Sumac Berries: Yes There Is One You Can Eat

Don't worry, they're not poisonous! Learn how these crazy-looking clusters of red berries are used in dishes around the world, and try a tasty "lemonade" recipe!

When most people hear the word “sumac,” they often associate it with the itchy relative of poison ivy. However, staghorn sumac is actually a completely different variety, and it is both edible and delicious! Here are some of the various ways people from around the world use it, along with some instructions for harvesting, drying, and incorporating it into a recipe.

Staghorn sumac, or Rhus typhina, is easily identified by the red fruit clusters resembling an Olympic torch, or the velvety antlers of a male deer (stag), hence the name of “staghorn.”

Sumac is widely popular in the Middle East and the Mediterranean regions. It is commonly used as a flavor enhancer and coloring agent in countries such as Israel, Turkey, and Italy. The dried and ground sumac berries have a unique tart taste, similar to lemons but less sour. Interestingly, before the arrival of lemons in Europe, the Romans relied on sumac berries to add a tangy flavor to their meals. These berries are also rich in vitamins A, C, and antioxidants

Even today, many Middle Eastern cultures prefer sumac over lemons or vinegar, keeping it readily available on their dining tables as a seasoning, just like how we use salt or pepp.

Sumac berries also have a long history of being used for medicinal purposes. Early pioneers used sumac to treat coughs, sore throats, fevers, and American Indians relied on these berries to address various health issues such as reproductive problems, stomach aches, and wounds

How to Harvest and Preserve Sumac

Harvesting your own sumac berries is simple. Staghorn sumac grows abundantly in the Great Plains and the eastern half of the United States. If you reside in the western half of the United States or cannot locate sumac nearby, cultivating your own is a straightforward process. These small trees are drought-tolerant, and they’ll handle a wide range of temperature zones.

To find sumac, search along the edges of woods, roadways, and areas that are not wooded but are not maintained. Staghorn sumac trees are relatively short, measuring between five and 15 feet tall, and their branches have 4 to 15 pairs of long, pointed leaves. The most notable feature is the clusters of bright red berries that adorn the trees during late summer and early fall.

Not Poison Sumac

Staghorn sumac should not be mistaken for poison sumac. To differentiate between the two, remember that poison sumac berries are white, while Staghorn sumac berries are red. Unfortunately, many Staghorn sumac plants have been wrongly removed due to the misconception that they are poisonous. However, it’s worth noting that poison sumac typically thrives in swampy areas. Therefore, if you stick to the dry areas that Staghorn sumac prefers, you won’t come across a poison sumac tree.

Heap ground sumach on dark stone background
Dried sumac berries.

To harvest the berries, cut the clusters called “bobs” away from the trees. Roll a couple of the velvety berries between your fingers and give them a taste – you’ll experience their tartness! You can use the berries as they are or dry them for winter use. If you choose to dry them, use a dehydrator or heat lamps to dry the entire cluster overnight, as ovens usually can’t reach low enough temperatures (125º-150º). Once dry, use a blender to separate the dried berries from the seeds and sticks. Then, sift the sumac powder through a fine mesh strainer for future use.

Cooking with Sumac

Ground, dried sumac berries taste great as a spice rub for lamb, fish and chicken. These berries are also used as a salad topping, and you can include them in your favorite dressings. Middle Eastern chefs use sumac as a topping for fattoush salad, and are often sprinkled on hummus to add both color and a zesty flavor. In the United States, one of the most common ways to use sumac is to make red lemonade. Some even call it the “Lemonade Tree.” Give it a try!

Sumac Red Lemonade

Staghorn sumac - Leaf

Sumac Red Lemonade

5 from 1 vote
Course Drinks
Cuisine Mediterranean, Middle East


  • 1 pint fresh sumac berries (about 6 to 8 clusters)
  • 1/2 gallon cold water
  • sugar to taste


  • Add the berries to the water and use a potato masher or a spoon to crush the berries so they release their flavor.
  • Let the berries steep for 10 to 15 minutes.
  • Once the sumac lemonade is flavored to your liking, pour it through a strainer or cheesecloth to remove the berries.
  • Add enough sugar to sweeten the drink, but not so much that you lose the tangy flavor.
  • Pour your sumac lemonade over ice and enjoy!
Keyword sumac berries, when are sumac berries ripe

*Notes: You may want to avoid consuming Sumac that grows close to roadways because of its exposure to car fumes and toxins. 

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Amber Kanuckel

Amber Kanuckel is a freelance writer from rural Ohio who loves all things outdoors. She specializes in home, garden, environmental, and green living topics.

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How do you store the lemonade once made?


I picked some last weekend and the outside berries are red but the interior of the cluster is brownish with what looks like little cobwebs and brownish berries. Are the red ones okay to use and discard the interior ones, or give the rest to my chickens or should I discard it all? I live in the lower South, zone 8.


