WHAT IS SUMAC?
Growing prolifically here at the cOsMic Owl is a little tree (large shrub technically) loaded with treasure. It’s the sumac. There are different varieties – smooth, staghorn, winged. We have winged sumac (Rhus copallina). It has a piece of foliage growing along the stem of the compound leaves, in between the leaflets. This makes it look like a wing growing off the stem, and is where it gets its name. I included a photo of smooth sumac and winged sumac for comparison.
Sumac is a native shrub that grows in the prairie. Sumac is usually found in draws, creek bottoms or at the interface between forest and prairie. And sure enough, ours grows right there at the border of prairie and woods.
By late summer, they produce brilliant red drupes.
Fruits are BB/pea-sized berries with little hairs and are covered with malic acid. Inside the berry is one seed. The berries are ripe when they taste tart. The drupes or cones are a little sticky. You can do a taste test where you touch your finger to a berry then your finger to your tongue. It should taste tart. Don’t do it right after a rain though as the malic acid will be washed off. Clip off at the base of the clusters with pruning shears as early in the season as you can and dry the sumac before it succumbs to insects or mold.The upright berries are ripe usually in late August through October. As long as the berries are red or red-orange they are safe to use. I plan on harvesting this morning when the dew dries.
The cones store well in a paper shopping bag in a cool place for months and should yield good tea until springtime. I also threw some in the freezer in a plastic bag.
Culinary – Sumac has long been used as a flavoring ingredient especially in the Middle East and Mediterranean. Sumac is most notably one of the distinguishing ingredients in za’atar , which is a combination of sumac with various herbs and spices. Sumac has a lemony flavor and can be used in place of lemon in recipes.
Medicinal – The natives used all parts of the sumac for a variety of ailments. It is very high in Vitamin C and used to treat colds, flu, fever, scurvy, diarrhea, dysentery, asthma, sore throats, and cold sores to name a few. They used to mix the berries with clay and use as a poultice. Powdered bark is used to make an antiseptic salve. The leaves can be chewed to treat sore gums or lips.
An infusion of sumac bark or roots is alterative, antiseptic, astringent, diuretic, galactogogue, haemostatic, rubefacient and tonic.
Sumac tea or sumacade is a wonderful healthy, cooling beverage that is so easy to make and may be enjoyed just for the drink and not necessarily to treat any condition. And of course, you could make a cocktail with it.
Last year, we added sumac to our pear wine.
Infuse unwashed berries with cold water. Hot water will destroy the beneficial aspects of the sumac. The general ratio of water-to-berries should be about 1 part berries to 2 parts water. (I’m more of a gistist and eyeball it) Add some cold water to the berries and let sit anywhere from 15 minutes to overnight; or you can make sun tea and let it steep in the sunshine for a few hours. Strain through a couple of layers of cheesecloth or a coffee filter as the berries may contain irritating little hairs that you’ll likely not want to ingest. You may want to sweeten it as it is a very tart drink. The Cherokee Indians called the juice Quallah.
Both chefs and herbalists might compare it to hibiscus: it tastes tart, cooling, and dry, with a very notable rosy astringency. Similar to hibiscus, sumac is a cool, drying, tonifying, and astringent herb.
Wildlife – Small mammals, birds and white-tailed deer use the dense thickets of sumac for cover. Its drupes are eaten by many upland game birds, songbirds and small mammals. Mule deer, white-tailed deer and rabbits eat the leaves and twigs of sumac.
The fruits of sumac are very important to wildlife well into the winter, when other food sources are exhausted.
Other uses – The seeds, bark, and leaves have a high tannin content and have been used by the leather industry and as fabric dyes. The berries were used to make a red dye.
In the fall, the leaves turn a brilliant red making this a great edible landscaping shrub.
Isn’t Sumac Poisonous?
There is a poisonous sumac – Toxicodendron vernix, is related to the poison ivies and poison oaks, not to the other sumacs. It grows in very wet areas along the east/southeast coast. It produces loose white berries rather than the tight red clusters of the edible sumac. Learn more about it here.