The Indispensable Drying Remedy - Sumac

Aug 25 / Matthew Wood, MS
In order to control tissue that is prolapsed or collapsed and leaking fluids we need a reliable astringent. Sumach is the best medicine for stopping the outflow of fluids via the kidneys, skin, colon, lungs, and other channels of elimination.

Rhus aromatica, R. coriara, R. typhina. Sumach.
Sumach (R. coriara) has a long history of use in Greek and Arabic medicine. The name comes from the Greek rhu for “flux.” It is one of the great remedies for fluid loss from any outlet. Sumach is not native to Europe and was not much used in European medicine. It is widely used as a condiment in Middle Eastern cooking. It makes rice taste delicious, but it is primarily used (with basil) to increase the digestion of fats in meat. North America has many species and here either the Indian people taught the European settlers its use, or they discovered it themselves. The various sumachs had important economic uses, especially in the dye industry, and country people were much familiar with them. Fragrant sumach (R. aromatica) and smooth sumach (R. glabra) were officinal in nineteenth-century America. Staghorn sumach (R. typhina) was used in folk medicine. The indications seem to be relatively interchangeable Rhus glabra received a homeopathic proving, so I have rendered a separate account of it based on this history. All of these species are nontoxic, unlike their unfriendly cousins, poison ivy (R. toxicodendron) and California poison oak (R. venata).

Sumach (Rhus spp.) is the superlative remedy for stopping excessive flux from any channel of elimination – skin, kidneys, colon, lungs, or menses. It is indicated when there are debilitating fluid losses. It especially strengthens the functions of the kidney, helping it to retain water in both diabetes mellitus type II and diabetes insipidus. It was for this that sumach was introduced into nineteenth-century American medicine. Subsequently, it was used for dribbling and lack of retention of urine in the young and the old. And finally, as herbalist Phyllis Light informs us, it is indicated in ‘kidney anemia,’ when the kidneys do not signal the bone marrow to produce enough red blood cells.

Sumach not only helps the kidneys retain water in sugar diabetes but helps the cells pick up blood sugar, reducing problems with eyesight and neuropathy and making blood sugar levels more manageable and less extreme. It evidently acts on vasopressin, the antidiuretic hormone secreted by the posterior pituitary, for it also has a profound influence on high blood pressure in some cases – evidently those which trace to insufficient action of vasopressin. I have seen some dramatic cases where it brought down high blood pressure.

Moving into the respiratory sphere, sumach is indicated in runny secretion resulting in sneezy head colds, irritable coughing from excessive salivation overstimulating the cough reflexes and watery discharges from the lungs. It is one of Phyllis Light’s first selections in influenza and it is indicated when mucus is specked with blood, according to Australian herbalist Glenda Croft. The cough reflex needs a little bit of fluid to keep it happy; both lack and excess fluids cause an irritable cough that sounds similar in either instance. Sumach is indicated when excessive saliva stimulates a ‘drippy cough’ (cf. red clover, white hoarhound). This can cause choking/coughing episodes at night when the saliva or nasal drip runs down, yet there is no ripened mucus.

In the gastrointestinal sphere, sumach is indicated in excessive secretion, from the mouth (saliva) to the colon, resulting in diarrhea. The latter can be putrescent – this is particularly well documented in association with Rhus glabra, both in nineteenth-century usage and in the homeopathic provings. I had a case where high blood pressure would accompany the expansion of a rectal fissure. There was a history of heart disease in the family. Rhus typhina controlled both symptoms remarkably.

Sumach also acts on the menses. It is indicated when the menstrual blood is accompanied by a thin, watery discharge, according to Phyllis Light. She also recommended it when other fluids are not being retained, hence in nocturnal emissions, clear vaginal discharge, excessive blood loss from the kidneys, uterus, bowels, stomach, or lungs, and excessive expectoration. Yarrow, shepherd’s purse, and sumach are Glenda Croft’s basic threesome for the treatment of excessive menstrual discharge. She uses it in menopausal women with constant bleeding, the menses are profuse, thin (not clotted), constant, and dark, like the color of sumach berries. The burgundy-red color of the berries is also a signature for blood-building (cf. rehmannia root, beet root, yellow dock seeds).

