Southern Style Sumac Sweet “Tea”- Rhus typhina

As I not so patiently wait for the elderberries to ripen up, I have been very pleased with the sumac harvest this year. The typhina is my preferred species, and this year has been a great crop. I’ve made several batches of “lemonade” as well as spice, jelly, and spiced apples already. Since I have a good amount dried for use over the next year, I’ve been trying to experiment with it more, since it is such a great source of vitamin C and antioxidants.

This COVID19 pandemic has lead to me foraging and experimenting more than usual. Not just because I have slightly more time on my hands, but as a means of maintaining some sense of normalcy, physical activity while still socially distancing, and as a way to combat negative emotions about the current state of everything. Staying busy, being productive, limiting social media, and trying to maintain an active physicality is important to maintaining good mental health in my humble non medical professional opinion.

Let’s face it, 2020 has been an all around awful year in so many ways. I think that self care is more important than ever. For me, that means foraging, being creative, and experimenting on new ways to utilize things, and not just wild foods. All kind of things. I’m working on a bookshelf made from old wooden filing cabinet drawers.

It’s about doing what is GOOD FOR YOU in addition to what MAKES YOU HAPPY because those two things aren’t always the same. Looking at you pint of temptress ice cream in the freezer. 🤨

Rhus typhina- Staghorn Sumac. Note this bears no resemblance to “poison sumac” or Toxicodendron vernix. That would be because they aren’t even closely related.

Most people use sumac as a beverage. It is made as a cold water extracted “lemonade” style drink by soaking the fruits in cold water, then straining our the fruit. I’ve done that, and it’s refreshing, but very mild in flavor and pretty anemic as far as vitamins go. This is probably the most popular, and for many people, the only way they use sumac, which is unfortunate. Sumac is a vitamin and antioxidant rich plant, but you have to unlock those benefits.

The best way to extract the nutrients (if you aren’t removing the fruit and turning it into a spice powder) is to boil the fruit in water. The resulting liquid is the concentrated vitamin C, tannins, and antioxidants. That’s also the liquid I use to make jelly. It is very tart, somewhat bitter, somewhat sour, and has a tannic acid after taste. I tried chilling it to see if it would make an acceptable beverage, and I liked it, but I don’t know that others would. It was fairly sour. One could possibly make sour gummies with it, if one was so inclined. While brainstorming for new uses, I got the idea to do a riff on Southern style Sweet Tea.

I’ve done this before with spice bush and that was pretty tasty, so I thought I would give sumac a spin. It did NOT disappoint! Honestly, it came out better than I could have imagined, and I was able to get 2 gallons of “tea” by saving the fruit after the first batch and boiling it a second time. If you had a 10 quart stock pot, there is no reason you could not do 2 gallons at once.

The net result is much closer to an Arnold Palmer type drink than the actual one I made with the “lemonade” and mint tea, and so terribly easy since it really only has three ingredients: sumac fruit, water, and sugar.

A word on sugar- according to this website, one cup of sugar is 774 calories and 200 carbs. Youch!! To put that into context, however, a gallon is 16 cups. So 17 total cups of liquid (1 gallon of water and the cup of sugar) means that the carbs and calories for each cup of this sweet tea is around (can’t find carb/calorie information on sumac, but I don’t imagine it is high since there isn’t much fruit on the seeds) 46 calories [774/17=45.53] and 12 carbs [200/17=11.76] per cup.

In moderation, this isn’t awful as far as either carbs or calories go. Liquid carbs are harder on the vascular system than solid carbs, but it is still a reasonable amount for a healthy person without diabetes. For a no carb beverage, the cold process “lemonade ” is probably a good alternative, unless you like sour pucker power, then try this without the sugar. If anyone makes this “Sweet Tea” with a sugar alternative, like xylitol, let me know how it works out for you. I’m curious, though alcohol sugars and I don’t really get along.

Recipe ingredients:

  • 2 pounds sumac fruits (Rhus typhina, or staghorn sumac works best)
  • 1 gallon water
  • 1 cup sugar (This makes for a light sweet tea. Adjust according to taste, but math out your carbs and calories if you are interested.)
Sumac fruit simmering.


In large 6 quart non-reactive pot like stainless steel, cover the 2 pounds of sumac with 1 gallon of water. Bring to boil and let boil for five minutes. Turn off heat and carefully strain liquid into temperature safe container.

Rhus typhina- Staghorn sumac liquid after sugar is added.

While still hot, add sugar and stir constantly until fully dissolved. Allow it to come to room temperature before refrigerating in either a pitcher or jars for single serving portions. I re-use glass jars from our local juicery for this, since they are about 1.5 cups each and is a good sized single portion.

Sumac “Southern Style Sweet Tea”

If you save the fruit in a tightly sealed container in the refrigerator, you can boil them a second time for another gallon. Sumac Southern style sweet tea!

Have suggestions? Drop a comment or send me an email.


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