In the dog days of the North American summer, you may notice the eye-catching red cones on the staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) trees on roadsides and forest margins… or your back yard! Did you know that this funky, tropical-looking plant brews up a lovely tart pink “sumacade”?
We gather about a half-dozen berry clusters, stuff them into a pitcher, pour a half gallon or so of cold water over them, massage them for a few minutes by hand to release the flavorful coating on the seed, and let the concoction rest in a cool, dark place. The longer you steep the sumac, the stronger the flavor. When the flavor is developed to your taste, strain the mixture using a nut milk bag or cheesecloth to remove any fuzzy seeds or other plant matter. Try it before adding any sweetener – I prefer it this way, though the kids do like a dollop of raw, local honey in their glasses.
Some tips for working with sumac:
Pouring boiling or hot water over the berries leaches tannins from the stems, causing the drink to become bitter. Once you have done and strained the cold infusion, however, you can heat it for a lovely, tart cup of tea on a cool, fall day. Or add the infusion to smoothies or raw soups to enhance the flavor and nutritional profile of the dish.
To enjoy this natural source of Vitamin C in the winter, cut and dry seedheads when they turn a deep, rich crimson. In CT this occurs primarily during August, but ripe drupes can be found in late July through late September. Place them in a dehydrator or hang them out of direct sunlight in a dry, well-ventilated space until dry, then store, whole, in a brown paper bag.
Rain can wash away some of the flavor, so be sure to gather the berries when it hasn’t rained for a few days. Depriving a tree of all its seed clusters can have detrimental effects so harvest lightly – no more than 4 or 5 per tree. Birds such as cardinals and grosbeaks dine on the dried drupes that remain on the tree throughout the winter, so rest easy that those seeds will be put to good use.
As a cousin of cashews and mangoes, sumac is likely unsuitable for those with sensitivity to those foods. Poison sumac is uncommon, grows in wet areas, has smooth leaves and does NOT have the signature red seed head of the staghorn variety. However, poison ivy can share the same habitat as the staghorn, so watch your feet when getting close. As always when harvesting wild edibles, be sure not to clip plants on the side of a busy road to avoid toxins.
So — take a hike! And treat yourself with a refreshing glass of gorgeous pink Rhus-ade!