The skin is also affected, and a capital indication is ‘excessive sweating and peeing.’ In other cases, the skin or lungs or digestive tract is dried out, yet the kidneys or some channels are losing fluids. This led my friend Lise Wolff, herbalist of Minneapolis, to describe sumach as the “leaky straw” remedy. It is indicated when there is a leak somewhere in the system that dries out the tissues elsewhere. The tongue is often dry in the center and wet on the edges, indicating that the core is drying out as fluids are being lost.

Glenda Croft uses Rhus coriara, because it is available in Middle Eastern markets as a culinary spice. She lived in the Middle East at one time and noted that the Bedouins chew the stalks as a strengthening tonic. Later, as an herbalist in Australia, she took up its use. Both she and I noticed that sumach is indicated when there is a blue and grey complexion around the veins.

Sumach is considered to be a deer or elk medicine in American Indian woodlore. The branches of these small trees look like deer or elk antlers. Deer like to browse at the edges of fields, where this plant grows – a colonist from the forest. That way they can eat the rich offerings of the field, but dash away into the forest. According to my friend Paul Red Elk, the Indian people noticed that the female deer would eat sumach and then lick her vagina after giving birth, from which it was deduced that she was cleaning herself. Thus, sumach is used, not only to check the loss of fluids during menstruation but to bring on a flow of fluids – many herbs have such dual actions. From an Iroquois woman, I learned a related use: after menopause sumach is used to induce a watery discharge to cleanse the womb.

Sumach is sometimes indicated for nervousness, anxiety, fear, or even desperation. See the provings of Rhus glabra listed below. Herbalist Erica Evans, formerly of La Crosse, Wisconsin, had a case in which a woman had extreme anxiety and fear. Nothing really helped until it came out that she panicked after having profuse urination. Rhus typhina helped both the physical and the psychological symptoms become manageable. Glenda Croft made similar observatins about the “very anxious” and “desparate” character of the emotions in some people needing sumach.

Sumach (Rhus spp.) is also beneficial in joint pain. Samuel Henry (1814, 109) gives the following case history. “For rheumatic complaints observe the following cure, discovered in a dream by a very pious baptist elderly lady whom I visited, laboring under violent rheumatic complaints, which caused her to use crutches: take four ounces of the fresh milky roots of upland sumach cut small, boil them in three pints of rum over the coals for one hour, then strain and apply flannels wet with this decoction over the hips, knees, or back, every hour until well. This proved effective, according to the old lady’s dream, in curing her in a dream days. I applied a strengthening plaster warm over the part affected.”

The dried inner bark contains a gummy emollient. “The inner bark powdered, or scraped, and stewed soft, forms an excellent emollient poultice. If there is matter [pus], it will bring it to a head; if not, it will allay the swelling” (Child, 1837, 124). A poultice of “white sumach” bark is “good for all kinds of swelling. Soothing, cooling” (Ralph Russell, 1911, 327).

Taste: (bark) astringent, gummy; (berries) sour, cooling, astringent
Tissue State: (bark) relaxation; (berries) relaxation, excitation

Specific Indications
Constitution, Complexion, Characteristic Symptoms
  • Excessive sweating and urinating.
  • Fatigued, pale, anemic, low immunity, weak bone marrow and kidneys, with fluid loss from the skin, lungs, bowels, kidneys; yet sometimes with local edema; lacking in will, whines, codependent.

  • Anxiety, fear, panic, desperation.

  • Headache, occipital.
  • Dark and/or pale under the eyes; puffy above the eyes; pale facial complexion, flushing during flu and fever alternating with gray pallor.
  • Blackheads.
  • Tongue dry in the center, wet on the edges.
  • Spongy gums, canker sores, ulcerations in the mouth (rinse, Rhus glabra, R. typhina, R. aromatica).


