Skunkbush

Rhus trilobata

Also, Known As:

  • Aromatic Sumac
  • Basketbush
  • Fragrant Sumac
  • Ill-scented Sumac
  • Scented Sumac
  • Skunkbush
  • Skunkbush Sumac
  • Squawbush

Skunkbush (scientific name Rhus trilobata) is a low-growing, bushy shrub belonging to the sumac genus. Also known as sour berry or three-leaf sumac, it grows up to a height of anything between 2 feet and 6 feet. This shrub is found growing in clumps in rocky terrains all through a different section of the eastern United States. The leaves of this shrub are trifoliate (hence the common name three-leaf sumac), which appear on an inch-long stalk. The leaflets of skunkbush appear directly from the stems (sessile) and are covered with very fine, short hairs (pubescence) when they are young. Compared to the lateral leaflets, the terminal leaflet is significantly large, measuring about 1 inch to 2 inches long and roughly two-thirds of its length in width. The leaflets are complete and narrow at the base. The leaflets are acute with eight to ten teeth with notched margins at the apex.

rhus-trilobata-flowersSkunkbush produces small flowers having a greenish-yellow hue. The flowers blossom in April prior to the emergence of the leaves. The flowers grow on stalks, are spiked and appear in ament-like clusters. Before the flowers open, they look like unexpanded catkin. The petals, sepals and stamens all appear in fives, while the pistil comprises  one-ovule ovary, having three small styles. The fruit of skunkbush is a little red-hued drupe, having the size of a pea. The fruits are swathed with compact, white-hued pubescence. In fact, the fruits appear in clusters, each containing about one dozen drupes, on small stalks measuring roughly an inch in length. Each fruit encloses a solitary compressed seed.

When crushed, the leaves of Rhus trilobata emit a very potent scent. Some describe this scent as bitter or medicinal. However, it is sufficiently unpleasant and this is the reason why the herb is called skunkbush. When new, the leaves have a green hue, but they change to orange and brown during the fall. When new, the twigs of skunkbush are fluffy and they become smooth as they grow. The flowers of skunkbush appear on small catkins or short shoots and usually come in white or pale yellow hues. The fruits of this plant are edible. Skunkbush fruits are small, hairy and somewhat sticky berries, which have a sour flavor, but have an aroma akin to that of limes. The fruit encloses tannic acid and gallic acid, which are responsible for its acidity. These flowers are pollinated by animals while the seeds are scattered by animals that consume the berries. In addition to propagation by seeds, skunkbush also reproduces vegetatively, by sending up sprouts many meters away from the parent plant, thereby giving rise to groves.

Plant Parts Used:

Root, bark, fruits.

Therapeutic Use:

Traditionally, various parts of skunkbush have been employed for therapeutic as well as other purposes. The bark of this herb has been chewed and also brewed to prepare a drink for treating symptoms related to cold. The berries are consumed for curing gastrointestinal (GI) disorders while the leaves, as well as the roots of skunkbush, are boiled and then eaten to treat several different problems. Some people also smoke the leaves, something akin to tobacco.

Since long, people have been eating the skunkbush fruit or berry for treating stomach problems as well as grippe. In addition, the berries or fruit are chewed to alleviate a toothache and also used in the form of a mouthwash. The berries are dried up and pulverized into a powder, which is dusted on smallpox pustules.

The leaves of this herb are used to prepare an infusion, which has been traditionally used for treating head colds. On the other hand, a decoction made from the skunkbush leaves is drunk for inducing impotence – a means of natural contraception. The leaves are also used to make a poultice that has been employed for treating itches. They are also used in the form of a gastrointestinal and diuretic aids. In both instances, the leaves are boiled in water and the resultant solution is drunk when cold.

People have traditionally used the skunkbush roots in the form of a deodorant. Some people also consume the roots to treat tuberculosis.

Occasionally, skunkbush plants are grown to prevent soil erosion and also for landscaping. This plant is also used to reclaim barren land that has been stripped of vegetation owing to random mining. There was a time when the subtle branches of this plant were in high demand and useful. They were twisted for making rugs and baskets.

The native communities in North America used the ripened berries to prepare a tea or lemonade-like drink. In addition, the fruit was also used for treating a variety of ailments and health conditions.

