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Wild Edibles: Sumac Berries

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Wild Edibles: Sumac Berries

When most people think of “sumac,” they think of the itchy relative of poison ivy. Staghorn sumac, however, is an entirely different variety, and is both edible and delicious! Here are some of the ways people around the world use it, plus some instructions for harvesting, drying, and using it in a recipe!

Uses For Sumac Berries
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 very popular in both the Middle East and the Mediterranean. In places like Israel, Turkey, and Italy, people use dried, ground sumac as a flavoring and a color enhancer. These berries have a tart flavor that is reminiscent of lemons, but not as sour. In fact, before lemons were imported to Europe, the Romans used these berries to add a tangy taste to their meals. They are high in vitamins A, C, and antioxidants.

Today, many Middle Eastern cultures still prefer sumac to lemons or vinegar. People keep it in shakers on the table to season their favorite foods in much the same way that we use salt or pepper.

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Sumac berries also have a long history as an herbal remedy. Early pioneers treated coughs, sore throats and fevers with sumac, while American Indians used these berries to treat anything from reproductive problems to stomachaches and wounds.

How to Harvest and Preserve Sumac
Harvesting your own sumac berries is easy. Staghorn sumac grows wild throughout the Great Plains and the eastern half of the United States. If you live in the western half of the United States, or you can’t find any sumac growing nearby, it’s very easy to grow your own. These small trees are drought tolerant, and they’ll handle a wide range of temperature zones.

To find sumac, look along the edges of woods, roadways* and along banks and other non-wooded but unmaintained areas. Staghorn sumac trees are short – between five and 15 feet tall – and the branches have between 4 and 15 pairs of long, pointed leaves. The most prominent feature are the clusters of bright red berries that top the trees in the late summer and early fall.

Staghorn sumac is not to be confused with poison sumac. If you’re worried about accidentally picking poison sumac berries, just remember that poison sumac berries are white, not red. In fact, many Staghorn sumac plants have been mistakenly taken down in the belief that they are poisonous. In addition, poison sumac normally grows in swampy areas, so if you stick to the dry areas that Staghorn sumac prefers, you’re unlikely to ever run across a poison sumac tree.

Heap ground sumach on dark stone background

Dried sumac berries.

To harvest the berries, simply cut the clusters, called “bobs” away from the trees. Roll a couple of the velvety berries between your fingers and then give your finger a lick – you’ll taste the tartness! You can use the berries as they are, or you can dry them for use throughout the winter. If you choose to dry them, dry the entire cluster with a dehydrator or under heat lamps overnight. Ovens usually can’t heat low enough to dry them gently (125º-150º). Once dry, use a blender to separate the dried berries from the seeds and sticks. Then you’ll be able to sift the sumac powder through a fine mesh strainer for later 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. Give it a try!

Sumac Red Lemonade

Ingredients:

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. Then 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!

Try more sumac recipes here!

*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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11 comments

1 Susan Higgins { 09.24.18 at 6:10 pm }

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.

2 RONALD FRAME { 09.23.18 at 9:14 am }

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

3 Dale McIntier { 06.28.16 at 6:04 pm }

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

4 Maury { 06.27.16 at 3:45 pm }

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

5 Lee Honeycutt { 09.17.15 at 12:37 pm }

I wonder if it grows in southern Mississippi/Louisiana?

6 Jenny { 09.11.15 at 11:21 pm }

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.

7 Amber Kanuckel { 09.02.15 at 10:34 am }

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

8 Bill Lobban { 09.02.15 at 2:43 am }

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.

9 Suzy { 09.01.15 at 9:21 pm }

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

10 Vivien Brereton { 06.28.16 at 5:41 pm }

Is it available in Melbourne?

11 carroll gross { 09.01.15 at 8:56 pm }

Does it grow in mid Florida. We are tropical.

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