Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Foraging Edible Sumacs

staghorn stem
staghorn berries
There are 3 varieties of edible sumac in our area of New England--staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina), smooth sumac (Rhus glabra), and dwarf sumac (Rhus copallina). Staghorn sumac twigs are covered in soft hairs, similar to a young deer's antlers, and the berries are very hairy. Smooth sumac has a purplish midrib between the toothed leaflets, and smooth twigs. Their berry clusters are usually larger and the berries are smooth. Dwarf sumacs have a winged rib between each mostly toothless leaflet and small, darker berry clusters. The berries are pink, red or dark red when ripe, but are not edible as-is, since there is no juicy flesh like traditional berries. It is the ascorbic acid, malic acid, and oxalic acid on the outside of the hard berries that you want to use a a tart flavoring agent in spice mixes and beverages.

Edible sumacs are botanically related to cashews and mangoes, so those with allergies to them should also avoid sumacs. Edible sumacs are also related to poison sumac (Rhus vernix), which has drooping, white berry clusters and shiny leaves. Poison sumac can produce rashes and itching in people with a sensitivity, and should be learned so you can avoid it. We don't often encounter poison sumac, as it prefers a wetter environment than the edible sumacs, like swamps.

smooth sumac leaf

dwarf sumac leaf

Sumacs grow as tall shrubs in cleared areas, along highways, and old fields. The shrubs grow in dense stands and have alternate, feather-compound leaves divided into leaflets. When cut, the plant exudes a white latex. We have noticed that the three varieties ripen at different times, with staghorn berries turning red in July, smooth sumac berries ripening in August, and dwarf sumac berries ripening in September and October. It is important to gather the berry heads when fully ripe, and before it rains since the rain will wash away the tart flavors. We check for ripeness by simply licking a cluster, or rubbing a wet finger in the berry cluster and tasting our finger. Many berry clusters can be gathered and dried in a paper bag, then stored in airtight containers for use throughout the year.

A tart, pink, lemony drink can be made from the ripe berry heads. Soak 5-8 ripe berry clusters in 8 c. room temperature water, crushing the clusters in your hands. It is important to NOT use hot or boiling water, as it will dissipate the acids. Allow the berry heads to soak for a few hours, and then drain the liquid through a fine cheesecloth or coffee filter to remove the hairs and other debris. Smooth sumac usually makes the darkest pink drinkand staghorn sumac makes the most sour drink. Add sugar or honey to taste, and chill the sumac-ade. A stronger concentrate can be made by soaking more berries in the same water, and the concentrate can be frozen in ice cube trays to add to your glass of water instead of a lemon. We have also used the concentrate as an acid substitute in jellies, and similarly to lemons in sumac meringue pie.

smooth sumac berries
The berries of the smooth sumac can be gathered to make a spice mixture used in the Middle East known as za'atar. The berries are ground with a mortar and pestle with oregano, salt, toasted sesame seeds and thyme. The spice can be added to meats or brushed onto pita breads. Robert also like to chew on the new spring shoots of sumac that are tender and green. They are peeled and cut to make sure the tough center has not developed and eaten raw.

Here's a link of Russ Cohen discussing sumac late last autumn.

smooth sumac ripe berry heads


maelong86@yahoo.com said...

I just saw a smooth sumac yesterday and it has red berries...do you have to wait until fall or can you use them anytime? Also there is poison sumac growing across the road..does it ever cross pollinate?

The 3 Foragers said...

Just lick a few berries to see if they are tart. If they taste lemony they are ripe. The smooth sumacs in Connecticut are not ripe yet.

Laura [Novelbite] said...

I don't forage anymore (used to hunt morels as a child but that's about the extent of my experience), but I so enjoy reading your blog and learning new things about the different kinds of edible wildlife. Thank you for sharing!

~k~ said...

Absolutely love rhus-ade...been making it for years, every late summer i collect some to use then & some to dry for later! :) If you look closely you can actually see a whitish sticky resin coating the berries when they are "ripe", which is the sourish sap, & a lick test will confirm. FYI, do NOT collect just after a rain, wait a couple days; it washes off alot of the sourness! Also if you have not tries elderflower fizz, here is a link to a recipe --> http://www.pastymuncher.co.uk/make-elderflower-champagne-a-taste-of-spring-elderflower-fizz/ Great alone, or mixed with rhus-ade, or with elderberry wine ;)

Cgajowski said...

This is way late but - it anyone checks - can you use any variety ( other than poison sumac) for the shoots? Can you explain more about why dwarf sumac berries cannot be used "as is?" if you grind the smooth sumac berries to make that spice mixture, is there any thing to beware of? I mean as in any toxins?
Note to poison ivy sufferers - you can be allergic or sensitive to cashews is you are - and so may react to this being it's in the same family. And just another note, recently the NY Times provided a recipe that required sumac -- and the author didn't think that native berries do=could be used - so this corrects that. Do you know if this is identical to what is found in - I think it was - Turkey or other mid-East countries? Thanks - I've always wondered what the safe wasy to prepare sumac drinks etc was, remembering that it was a good source of Vitamin C.

The 3 Foragers said...

When I say you cannot eat the berries "as-is", I mean they are not juicy, succulent berries like rapberries. They are hard little balls with no flesh to consume, but you want to get the acids from the outer part of the hard berry to eat.

Personally I would not use the staghorn berries ground for spice, as they are very hairy, use the smooth or dwarf sumac berries. You can use all three varieties to make the drink, as it gets filtered through a coffee filter and the irritating hairs get removed.

Anonymous said...

Hi there, I found your site while trying to figure out if what I have growing in our back garden is staghorn sumac. It actually looks exactly like the plant cluster on the first pic of your post. The brighter lighter green colored young plants at the bottom center of the pic...right next to the grassy area...could you tell me what those are? Thanks so much!
PS: my plants look like the cluster in your pic, their leaves are not toothed, the stems are reddish, hope this helps.