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Rhus Trilobata - Medicinal Plants of Southwest

Non Medicinal 

Rhus trilobata Nutt.

Taxonomy: Anacardiaceae, Rhus trilobata

Common names: Skunk-bush Sumac, Three-leaf Sumac, Stink-bush, Basket-bush, and Lemonade-bush

By: Anthony Marquez, Titrisha Nez, Iva Tortalita, and Shonia Washburn
Summer 2001

There are several known species of the Rhus shrubs that are native to the Southwest.

Basic Information (view as a separate page)

  • The growth and height pattern of the sumac shrub depends on the geographic location of the plant. Sumac shrubs growing in the northern regions can reach 7 feet tall. Shrubs in southern regions usually reach 4 feet in height and are round in shape. (1)
  • Sumac shrubs have thicket branches and twigs that are long and flexible. When branches are broken they have an unpleasant aroma which is why it is nicknamed the skunk-bush. (7)
  • The flowers are small white/yellowish clusters that bloom in the spring. (5,6)
  • The leaves are alternate and 3-6 cm long. Each leaf has three leaflets which are variable in size and shape of the bush. The leaves are green in the summer and turn red/orange in the fall. (5,7,8)
  • The fruit of the sumac shrub have sticky, hairy berries that are red to orange in color. These berries are acidic and have a smell similar to limes. (1,5)
  • These shrubs grow in dry slopes, mesas, valleys, canyons, along streams, and in the mountains. (1,6,8)

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Medicinal Uses (separate page) 

  There are numerous medicinal uses of the Rhus trilobata documented today. These uses vary with the part of the plant used, because different parts of the plant contain different chemicals (see - Active ingredients). Several Native American tribes use only specific parts of the sumac. Some of the known uses of the plant are as follows: (4)

Plant Organ

Medicinal Use
  • Cold remedy, in which the bark is chewed and the juice is swallowed
  • Oral aid, in which the bark is chewed
  • Gynecological aid, in which the bark is boiled and the concoction is used as a douche after childbirth
  • Dermatological aid used to prevent hair loss
  • Astringent
  • The treatment of smallpox
  • Toothache remedy, in which the fruit is chewed
  • Veterinary aid
  • Gastrointestinal Aid, in which the fruit is consumed
  • Gastrointestinal Aid, in which the leaves are boiled
  • Contraception aid, in which the leaves are boiled to cause impotency
  • Diuretic aid, in which the leaves are boiled
  • Dermatological aid, in which the root is used as a deodorant
  • Tuberculosis Aid, in which the roots are consumed

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Non medicinal uses (separate page)

   Rhus trilobata has several non-medicinal uses as well. For example, many Native American tribes use the branches for basketry because the branches are strong and flexible. Twigs are used to make cradles, fishing tools, and decorations. Twigs are utilized for many ceremonial purposes. They are used as prayer sticks and to make sacred baskets that are used in ceremonies. 
   Large stems are used to make bows. Sunshades or hats are made from the stems. Stems can also be used as a string to sew up water containers.

   Dry sumac leaves, mixed with tobacco, can be used for smoking. The leaves are also used for ceremonial purposes. Some tribes tend to use the sumac leaves during prayer as a symbol of protection.
   Fruit berries are used for food and beverages. Berries are boiled to make tea and also lemonade. The lemonade can be consumed to refresh the body. Mixed with corn meal, the berries are eaten as a porridge. The berries are also used to make bread and cake.
   All parts of the sumac can be used to make dyes for baskets and rugs. The plant part selected depends on the desired color. (4)

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Active Ingredients (separate page)

  Tannic and Gallic acids are active compounds found in Rhus trilobata. (3) Tannic acids are found in the leaves and fruits of the sumac. The properties of Tannic Acid are: (2)

  • Antibacterial
  • Antidermatotic
  • Antigingivitic
  • Antihemorrhoidal
  • Antiseptic
  • Astringent
  • Antiulcer
  • Antiviral

  Gallic acid is found in the leaves of the sumac. Biological activities of gallic acid include: (2)

  • Analgesic
  • Antiallergenic
  • Antibronchitic
  • Anti-inflammatory
  • Antioxidant
  • Antiperoxidant
  • Antiviral
  • Bacteristat
  • Bronchodilator
  • Immunosuppressant
  • Astringent

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References (separate page)

  1. Cerrillos Hills Park Coalition. Threeleaf Sumac. The Cerrillos Hills Historic Park Flora and Fauna. <>. Accessed on 20 June 2001.
  2. Duke J, Beckstrom-Sternberg S. 10 March 1998. Gallic Acid, Tannic Acid. Activities of a Specific Chemical query. <>. Accessed on 15 July 2001.
  3. Jamieson D, Shultes RE. Rhus trilobata. Ethnobotany of the Southwest Database. <>. Accessed on 2 July 2001.
  4. Moerman DE. Native American Ehtnobotany. Portland, Oregan: Timber Press 1998. 473-475 p.
  5. North Dakota Tree Information Center. Skunkbush or Lemonade Sumac. North Dakota Tree Handbook. <>. Accessed on 20 June 2001.
  6. Oklahoma Biological Survey. Last Updated: 17 September 1999. Rhus trilobata Nutt. Catalog of the Woody Plants of Oklahoma. <>. Accessed on 8 June 2001.
  7. Rhus trilobata. Best Western Canyon de Chelly Inn. <>. Accessed on 8 June 2001.
  8. Rhus trilobata. Native and Adapted plants for Utah Landscapes. <>. Accessed on 8 June 2001.


Photographs taken by Anthony Marquez and Andrea Medina.

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Updated February 13, 2008

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