Earlier, the natives of North America employed skunkbush therapeutically. In fact, several Indian tribes in North America actually valued Rhus trilobata, particularly for the plant’s astringent properties. Hence, the plant was used to treat a number of health conditions. In modern herbalism, people seldom use skunkbush for the remedial purpose, if they ever do. However, the plant is potentially toxic and, hence, it ought to be used with caution and if possible only under the direction of a competent medical practitioner. The fruit is used to prepare a decoction, which has been traditionally used in the form of a wash to put off hair falling.

Skunkbush in the fall.
Skunkbush in the fall.

The leaves of skunkbush possess astringent, emetic, diuretic and hemostatic properties. A decoction prepared from the leaves of the plant is used internally to induce impotence – a means of natural contraception. The bark of the low-growing shrub was used to prepare an infusion, which has been traditionally employed in the form of a douche the following childbirth. Some people also chewed the bark and swallowed its juice to treat sore gums as well as colds. A decoction prepared from the bark of the skunkbush root has been used internally to assist in the trouble-free release of the placenta. As mentioned earlier, the roots of this plant have been employed in the form of a deodorant. People also rubbed the buds of the plant on their body as a therapeutic perfume and deodorant.

Rhus trilobata leaves are loaded with tannin. The leaves are collected when they fall on their own in autumn and used to make a brown or black dye. Alternatively, the leaves of this plant can also be used in the form of a mordant. Even the skunkbush fruits are used in the form of a mordant. The twigs of this plant yield a yellow dye while one can obtain a black dye when the twigs are combined with pine gum. The leaves as well as the bark of the plant yield a reddish-brown dye. The fruit is used to produce a pink-tan colorant. Even the ashes of skunkbush plants are employed in the form of a mordant to attach dyes. The seeds of Rhus trilobata yield oil, which achieves a consistency like tallow when left to stand for a while. This oil can then be employed to make candles.

Candles made from the oil extracted from Rhus trilobata seeds burn excellently, but they produce a pungent smoke. Traditionally, the roots of skunkbush have been employed to make perfumes as well as deodorants. Even the buds of the plants have been used in the form of a therapeutic perfume and deodorant. The aborigines rubbed the leaves on the body to repel insects and snakes. However, when using the leaves for this purpose, one needs to be cautious to ensure that they do not cause toxicity. The branches of skunkbush are slender but really tough. Their bark is removed and then the branches are divided into numerous strands, which are employed for making baskets.

There was a time when locals used the leaves and the bark of Rhus trilobata for tanning leather. Mixed with tobacco, the leaves of skunkbush are smoked as cigars.

Culinary uses

Although the skunkbush berries have a sour flavor, they can be eaten. As far as culinary is concerned, there are various ways of using these berries. Some people bake them to make bread or even mix with soup or porridge. The berries can also be steeped in hot water to prepare a tea or even a tart beverage like lemonade.

Habitat of the Skunkbush:

Skunkbush or Rhus trilobata is indigenous to the western regions of the United States, extending from the Great Plains to California in the west and through Arizona to northern Mexico in the south. It is also found growing naturally in almost half of western Canada. In addition, skunkbush is also found growing in the area ranging from the deserts to the mountain peaks up to an altitude of 7,000 feet.

This plant thrives best in full sun as well as partial shade. It has a preference for a properly drained sandy soil that may be dry or moist. Once skunkbush plants become established, they are able to tolerate drought. This species is found growing in various different forms of plant communities like the grasslands of the eastern region of the Rocky Mountains, chaparral, pine, fir and juniper forests, oak woodlands and wetlands. Wildfires often destroy the parts of the plant above the ground, but seldom kill. Usually, they sprout back readily in the burned areas.

Generally, Rhus trilobata is propagated from its seeds. Ideally, sow the seeds in a cold frame immediately when they are ripe. The seeds should be soaked in hot water (having a temperature of 80°C to 90°C) and for about 24 hours before sowing. Ensure that the seeds have cooled before sowing. Soaking the seeds in hot water will help to leach out germination inhibitors if any.

Later, when the seeds have been taken out, the water can be drunk as it has a delectable lemon flavor. In case you are using stored seeds, they also require pre-soaking in hot water before sowing. The seeds can be sowed in a cold frame in early spring. When the seedlings have grown sufficiently large so that they can be handled, you need to pick them out carefully and plant them in separate pots. Continue growing the young plants in a greenhouse throughout their first winter. You may plant them outdoors into their permanent locations either in late spring or in the beginning of summer when the last expected frost has occurred.

Constituents:

Chemical analysis of the Rhus trilobata fruits or berries has shown that they enclose active compounds like gallic acid and tannic acid.