Tree of heaven and Sumac are sometimes confused because of their similar compound leaf shape and occurrence in the same habitats, such as along roadsides and railroads. Fortunately, despite their similarities at first glance, there are various ways to tell both trees apart.
Tree of Heaven vs. Sumac
Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima) is a fast-growing tree native to East Asia and widely introduced across North America. It is an invasive specie that grows anywhere its seed lands, in the poorest of soils, with very little water and even out of cracks in the cement. The tree produces lots of pollen which can cause allergies, and its leaves, branches, seeds, and bark can irritate the skin.
Tree of heaven can be found throughout the continental United States in zones 5-8 and grows rapidly. Generally, this tree is invasive because its leaves, roots, and bark release allelopathic chemicals that prevent other plants from growing.
Sumac (Rhus) comes from the Aramaic word “Summaq,” which means “Dark red.” It is a spice popular in the Middle East and related to the poisonous shrub by the same name. Still, the culinary variety is safe and easily identifiable by its vibrant red berries.
The plant can be dated back 2000 years ago and has been noted for its healthful properties, namely as a diuretic and anti-flatulent, by Roman Emperor Nero’s physician, Pedanus Dioscorides. However, before lemons made their way into Europe, the Romans used Sumac to add a touch of flavor to dishes.
The tree of heaven is a very deciduous trees tree that can reach 70 feet in height with smooth and light chestnut brown twigs, especially in the dormant season. The spreads are reproduced by seeds and by vigorous re-sprouting, especially in response to injuries such as breakage or cutting.
The leaves of the tree of heaven are long with a central stem and leaflets on either side. Because they are so large, they can easily be mistaken for several leaves, though it is one large leaf with 10 to 40 lance-shaped leaflets with smooth edges. For Sumac, the margin of the leaflet is serrated along its whole length, and the young twigs and stems of leaves and leaflets are densely covered in hairs.
The foliage of the tree of heaven has two characteristics; the underside of each leaflet has two bump-like glands, and the leaves have a pungent smell similar to burnt peanut butter, wet gym socks, or cat urine. In addition, Sumac has reddish-brown stems and leaves.
The trunk of the tree of heaven is mature bark gray with slightly irregular vertical strips of a lighter color that can reach many feet in diameter. In contrast, the sumac trunk has a mature bark of dark gray or gray-brown with horizontal strips (lenticels) that rarely reaches more than 10 inches (25 cm) in diameter.
The tree of heaven is a medium-sized tree reaching 60-70 feet (18-21 m) in height. Although, it can exhibit shrubby growth when young or in some habitats. While small tree or large shrub rarely grows taller than 40 feet (13.7m).
The fruits of the tree of heaven come in hanging clusters of dry seeds enclosed in flat structures to allow for wind dispersal. They come in large, showy clusters of small yellowish-green flowers produced during June. In summer, flat, twisted, single-seeded winged fruits or samaras are produced on female trees and may remain on trees for long periods.
While for Sumac, the fruit comes on a cluster of fully red berries. The berries are turned into a coarse powder and are often sold as a ground spice that is less common in the United States.
Tree of heaven has a nauseating, bitter taste, and when fresh, it has a sickening odor. In contrast, Sumac has a sweet but sour taste followed by a stringent powerful punch. Despite this, it still blends exceptionally well with other spices such as allspice, chili, thyme, and cumin.
Sumac can be combined with lamb or duck as it cuts through the fattiness of the meat. It is a good choice when looking to add lemon flavor to a dish but doesn’t want to add a liquid to the recipe.
Tree of heaven grows well under harsh conditions and can be used for diarrhea, asthma, cramps, epilepsy, fast heart rate, gonorrhea, and other conditions. It can also be used as a bitter and a tonic. For culinary uses, the young leaves of the tree of heaven are eaten.
Generally, Sumac can be used for its essential oils to create flavored oil or vinegar. Due to its versatility, Sumac can be added to a meat rub, used as a flavoring in vegetable fish, and is a perfect seasoning for homemade hummus.
Its berries are boiled, drained, and pressed, and the essential oils are mixed with either olive oil or vinegar. The flavored oil can be used as part of a salad dressing.