The war party of the People traveledsilently but quickly through the trees. Every warrior was alert with his weapons at the ready. Early the previous morning, a messenger had arrived at their village requesting help. A large raiding party of the warlike northern Shaved Heads had been spotted near an outlying village of the People, and each man of the reinforcing war party hoped against reason that they were not too late to help their kinsmen fend off the impending attack. It soon became obvious that their hopes were in vain as the party neared the location of the village. Forward-ranging
scouts reported a pall of smoke hanging over the site, along with circling vultures.

As they entered the ruined village, the men of the war party were appalled at the sight that awaited them. Even with advance warning and fighting with the ferocity that comes from defending home and family, the warriors of the village had been no match for the invaders—they had simply been outnumbered too badly to hold off the fierce Shaved Heads. Mutilated bodies of the fighting men lay strewn among the burned lodges where they had fallen in battle. As the warriors of the People scouted the devastated remains of what once had been a thriving settlement, they found an even more disturbing sight: just inside the edge of the woods lay the bodies of several women and children. Tracks and signs told the story: a flanking party of the Shaved Heads had lain hidden inside the tree line, and sadly, as the warriors of the village had fought desperately to give their families time to escape to the forest, the women and children had been intercepted by the hidden enemy and many had been cut down as they ran. Even more troubling to the People’s warriors was the knowledge of what had certainly befallen the the women and children whose bodies were not found there in the woods. Having been captured alive, they now faced a lifetime of cruel captivity and slavery in the distant northern villages of the Shaved Heads.

The Medicine Man was troubled as he viewed the carnage. He was gifted with the knowledge of healing, but it appeared that those here were now beyond his help. As he sadly bent to look at the body of a small child who still clutched a corn-husk doll in her bloody hand, a scout came running up to him. Deep in a thicket near the village, he had found a survivor—a badly injured warrior who had crawled into the denserhododendrons and was still clinging to life.

The injured warrior was in shock from multiple wounds and loss of blood, and he had lain in the woods untreated since the previous morning. But of the most concern to the healer was a festered arrow wound in the man’s thigh. The broken shaft of the arrow still protruded from the warrior’s leg. The area around the arrow was swollen and feverish, and the edges of the wound were turning black. The wound had a foul odor. He had the injured warrior carried to one of the few unburned lodges. The Medicine Man quickly boiled water, cleaned the wound, and with the help of two of the war party, he removed the arrowhead and portion of shaft from the man’s thigh. He then flushed the wound with more hot water and clean wood ashes and allowed it to drain freely. He was relieved to see that the projectile had missed the major arteries, but the infection was serious and needed immediate attention if the man was to survive.

After covering the fallen warrior with a warm robe, giving him water, and making him as comfortable as he could, the Medicine Man went in search of medicines he could use to treat the infected wound. He had quickly gathered his weapons with the rest of the warriors the previous morning and set out at once in aid of his tribesmen, so he had not had time to pack medicines potent enough to deal with a situation of this nature. He hoped for the best as he quickly searched the edges of the surrounding woods. He quickly gathered some bark from a small white pine and continued looking. In the middle of a thicket, he spotted red berries. Working his way to the berrybearing shrub, he pulled up several stems. Carrying them back to the ruined village, he scraped and discarded the outer bark from the stems, exposing the inner bark. This he peeled off, crushed with the pine bark, and seeped in warm water. After the inner bark had soaked for a period of time, he removed it from the water and prepared a poultice. He poured some of the bark-infused water from the pot into the warrior’s wound and fastened the poultice over the inflamed area.

Most of the war party soon left on the trail of the hated Shaved Heads, swearing vengeance and hoping to recapture some of the captive women and children. A handful of warriors stayed behind to guard the Medicine Man as he treated the only survivor of the battle. After several days of treatment with the bark medicine and other remedies that the healer gathered from the surrounding woods, the injured man was showing improvement. The bark medicine had drawn out much of the infection, and the man’s wound no longer had a bad odor nor was it as red and inflamed as it had been. The wounded man was still sick in spirit as he grieved for his fallen family, relatives, and fellow warriors, but it seemed that he was on the road to physical recovery and would live, thanks in part to the healing shrub with the red berries.
The shrub used by the Medicine Man was the sumac (Rhus ssp). Fourteen species of sumac are native to North America. Most are medium-sized shrubs or occasionally small trees and are members of the Cashew Family (Anacardiacaea). The most common of these are the smooth sumac (Rhus glabra), which grows throughout the U.S. and southern Canada; the staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina), which is the tallest and most tree-like of the sumacs, growing throughout the east and midwestern regions of the continent; the winged or shining sumac (Rhus copallinum), whose range is similar to the staghorn sumac; and the skunkbush sumac (Rhus trilobata), which grows mostly west of the Mississippi River. The smooth and staghorn sumacs are the most-used species for medicine and other purposes, but the varieties are interchangeable to some degree.