I moved to the house I’m in a little over a year ago and kept wondering what these red berries were. I’ve got these sumac trees growing wild all over one side of my property. I grabbed one of these off the tree and tasted a berry. Definitely Sumac! My late husband was from Amman and we have always kept a large jar of this for fattoush salad or for sprinkling over roasted cauliflour (my favorite use). How exciting for me as the sumac I generally find at the Arabic store is not fresh. I’ll be harvesting and drying these for sure. Thanks for the information.


aw how nice. what a great little connection to your husband


5 stars
I just bought a Staghorn Sumac tree online, I hope it will grow here in Southern Nevada , it’s a zone 8 tree so it should since it likes clay soil and tough areas. Just worried if it can take the heat?
I mostly got it for my chickens and local Quail, but I sure am going to try the lemonade.

Michael pace

I have several here in east alton Illinois about 20 miles north of st louis, they grow fantastic and are semi tropical. They thrive in the sun and hot weather. Mine are about 6 years old and about 10-15 feet tall with droopy branches. Mine also just ripened the berries so it’s time for tea! Also note these will pop up everywhere I mean 30- 40 at a time they root about ten inches deep and grow like crazy, they xan be contained by placing a thin metal ring about 6-8″ tall about 8-12″ down and about 3-4′ around the base. In winter all minor limbs will break off and all foliage s well but they always come back in the spring.

T . Khoury

Sumac it’s an Arabic word سماق. The origin of this spice was from the Levantine area, Turkey and the rest of the Med took it with them to use in their dishes when they invaded the Middle East. It’s used in many delicious dishes and taste little sour and does not stain the hands or the mouth.

Amy Horowitz

I LOVE sumac and bought some home in 2020 when I was in Amman. My question is, do you know if it can stain your hands and/or teeth and if so what to do about that. I noticed some black stains around my nails after cooking with sumac. Could be just coincidental but wondering if anyone has more experience than I do. thanks.


I never thought that Sumac berries are edible. Thanks for the article.

Michael pace

Just the red ones

Ronald Wagner

We have smooth sumac in central Illinois. It provides beautiful leaves and some fruit. Is it OK to use?

Michael pace


James Townzen

I really enjoyed reading about sumac. Always heard they were poison. Thank you I will try them this summer..

Rob Bertram

Some Sumac are, stay clear if they have white berries


Thanks for the helpful article


What is the best time to gather sumac? How do you know when it is ready? Last year I waited too long and it had lost some flavor. Thanks from Sicily!


Mid July late August

Michael pace

Soon as they turn dark red

Jonathan Keeley

Thanks for the helpful article, Amber!


Drying the berries and sifting them through a fine sieve, not a flour sifter, gives a good supply of seasoning sumac. Use the “too large to sift” remaining seed hulls to store in a tea tin for future tea or lemonade.


Will it grow in the Northern California mountains?

Susan Higgins

Hi Stevens, it appears that it does grow in California:


how can i use the berries already dried on the tree in oct.?

Susan Higgins

Hi Ronald, the red berries on the tree are pretty dry. They are not plump like other berries. They’ll crumble to dust between your fingers. They may turn brown, but the under berries may still be red. Make sure the berries ARE red, not white. VERY important. White berries are poisonous. And do not forage berries that grow along the side of the road as they are full of contaminants from car exhaust.

Dale McIntier

elkhorn sumac is a pretty hardy small tree or bush it grows in south east idaho


It has a relative in my region, Rhus trilobata. I grind the berries and use them on all sorts of Middle Eastern-type dishes, great on yoghurt. Also, I make a wild seed cracker and I use these and Monarda (wild bergamot, oswego tea) to flavor them

Lady sting

I have a stag horn in my garden and I’m on Anglesey north wales uk

Lee Honeycutt

I wonder if it grows in southern Mississippi/Louisiana?


My father grew up in Missouri and Summered in Kansas on his grandfather’s farm. As kids they enjoyed makng this pink lemonade! You provided the key of crushing the berries, a detail my father forgot.

Amber Kanuckel

Carroll: Sumac does grow in Florida! The variety that does best in your climate would be “winged sumac” or Rhus copallina.

Bill Lobban

I’ve been using Summac on my food since “discovering” it while visiting my daughter in Dubai in 2008. It is a great addition to your condiments, I only have dried, powdered Summac, but I think I’ll try to grow a bush to get a fresh berry supply and try recipes using it.


Thank you soooo much! I’ve been reading about sumac but this website is the first to clearly identify how to use the plant and proper drying procedures. I will make a cough syrup from it for the winter

carroll gross

Does it grow in mid Florida. We are tropical.

Vivien Brereton

Is it available in Melbourne?

Michael pace

It is a semi tropical plant


It does grow wild in Canada & spreads like crazy! My sister sent me a recipe for Sumac Jelly, I will go pick some sumac from the back 40 & try it


No, it isn’t. It grows pretty much anywhere. We have it here in New Hampshire and in my backyard where it is a pest that spreads like crazy!

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