In The Gar­den

Country Life Every Week - - Contents - Mark Grif­fiths is edi­tor of the New Royal Hor­ti­cul­tural So­ci­ety Dic­tio­nary of Gar­den­ing Mark Grif­fiths

Make sure you han­dle sumac with care, pleads Mark Grif­fiths

THE other day, I mas­saged a chicken with olive oil and sumac, the zesty spice long used in North Africa and the Mid­dle East, that has be­come a culi­nary must-have. My aim was to recre­ate the rub roasted bird that I was once served in Abu Dhabi. The re­sult was in­deed evoca­tive—of a blocked drain in a heat­wave. ‘More foul than fowl,’ quipped one guest. ‘Per­haps fur­ther re­search is in or­der?’ sug­gested another.

I may study more recipes, but I might well con­tent my­self with sim­ply ad­mir­ing the source. This is Rhus co­ri­aria, a large shrub or small tree, multi-stemmed and na­tive to the Mediter­ranean re­gion. The young spec­i­men in the gar­den here is cur­rently no more than a clump of sticks, but it out­braved our best maples last au­tumn when its feath­ered leaves turned fiery.

The name sumac comes from an an­cient Syr­iac term for red, as in the colour of the spice made from its crushed fruit­ing heads. Its species ep­i­thet, co­ri­aria, is re­lated to corium, Latin for an­i­mal hide: for mil­len­nia, its leaves and bark have been used in tan­ning and dye­ing.

In its home­lands, R. co­ri­aria fre­quents stony places where its ver­mil­ion au­tumn fo­liage con­trasts spec­tac­u­larly with the sil­ver-greys of olives, Cis­tus and other neigh­bours. Sim­i­lar con­di­tions and com­pan­ions suit it in Bri­tain: dry and gravel gar­dens or planters on sun-beaten ter­races. Wa­ter un­til it’s es­tab- lished and re­mem­ber that it ought to re­sprout if cut to the ground by frost.

A word more of ad­vice. Rhus can cause al­ler­gic re­ac­tions. Sev­eral species are dan­ger­ous in this re­spect, no­tably those some­times as­signed to a sep­a­rate genus named Tox­i­co­den­dron. Com­pared to such ag­gres­sors, sumac is be­nign, but I try to keep its sap off my skin and, as I’m no spice man­u­fac­turer, I wouldn’t use its home­grown seed­heads even if I knew they could make su­perb chicken.

I’m be­ing over-cau­tious, but then I’ve never for­got­ten tak­ing a wan­der in the woods of Con­necti­cut in 1985, and the blis­ter­ing tor­ments that fol­lowed a brush with Rhus rad­i­cans or poi­son ivy.

In plants, ben­e­fits of­ten ac­com­pany dan­gers. The com­pound in Rhus that causes such re­ac­tions is called urush­iol. This comes from urushi, Ja­pan’s name for its na­tive Rhus ver­ni­ci­flua, a tree whose sap Ja­pan’s in­hab­i­tants de­cided, baf­flingly, about 7,000 years ago, not to shun, but to use for coat­ing ob­jects: thus lacquer was in­vented. Later, they pressed another na­tive, Rhus suc­cedanea, into use: its oily fruit be­came an im­por­tant source of can­dle wax.

With cas­cad­ing rus­set flower tas­sels and bold leaves that turn cinnabar red in au­tumn, the lat­ter is a fine tree for gar­dens and ar­boreta, as long as one doesn’t touch or in­gest it.

Two fur­ther species of sim­i­lar or­na­men­tal value are R. chi­nen­sis, a low, dome-crowned tree with ivory flow­ers and am­ber fall fo­liage, and R. tri­chocarpa, which tends to be smaller and shrub­bier than the last.

Fi­nally, let’s not for­get the North Amer­i­can na­tives that were fa­mil­iar to Bri­tish gar­den­ers as ‘sumach’ long be­fore we took to the spice of that name. I mean Rhus ty­phina, R. glabra and their hy­brid R. x pul­v­inata— shrubs or small trees with leggy stems, out­spread branches, torchshaped fruit­ing heads in san­guine vel­vet and shaggy canopies of lux­u­ri­ant leaves that ig­nite at sum­mer’s end in a con­fla­gra­tion of colour.

Like pam­pas grass, these were widely planted in the 1960s only to fall from favour. Their habit of suck­er­ing was held against them, although it’s eas­ily con­trolled by cut­ting out strays, and an un­fet­tered sumac colony can make an as­set of an un­promis­ing spot. Lately, they’ve been mak­ing a come­back, a wel­come sign of how much more ad­ven­tur­ous our gar­dens have grown. Their gold-leaved cul­ti­vars, such as the ferny R. ty­phina Tiger Eyes, shine in large pots and among ma­roon fo­liage and scar­let flow­ers.

The more nat­u­ral-look­ing kinds are a gift to Mod­ernist de­signs and a thicket of them cre­ates the per­fect py­rotech­nic cli­max for prairie grasses and daisies.

All of these can be sourced via the RHS Plantfinder. As for buy­ing more of the spice, I’ve de­cided that sumac be­longs out­doors. Next time, the chicken can get stuffed. Next week: Trees for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions

For a retro look, the stag’s horn sumac, Rhus ty­phina, speaks of 1960’s fash­ions in gar­den­ing, form­ing canopies of lux­u­ri­ant leaves

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