Friday, August 12, 2011


I've had a fondness for Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina), or as the ADG and I like to call it, s'mac, for as long as I can remember. It grows so prolifically in Ontario that many of my outdoor experiences include landscapes of sumac trees. Camping trips, long hacks on a horse (back in my horse riding days), nature walks, at the cottage, hiking...sumac is just always there.

Growing up, my dad showed my step-brother and I that you could suck on the berries for a tart and sour treat. I love the soft, velvety feel of the young branches. The autumn leaves are stunning and the bright red berries remain vibrant well into the winter when all else is withered and grey.

Later, I learned that those same tart berries can be used to make a refreshing drink similar to lemonade. Lots of people call the drink "sumacade." It's fun and easy to make and uses a local, abundant plant. It's high in vitamin C, making it healthy and nutritious too!

I collected some berry clusters last weekend and brought them home.

I wanted to preserve the berries by drying, so I could made sumacade out of season too. The berries are fairly easy to remove with a fork.

Into the dehydrator they go!

To make sumacade, you simply infuse the berries in water and add a sweetener to taste. I like to use maple syrup. Most people recommend using room temperature to cold water to infuse, as sumac berries are very high in tannins, which can impart an unpleasant bitter taste to the drink. In my experience, I find this all depends on the season the berries are harvested. Ideally, you want to harvest berries at their peak in late July to early August, after a series of dry days, as rain tends to wash the flavour out. I suck on the berries of various trees, choosing the best tasting ones. The more tart and sour the better. However these are the ones that tend to have the most tannins. For those I use a cool water infusion. If I happen to harvest berries that aren't at their peak, and aren't quite as tart as I would like, I find that a hot water infusion works ok, and isn't too bitter. It's definitely worth experimenting with and playing around, as a lot really does depend on the flavour of the berries, weather and when you harvest. So I wouldn't call the cold infusion process a hard and fast rule.

I strain the infusion through a coffee filter to remove the fuzzy hairs and other debris.

Now, I'm going to tell you something that I've never read in any of the guidebooks. The berry clusters of Staghorn sumac (I have no experience with other species, like smooth sumac), almost always contain tiny little, brown worms. I've tried harvesting at different times to avoid the worms, but if you want anything close to ripe, you're most likely going to encounter some worms. Just something to keep in mind if you're squeamish and this sort of thing turns you off.

So, I haven't figured out a way to avoid the worms all together but I've learned a few things about how to minimize worminess. Firstly, harvest berries as early in the season as possible, before too many worms take up residence in the clusters. Then, before you harvest, gently pull apart the cluster and take a look in between the berries. Sometimes you'll see the worms, but sometimes you won't. What you may find is evidence of worms, that is you'll often see their poo. It's dark brown to black and kind of grainy. So if I see worms, or lots of worm poo, I pass on that cluster and move on to the next.

In this batch that I harvested, I only ended up with about three or four worms all together, which I scooped out. Which is also why I like to remove the berries from the cluster, especially if I'm drying them, and also why I use a fine, mesh filter when I'm straining out sumacade.

If you're not too squeamish, with a little care and attention, sumac is an easy and lovely plant to collect, preserve and enjoy all year long. The beverage is tasty on its own or as a cocktail, think hard lemonade. I made a sumac liqour one year that I really liked. Unsweetened, infused sumac can also be used as a substitute for lemon or vinegar in recipes (though not for canning, which requires specific levels of acidity). In Germany, sumac is know as Essigbaum, which means vinegar tree. You can make sumac jelly too. Although another species is traditionally used in the mid-East, you can use dried and powdered Staghorn sumac berries as a spice.

Sumac has many wonderful medicinal properties. Matthew Wood refers to it as an Indispensable Drying Remedy, referring to the astringency of the berries.

A few cautions: There is a poison sumac out there, but the berries are white, and look nothing at all like the red berried species. Sumac is in the same family as cashews and mangoes, so people with allergies to those, should avoid sumac. Poison ivy is in this family as well, although recent research may break the family up into separate genera. Because of the high amounts of astringent tannins, excessive consumption of sumac may decrease the absorbability of minerals like iron, in the digestive system, something to keep in mind if you're anemic. But, the high amounts of vitamin C, help to buffer this effect. As with most things, enjoy in moderation!


Liz said...

I'm so glad you wrote about this as I want to give it a try this year. We have sumac growing on our property but none with the red berries. Not sure if that's a male/female thing? Anyway, time to go for a little walk into the village I think.

Amber said...

Hey Liz, I'm sure why some trees bear and others don't. Could be a sex thing, maturity thing or something else going on.

Have fun with whatever you do harvest!

Also, should have clarified in the post that I was talking about a cool vs hot water infusion. I realised that I didn't acutally mention the hot water method specifically. I hope everyone figured it out though!