Sumacs usually grow in dry, poor soil, thickets, old fields, and edges of woodlands. Most grow as multi-stemmed shrubs and many species form large clonal colonies or thickets by means of spreading root suckers. The leaves in most of the common species are compound with varying numbers of leaflets and toothed margins. The sap is a thick, milky, latex-like sticky liquid. The foliage of most species of sumac turns a brilliant red or orange in the fall. The flowers are borne in terminal spikes or clusters and are greenish-yellow in most species. The fruit is a large terminal cluster of brilliant scarlet-red berries that ripen in late summer or early fall.

One plant relative that should be strictly avoided is the poison sumac (formerly Rhus vernix but now designated Toxicodendron vernix). This plant is superficially similar to the sumacs but has white berries and grows in wet, swampy places. Contact with poison sumac can cause severe dermatitis similar to that contracted from poison ivy or poison oak, but the poison sumac dermatitis is usually more intensely irritating and longer lasting. Some sensitive people can develop a rash from handling any species of sumac. Sumac has a long history of medicinal usage. Sumac has styptic, astringent, refrigerant, antiseptic, antibiotic, and diuretic properties. Active compounds include tannin, gallic acid, 4-methoxygallic acid, and methyl gallate. The medicinal parts used are the inner bark, root bark, berries, and leaves. Native American tribes and early physicians used it for the treatment of a number of ailments including sore throat, fevers, burns, wounds, gangrenous sores, hemorrhoids, sore gums, mouth ulcers, rheumatism, leucorrhoea, bedwetting, and to increase the flow of milk in nursing women. It is effective at stopping bleeding, both internally and externally, and is considered one of the most effective herbal treatments for dysentery and diarrhea. The gummy sap has been packed into decayed teeth to ease the pain of toothache. Sumac has also shown some promise in treating diabetes. One study of a hundred medicinal plants for antibiotic properties showed smooth sumac to be the most effective at killing bacteria.

Sumac also can be used for food. The ripe berries contain malic acid and have a pleasant, citrus-like flavor but are covered with irritating hairs. Crushing the ripe berries and steeping them in cold water can make a refreshing cold drink that tastes very similar to lemonade. After steeping, strain the liquid through a cloth to filter out the berries and hairs, then sweeten it to taste. Some native tribes dried these berries for winter use after singeing off the hairs. The seeds are also quite nutritious and can be ground into meal. They contain about twenty percent carbohydrates and five percent protein. The citrus flavor of the berries has long been utilized as a seasoning and is still commonly used to flavor Middle Eastern food. Some sources report the peeled young shoots of sumac to be edible. Sumac has many other uses. The leaves and berries have been traditionally used for dying textiles and other materials. The color of the dye can range from yellow to blue, green, deep red, orange, or black depending on the material, the plant part used, the time of harvest, and the mordant.

Sumac leaves are used in tanning fine leather and were also mixed with tobacco and other herbs and smoked by native tribes. The stems are filled with soft pith. This pith can be pushed out, leaving a hollow stem behind. Many tribes used
these hollow stems for pipe stems, blowguns, flutes, and spiles for tapping sugar maple trees. The Cherokee and Iroquois, among others, used the stems to make darts and javelins. Sumac stems can be used for making friction fire, and the long, flexible roots can be split and used for rough sewing, lashing, and binding. The split stems and roots have been used for
basket weaving. The sumac also has ornamental value. Its attractive berries and fiery-colored fall foliage lend it to
horticultural use. It is easy to propagate and will thrive in poor soils.
Our ancestors lived intimately with the land and over time accumulated much knowledge of which plants to use for different purposes. Before industrial civilization, this knowledge was widespread and necessary for survival. Now, much knowledge has been lost. It is our duty and in our best interests to preserve useful plant knowledge and incorporate it into our lives as well as to preserve our environment and the wild plants that in the future may once again become the very means of our survival.

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