  • Colds and flus with copious secretion, postnasal drip, cough from secretion into lung; mucus stringy, adhesive (cf. homeopathic Kali bichromicum).
  • Cold in nose causing stoppage.
  • Sore throat with inflamed uvula and tonsils (but no pitting or pus).
  • Bronchitis with copious, free secretion, weakness, lethargy, fragile capillaries, bleeding.
  • Tuberculosis; bleeding, diarrhea, weakness, night sweats.

  • Stomach, gas.
  • Diarrhea, with profuse, painful discharges, mucoid and hemorrhagic.
  • Diarrhea, dysentery; with putrescent tendencies and tendencies to ulcerate; “as in typhus and typhoid fever” (Rhus glabra).


  • Diabetes insipidus; large quantities of urine passed, no sugar, thirst. – “Excessive activity of the urinary organs when there is no inflammation;” contra-indicated in acute inflammation.
  • Urine profuse, frequent, pale; with or without active inflammation; with exhaustion, weakness, anemia.
  • “Profuse and painful discharges, mucous and hemorrhagic, from the mucous surfaces of the kidneys, bladder, gastrointestinal canal, uterus, lungs and bronchi.”
  • Kidney stones, the difficult passage of urine.
  • Diabetes mellitus with copious urine and perspiration; urine pale, of high specific gravity, with sugar in it, with debility.
  • “Chronic diabetes, when no sugar is found in the urine and a large quantity of urine is passed, and there is great thirst.”
  • Incipient albuminuria.
  • Edema; with weakness, fatigue.

  • Chronic catarrh of the bladder and chronic cystitis.
  • Bedwetting in the young and the old; with weakness; frequent urination at night; unable to fill the bladder before needing relief; dribbling, lack of retention of urine.
  • Constant dribbling.

  • Swollen prostate, with great pain on urination.
  • Impotence; with frequent urination at night.

  • Leucorrhea
  • Profuse uterine bleeding.

Muscular and Skeletal
  • Stiffness, inflammation and weakness of the lower back and knees (cf. homeopathic Rhus toxicodendron).


  • Skin fungus associated with dampness.
  • “Clammy perspiration.”

  • Fever with debility, fluid loss, night sweats, and thirst; preceded by frequent urination.

Diabetic retinopathy; improves deteriorated eyesight (Rhus typhina).
Cataract (reputed).
“Antiseptic in infectious diseases.”
“Chills, thirst, and constipation, with sugar in the urine” (Rolla Thomas).

Preparation and dosage:
The bark is collected in the spring when the sap is running and used per decoction or preserved in alcohol, glycerin, or sugar. The outer bark, though easily peeled, should be kept attached to the inner bark. The berries are collected as soon as they are ripe and tinctured fresh to prevent the growth of worms. They are most potent if it has not rained for a week. The usual dose of the tincture is 5-30 drops (Fyfe).

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"In a busy practice covering over twenty-five years and tens of thousands of clients, a person learns what remedies are of invaluable service. I would like to share my selection – herbs I choose and herbs that choose me."
Traditional, Phyllis Light (2, 5, 8, 9, 11, 12, 24, 32), Erica Evans (3), William Boericke (4, 7, 19, 27, 28), John William Fyfe (7, 13, 15, 18, 20, 22, 23, 24, 26, 27, 29, 37), Glenda Croft (3, 32), McClanahan (1, 17, 22, 25, 27, 28, 36), John King (30), Finley Ellingwood (31), Lise Wolff (7), Matthew Wood (1, 7, 22-confirmed, 33, 34-confirmed, 35, 37, 40-case history), Chaled Ottway (4, 6, 10, 14, 21, 25, 34, 39), Rolla Thomas (41).

Selections from The Earthwise Herbal By Matthew Wood MS published by North Atlantic Books, in two volumes, 2008-9
The information provided in this digital content is not medical advice, nor should it be taken or applied as a replacement for medical advice. Matthew Wood, the Matthew Wood Institute of Herbalism, ETS Productions, and their employees, guests, and affiliates assume no liability for the application of the information discussed.