In The Garden
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