There is a little plant at the edge of the New England Wilderness that’s valuable for both its culinary and medicinal uses. In this blog post, I will describe the edible and medicinal uses of Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina), and give instructions on how to identify and harvest it.
What is Sumac?
Mention the name “Sumac” and a lot of people immediately think you’re talking about poison sumac. Before I started foraging and learning about edible and medicinal plants, I too had no idea that there was any other kind. However, there are many different species that are perfectly harmless, edible, and easily distinguishable from poison sumac.
In fact, the edible sumacs don’t look much like poison sumac at all. Poison sumac has loose, drooping clusters of greenish-white berries similar to that of poison ivy, while other sumacs such as the staghorn, smooth, and winged varieties have tight upright clusters of red berries (drupes) that form a cone shape. For the purposes of this article, I will focus solely on staghorn sumac since it is the variety that grows here in the Northeastern part of New England where I live.
How to Identify Staghorn Sumac
I love coming across staghorn sumac on my foraging adventures. They are such a pretty plant and are very easily identifiable.
Staghorn Sumac is a deciduous shrub in the cashew family. It is a flowering North American plant that is primarily found in southeastern Canada, the northeastern and midwestern United States, and the Appalachian Mountains.
You will often see sumac shrubs in open sunny places, on the sides of highways, at the edges of meadows, and in other open areas. They are shrubs or trees that grow up to 25 feet tall that boast beautiful rust-colored berry clusters that grow in a cone shape.
The leaves of this shrub are pointy, alternate, compound, with toothed margins.
The stems are fuzzy like that of a stag’s antlers and are green when young and turn brown with age. There is no question why this plant got its name.
Is Staghorn Sumac Edible?
Yes, you can eat both the young shoots and the berries of staghorn sumac.
The young peeled, first-year shoots from old stumps, are best, but springtime tips of old branches are also good. Examine the ends of shoots to determine whether they’re edible. If you see a pith, which is an off-white core, it’s too old.
Sumac berries are high in malic acid and vitamin C, are tart and tangy, like sour lemon, and make for a wonderful wild substitute for lemon in culinary recipes. They have long been used in the Middle East as a spice and are a great way to add a tangy flavor to foods like hummus, salads, pasta, and meat marinades. They’re also terrific when cold-infused in water to create a beverage similar to pink lemonade. The seeds contain bitter alkaloids that are extracted by hot water, so it’s important to only use cold water when making an infusion.
What are the Medicinal Properties of Staghorn Sumac?
In addition to the edible young shoots and berries mentioned above, the leaves, bark, and berries also have many medicinal uses. Here are some of the medicinal uses for sumac:
- Make an infusion or tincture from bark, leaves, or fruit and use it as a wash to stop excessive bleeding after childbirth and during menstruation.
- An infusion or tincture from bark, leaves, or fruit can be applied externally as a wash for weeping sores or skin irritations.
- Drinking a leaf, bark, or berry infusion can strengthen the bladder and kidneys, helping to resolve mild incontinence and prevent bedwetting. It can also tone the intestines to end bouts of diarrhea.
- Sumac leaf and bark infusions and tinctures are good for drying up a persistent cough, soothing sore throats, and bringing relief to mouth sores. You may want to try using the infusion or tincture diluted in water as a gargle for tonsillitis or as a wash for mouth sores and ulcers.
The berries, also called drupes, are ready to be harvested when they have turned rust-colored. This usually happens between midsummer to early fall. To tell if they are ripe, I give them a taste test right in the field. If the berries taste lemony and sour, then they are ready for harvesting. Just be sure not to harvest right after a rain shower, as this washes away the desired acids that give this plant its delicious tartness.
Sumac can be harvested throughout the whole winter, although the flavor probably won’t be as intense as when gathered in the summer. So, give them a taste, if they’re deliciously lemony and sour, go ahead and collect. If not, don’t bother.
To harvest sumac, simply break off a few cones (red fuzzy flower clusters) on a dry day and collect them in a pail or other sturdy container. You can also use shears but I have found them unnecessary since they break off easily at the base of the cone. Strip the cones of its tiny velvety seeds by rolling them off the stem with your thumb and forefinger.
Use shears to snip off young shoots and leaves, or to snip off a branch or two for its inner and outer bark.
A small percentage of people are emergency-room allergic to what we consider “safe sumacs”. Anyone who has experienced severe allergic reactions (requiring medical intervention) to poison ivy, poison sumac, poison oak, cashews, or mangoes should stay clear of the edible, red-druped sumacs as well since they all belong to the same family.
How Do I Dry Sumac?
Some people like to dry sumac drupes to use as a spice later on. If you choose to dry your sumac, I recommend that you dry it in a dehydrator or under heat lamps overnight.
Don’t try to use an oven since it can’t reach the low temperatures needed for drying (125-150 degrees). Once dry, simply pulse in a blender so that the berries separate from the seeds and sticks. Sift through a medium-fine mesh strainer so that the fruit goes through but not the seeds and sticks.
Try this deliciously refreshing beverage that’s a healthy wild alternative to lemonade!
- 1 cup sumac berries
- 5 cups cool water
- sweetener to taste
- Rub the berries apart and into a large bowl.
- Pour the water over the berries and let infuse for a few hours or overnight. The longer it brews, the stronger and more intense the flavor will be.
- Strain the liquid into a pitcher through a fine sieve, cheesecloth, or coffee filter.
- Add sweetener of your choice and enjoy over ice.
Za’atar Spice Blend
Za’atar is a unique blend of herbal, earthy, savory, tangy, and salty flavors that have been enjoyed for centuries in Middle Eastern cuisine. Spread hummus on a pita, then sprinkle some of this za’atar seasoning on. It is soooo good!
- 2 tablespoons dried oregano, preferably Greek or Turkish
- 2 tablespoons sumac – wild harvested and dried
- 2 tablespoons sesame seeds – flavors become even more enhanced when toasted
- 1 tablespoon dried marjoram – is a cousin to oregano, but has a milder and sweeter flavor.
- 1 tablespoon dried thyme – has an earthy, minty, slightly lemony flavor.
- 1 teaspoon fine sea salt
- Combine all of the ingredients in a bowl or jar, and mix well.
- For enhanced flavor, warm the spices together in a cast-iron skillet over medium heat, until the sesame seeds start to turn golden. Remove from the heat and transfer to a bowl to cool.
- Store za’atar in an air-tight container at room temperature for up to 1 month.
Note: you probably won’t need to worry about storage because it’s so delicious, it’ll be gone in no time!
Disclaimer- I am not a medical professional. All information shared here is for information and entertainment only. Do your own research and consult your health care provider before treating yourself with any product, plant or mixture.
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