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

16 comments:

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.

Anonymous said...

Does anyone know what side affects or reactions someone could have from drinking the aid made from smooth sumac?

The 3 Foragers said...

Sumacs are botanically related to cashews and mangoes. If you had a sensitivity to either of those I would avoid sumac. Otherwise, all new foods are always a potential for a reaction. We always caution you start slowly and sample just a little bit at a time to test your personal reactions to new foods.

Anonymous said...

I am not allergic to Mangoes or Cashews which I know because I eat them all the time. Nor do I have a skin allergy to the sap of the Smooth skin Sumac which I tested a number of times before even attempting to make the aid (and wow, it does taste wonderful.) But yet I seem to have some kind of reaction to it. I was wondering if its possible to have a reaction to the Oxalic acid that is found in all the red Sumacs. Which is considered very toxic to humans?

The 3 Foragers said...

I am not a doctor, dietician, or chemist, so I just don't know. All I can say is use common sense and avoid what you are getting a reaction from. I am sorry I can't help further.

Anonymous said...

I am sorry, I actually posted that as a question. About the oxalic acid. Let me explain myself. I was talking about happened years ago. what I thought was an allergic reaction was actually poisoning from oxalic acid. It is something people don't know, or forgo to mention when they talk about sumac. They may list it such as you have. But omit a warning. Most likely unknowingly.
Where I love your blog On edible sumac, I Have been foraging since I was a young child. I believe we as foragers Have a responsibility to warn readers of possible and dangerous chemicals that are in some of the plants we are actually telling people are edible and safe. Sumac, like The leaves of rhubarb contain a some what potent level of oxalic acid that can lead to kidney failure, especially during dry summers when the concentration is higher. It is actually safer to wait a couple days after it rains when the levels or acid are not as highly concentrated. And also it is better to boil the liquid after soaking the berries as this will dissipate some of the oxalic acid. You know that dry feeling you get on your tongue when you eat uncooked spinach? yep thats it. Now imagine that 1000 times worse. it is very corrosive. I Have to apologize. as I was wanting to warn readers of the possibility of actually doing on self harm in thinking sumac is safe and ingestible. Most sights only warn people of the possibility of an allergic reaction such as the reaction one would get from poison sumac or ivy. And where we know such a reaction can be life threatening. So can poisoning from Oxalic acid be. it is not an allergenic reaction, It is what it sounds like plain and simple, a poison. So please let your readers know this. You can't warn people enough, because the sumac aid you drank one year safely, may be poisonous the the next.

The 3 Foragers said...

Per John Kallas: Rhubarb leaves are poisonous due to anthroquniones, NOT oxalates. Oxalates have nothing to do with rhubarb toxicity. That is another misconception started in the lay literature, solely attributed to rhubarbs sour flavor, which someone assumed was oxalates. Then that gets repeated over and over.

The 3 Foragers said...

Additionally, Per John Kallas: A normal healthy individual with a normally diverse diet, normal blood chemistry, and normal blood pH (this includes the vast majority of us) can eat plants high in oxalates as normal components of their diet with no problem. Yes oxalates can bind a percentage of minerals in the food that you are eating at the “moment” preventing some absorbtion, but they can also bind heavy metals and prevent them from absorption. A diverse diet complete with nutrients and antinutrients (oxalates & phytates are just two of many normal components of a diverse diet) is normal and our gut is well adapted to draw out what we need and reject what we do not over time. In small amounts, anti-nutrients (a simplistic label) are probably good for us. Oxalates are a normal component of human biochemistry, both in the cells and in blood. In normal healthy individuals oxalates are not allowed to bind with calcium, hence, no stones.
- If you have a propensity to develop kidney stones, you should manage oxalate intake because one or more things in your body prevents your physiology from managing oxalates. Most typically, blood pH is off. Age related diseases can cause blood chemistry to drift.

The 3 Foragers said...

My advice with any plant, especially those new to you, is everything in moderation. I would appreciate that if you felt the need to warn people of such (incorrect) danger you worry about, start your own blog, rather than worry about advice others give. You can't be the oxalic acid police.

JE said...

Are the flowers edible too?