rhus vernix. Staghorn sumac is NOT poisonous and in fact was used by Native Americans to make a delicious tea. You can steep the fuzzy red berries in water to make a lemony tea infusion that is high in vitamin C. To make Sumac tea - pick 3 - 5 bunches of the red berries and crush lightly with your hands. Steep for a few hours to a few days, depending on how strong you like it. Strain through a coffee filter or coffee press before drinking as the tiny hairs that grow on the berries can be irritating to the stomach. It tastes a little like a refreshing pink lemonade! The woody part of the Sumac tree is one of the types of wood used by Native Americans to make the prayer pipes called "canupa", smoked ceremonially to carry our prayers to Great Spirit.
Sumac of the poisonous variety has white berries when it is mature. If you happen to run into poisonous sumac or poison ivy or oak - take a look around to see if there might also be jewel weed (see picture below). It has orange flowers when in bloom and grows near water. The leaves and the juice from the stem are used as a treatment for poison ivy, oak and other plant induced rashes, as well as many other types of dermatitis. Jewel weed works by counter-reacting with the chemicals in other plants that cause irritation (Jewel weed gets it's name because rain or dew will bead on the surface of it's leaves looking like little jewels). You can pick the plant fresh and crush it between your hands to make a paste and apply it directly to any areas that might have come into contact with poisonous plants. Of course, wash the area as soon as you get home and wash your clothes as well! It's the oils from poisonous plants that cause skin irritation and they will cling to your clothing! Have a safe summer and get to know your plants! Namaste!