First and foremost, NOT poison Sumac; that is a Rhus species, but not the same thing!!! Take a look at the picture below. You’ve seen it, haven’t you? It is very common along roadways, bike trails and heavily disturbed ground. That is Rhus glabra, which is very similar to Rhus typhina.
There is a long history of Native Americans using this berry. It was turned into a tincture with the rather racist name “Indian lemonade.” My husband (a federally recognized Native) cringes at the usage of that word in just about any capacity, including this one. If you hear the term, know what it is and please use the term Sumac lemonade. All of the photos below are the Rhus glabra, or Smooth Sumac, except for in the basket at the bottom.
This is a very common plant, widely spread throughout North America. It has related species located throughout the world.
One of it’s cousins is used extensively in the Middle East and Mediterranean. That lemony flavored red on your Iraqi or Syrian food? That would be Sumac!!
Of two varieties I mention specifically, I prefer the typhina; commonly known as Staghorn Sumac. It has larger berries, is fuzzier and gives better flavor. You can see it at the bottom in the basket. The differences are very striking when you see the two species side by side.
It grows in large shrubby bushes, with long arching branches. The leaves are very long and slender forming in basal pairs of the branch. The wood is smooth and may have red splotches.
I live in the Midwest and frequently see it on the edge of parking lots, roadways, bike trails and lakes.
You might notice it mid summer when the berry clusters start to form, but it is very striking when fall hits and the leaves start to change. It tends to turn a brilliant red. You can see in the photo below where it is beginning to change.
I suspect that the high vitamin C helped Native people get through the winter without getting scurvy.
Either species can be consumed raw or cooked. The berries are tart. I’ve baked the berries into muffins, but it can be SO lemony you have to almost treat it as such!
Many people like to run cold water over the berries producing a lemonade like substance. This is cold infusion. I’m not a fan. I prefer a hot infusion; I put the berry clusters in hot water in a stainless steel or enamel pot and boil it. There is research that shows the hot infusion is high in vitamin C and acidic.
The sumac makes a fantastic cough syrup, cough drop and jelly. To can via the water bath method, it has to be acidic. Fortunately, the hot process method is fairly acidic.
I recently made some jelly with it in both sugar free and low sugar varieties. Commercial jelly, as an FYI, has a 3/7 ratio of fruit to sugar. That means 3 cups fruit or juice to 7 cups sugar. Yuck. I used 1/1 and one can, (GASP) taste the fruit rather than the sugar. Therefore all the jelly I make is low sugar.
I took some to a mushroom hunting foray. There were several foodies there who appreciated the tannins and thought that it was a little like a jellied (non-alcoholic) wine. The sweetened variety is pretty tasty too. It pairs wonderfully with a goat chevre. I will post a process and recipe at some point.
If you have ever seen the reddish purple powder in a spice shop or on food, you can see below where it comes from. The skin and seed are ground up too, but you can see how much powder rubbed off on my finger.
The flavor comes from the little fuzzies on the outside of the berries. The basket below has the glabra and typhina species side by side. The typhina is the super fuzzy looking one.
While you can make the extracts from the berries, you can also dry them in a dehydrator. Once dried, you can break the berries off the stems and crush them. A good quality coffee grinder works great.
It is NOT the same thing as the Mediterranean variety, but it is pretty close. The glabra is just sorta “eh.” Better to use that to make the extract and then syrup or jelly. The typhina is super on food both savory and sweet. You can use it just about anywhere you would use lemon. I’m going to make some persimmon, pawpaw bread with sumac berries in it. Might be over the top. Might be wonderful. We will see what happens. I tend to go all mad scientist in the kitchen.
If you see this wonderful wild edible (NOT near a roadway where it can pick up petro chemicals) please, take a few clusters and give it a try. My daughter put some in her green tea and loved it. I made cough syrup and it was awesome. Jelly? Delish! Give it a spin! It dries well, so if you can’t think of a purpose right away, save it for later in a tightly sealed jar.