Wildflowers & Trees Of Appalachia

Shumake and Sumac

red sumac growing

Red Shoe-make (Sumac)

Last Saturday’s “Overheard” post left a few of you scratching your heads. Sumac, which I’ve always heard called Shumake or Shoe-make, has two varieties: red and white.

Red shoe-make (sumac) is the plant that is used as a spice or for medicinal purposes. It has a lemony flavor. White shoe-make (sumac) is the plant that is poison and is often the cause of the irritating skin aliment you hear folks talk about-think poison ivy on steroids.

Shumake noun The sumac bush (Rhus glabra). Its bark is made into a preparation to treat burns, and its blossoms and fruit are used for a tea drunk as medicine or for refreshment and called sumacade.
….1927 Thornborough Tramping 466 He also told me that the mountain people call hemlock “spruce pine,” the black spruce “he-balsam,” the Fraser balsam “she-balsam,” the sumac “shumake,” the butternut “white walnut,” while cucumber is humorously called “cowcucumber.” 1936 LAMASAS (Madison Co NC, Swain Co NC). 1966-68 DARE = causes itching and swelling (Brasstown NC, Burnsville NC, Cherokee NC, Spruce Pine NC). [1971 Krochmal et al. Medicinal Plants Appal 214 The dried ripe fruit of sumac is valuable as a source of tannic acid. Preparations of these fruits are effective as astringents, anti-diuretics, and tonics. In Appalachia, leaves are smoked to treat asthma.]

Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English

Pap told me about getting into shoe-make when he was cutting wood with Clyde Ashe. Pap said Clyde tried to warn him, but Pap thought the plant wouldn’t bother him because he’d never had poison oak. He was wrong! He said he was so miserable he thought he wasn’t going to be able to bear it. He couldn’t even stand to have his shirt on.

I think other folks have heard or witnessed stories like Pap’s run in with poison shoe-make and that makes them terrified of the good, or red shoe-make leading them to believe anyone who’s interested in gathering it to ingest must be in a hurry to hasten their death and meet their Lord.


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  • Reply
    Becky B
    May 30, 2020 at 7:56 pm

    We lived in Glen Rose, Texas when I was about 7 years old (50 years ago). There was a plant or small shrub that my mom called “shoe-make” that we would use when one of us got stung by stinging nettle. It was almost instant relief. We would just rub some of the leaves to get the juice flowing and then rub the leaves on our burned skin. It has nothing to do with poison ivy, I think . . . I haven’t seen any “shoe-make” since then, and haven’t been back to that part of Texas.

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    July 19, 2019 at 9:39 pm

    We used to eat something we called white shoemake. It would come up from the ground every spring and die completely back to the root in the fall. It had a white bloom that reminded you of queen anne’s lace, but wasn’t flat but was a ball. After the tiny flowers died back and fell off a little white berry would grow. When the berries got ripe they were sweet. The neighbor kids would say “Yore eatin pizen shoemake. That stuff will kill you!” It’s been 60 years ago and I ain’t died yet.
    I read your post early this morning and have been trying all day to think of the actual name of that stuff. I give up.

    PS: The stems of the plant were like poke inside. You could hollow them out and make a tube. They didn’t fall over when the died back like poke. In the spring the new growth would grow up through the old stems like snowballs do. The flowers are in a ball like snowballs too but not as tight.

  • Reply
    July 19, 2019 at 8:10 pm

    We have mostly red sumac, but I have seen the poison kind, just not as much, that’s a good thing.

  • Reply
    Ken Roper
    July 19, 2019 at 10:54 am

    My all-time Favorite Country Music singers are Chitter and Chatter, although I like most all kinds of music. Ray and Pap ranks right in there too, so does Paul and Pap. You play the Bass so good, with those long fingers of yours. No wonder your Dad said you learned the Bass quicker than anybody he’d ever seen. Ben and Mark do their job well, too. And I love the Indian Princesses, maybe it’s because of my girls. …Ken

  • Reply
    Quinn Piper
    July 19, 2019 at 9:55 am

    I once made a beverage using staghorn (Rhus typhina) sumac berries – that’s the one I see most in my neck of the woods – I don’t remember what it tasted like so maybe I should make it again and pay attention this time. Or maybe I should look for some of your Rhus glabra and try those berries instead. Oh, and we do pronounce it SUE-mack, so I’m glad to learn about the shoe-make pronunciation.
    Your white sumac is probably the one we call “poison sumac” – Toxicodendron vernix. It used to be Rhus vernix, but the plant taxonomists decided it belongs to the same Genus as poison oak and poison ivy. But this one is the nastiest of a nasty lot, and I can barely imagine how miserable a bad case would be. Sometimes, all a person wants to do is stand in a cold stream.

  • Reply
    Ron Stephens
    July 19, 2019 at 9:24 am

    I have always been somewhat confused about poison (white) sumac because I never saw it growing up, never heard it spoken of, never encountered it. Yet, per the USDA Plants Database, in southeastern KY I was well inside its native range. In later years I did see it in the wild which reinforced my conviction that I had never seen it growing up and rambling in the woods. Puzzling. Poison ivy I knew and commonly saw. If poison sumac had been around I’m sure us kids would have been taught to recognize and avoid it.

