Glorious Sumac

Autumn. In the Okanagan Okanogan, it would be nothing without sumac. In the East, the maple trees and sumacs turn red and the sun burns on the face of the earth. We get aspens and poplars, burning as yellow as Saturn, also pretty great, but we also get sumacs, both our native smooth sumacs that adore scree slopes and reach up the mountains like flames, and these great eastern imports:

Staghorn Sumac in Its Glory

Beware, they can be invasive, but only in gardens and suburban areas.

In Turkey, Iran, and elsewhere around the Mediterranean, the seedheads of sumac are gathered and ground into a lemony-flavoured chili-red spice, that takes the place of the paprika used so gloriously in Hungary and which (hint hint) is used to perfection in the White Horse in Salzburg. Sumac means “red” in arabic. Arabs and other Mediterranean people built a food culture based around it. We can too. We can give our chefs that gift. Here it is in the night:

Like a Torch!

Sumac plants can reach production in their second year. By this point they can be up to eight feet tall, depending on their water supply and their species. (Staghorns are the big ones. Back in the 1970s, I used to spend starlit evenings under the staghorn sumac that was his living room talking about the Tao with a good friend who had just come back from a few years rice planting in Taiwan. Hey, it was the seventies. We did go on to write a letter, a single letter, over a bowl of cabbage soup and garlic, that kickstarted the organic fruit industry in the Okanagan. That was the eighties. Not bad for one sumac.)

Here’s what we know: sumac fruits are ground into a lemony spice for salads and meat in mediterranean cuisine and as a garnish on hummus and salads, rice or kebab. Sumac can be used to create candles that melt at a higher temperature than paraffin and which burn with a smokeless flame, and for producing lacquer. Sumac tea is a traditional Indigenous American beverage. Sumac is traditional mixed with tobacco for some Indigenous American smoking purposes. Sumac is valuable to the floral industry. Sumac leaves produce chemicals for the tanning industry. It produces lightweight, flexible, and lightly-coloured leathers. Sumac can be used as a natural dyestuff and a fuel for beekeeping smokers. Coolest of all, dried sumac wood fluoresces under black light. How cool is that? This is not just a list of historical uses. This is a list of possible marketing and agricultural possibilities, using a native plant capable of regulating water in replacement of expensive surface water drainage systems. This is not a wild plant. It is a cultural powerhouse.


Tomorrow, I will move Heaven and Earth to bring you a second instalment of my talk on the future of the arts and land in the Okanagan. Today was spent trying to extricate my new maul from a twisty block of elm wood and seeing what the Vernon Art Gallery was up to, with a big $50,000 grant to plan their new building. More on both later, too.



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