    I also never heard poison sumac called white sumac and the safe (called ‘shining’) sumac called red sumac. But it is easy to see why they each got those names. Each have a terminal clusters of small fruits; one red and one white. Each have pinnately compound leaves, (though poison sumac leaves are more coarse). And each are erect shrubs, though red sumac is typically larger except as a young sprout.

    I left some shining sumac in the fencerow here just for the fall color. That is another way it lives up to the name “red” since it usually turns a beautiful deep red color in fall. Mine, however, somehow never looks particularly good and it fades fast. But I expect the birds like it.

  • Reply
    Don Byers
    July 19, 2019 at 8:35 am

    We always pronounced it “SHoe-make”. And there is a Spruce Pine NC.

  • Reply
    Sharon Schuster
    July 19, 2019 at 8:21 am

    We always said “Sumac” or “Shoe-Mak.” I never heard anyone pronounce it as “Shoe-Make.” Spruce Pine was near where Dad grew up in NC.

  • Reply
    Ken Roper
    July 19, 2019 at 8:10 am

    In my garden (that I use to have) must be the Red kind of Shoe-make. That’s why I never got any poisoning. It’s good to know the difference. …Ken

  • Reply
    Roy Pipes
    July 19, 2019 at 8:04 am

    I cut some sumac once while I was gather firewood for our fireplace. My wife sat down on the hearth in front of the hot fire after her bath to do her nails. The smoke from the sumac poisoned her making her eyes swell shut. I got rid of any sumac left over, and never cut sumac again.

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    July 19, 2019 at 7:52 am

    Tip, I don’t think I’ve ever seen the white stuff and did not know it was poison. I have heard the different names and wondered what they meant but never bothered to look it up. You know we have some interesting names for things here in Appalachia I just assumed this was just one more and let it go. I have heard it called poison sumac. I wonder why white is poison and red is not.

  • Reply
    aw griff
    July 19, 2019 at 7:41 am

    That’s what we always called them was shoe-make. The prettiest shoe-make is the staghorn sumac. The seed pods are in a tight pod and are upright like a stag’s antlers. These are also good for tea and many times while bowhunting in the fall I’ve used a mouthful of the seeds. Watch for bugs! Poison Shoe-make I’ve never seen. Must be rare in my area.
    I’ve been eating a lot of those cowcumbers lately.
    He-balsam and she-balsam aren’t native to KY. but the Spruce Pine is. Ain’t that right Ron Stephens?

    • Reply
      Ron Stephens
      July 19, 2019 at 2:47 pm

      Yep, hemlock aka ‘spruce pine’ is native. My Dad called them spruce pine when I was small but in later years switched to hemlock. I expect you are right about the he and she balsams not being native to KY. Only place there would be a fair chance of them growing would be on Big Black Mountain along the VA/KY line. But even then it would not be very safe to assume they were not planted. The US Forest Service did some planting of spruce in the 1920’s in mountain balds at high elevation. Some of those trees linger yet.

  • Reply
    Jay McCluskey
    July 19, 2019 at 7:25 am

    I was Charlie Fletcher’s pastor before his passing about a year ago. Charlie signed me up to your daily email, and I enjoy the information and insights.
    I wanted to inquire if The Pressley Girls would consider traveling to Cleveland, TN to do a gospel concert one Sunday evening at the church I pastor. I do not have a specific date in mind yet, but wanted to inquire about arrangements such as travel compensation, expected honorarium, sound system requirements, etc. Any information is welcome.
    Have a blessed day

    • Reply
      July 21, 2019 at 12:02 pm


      Thank for the comment! I so loved Charlie. Over the years he become a true friend of my family’s through the Blind Pig and The Acorn.

      The Pressley Girls would be willing to come to Cleveland to play. Typically churches will take up a love offering when we play.

      We could use your sound system or if it’s a small church we probably won’t even need one. We do not a sound system to bring ourselves.

      Enjoy your day!


  • Reply
    July 19, 2019 at 5:35 am

    Now I could still be confused, but think you may have cleared up something that has puzzled me through the years. My Dad always taught us to learn all we could, because we just never know when it will come in handy. So I was a bit surprised when I asked what those beautiful Fall colors were on the bushes that lined a hillside, and he replied it was a “Shumake.” I later thought my dad had just mispronounced it using some old term learned while growing up. I never mentioned it, because I just did not go around correcting my parents. Later I helped some child almost every year with a class project where they had to collect leaves in Autumn and place in folder with identification. I researched the Sumac and found the beautifully colored leaves which were not poison and included this with one child’s information. It just makes me feel so much better to know that Shumake was also used and that he knew exactly what he was talking about. It is difficult because I find that very few people around my home town actually cared much about most things having to do with nature or Appalachia.
    Thanks so much for your post which cleared up some things for me after all these years. I had nobody else to ask, because Dad was the best authority on almost anything that required down to earth knowledge.

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