Sumac was once highly esteemed and used, both by Native Americans and Settlers.
Sumac is a common sight along country roads, and along some “not-so-country roads.” This shrubby plant can tolerate a lot of heat and drought as well as poor soil. It loves the margins of roads, and appears to be fairly resistant to the herbicides which municipalities and power companies routinely spray on those areas. It tends to grow in clusters, as it most readily spreads by root suckering. The seeds, though abundant, are not so easy to get to sprout, though, I suspect that birds spread them far and wide and even if only 1% were to germinate this plant would easily extend its domain.
I’ve seen sumac most of my life, starting at least when I was 5 years old. When I was a boy, my parents purchased a copy of Stalking the Wild Asparagus, by Euell Gibbons, which fascinated me. Gibbons wrote about sumac, mentioning that it could be used to make a lemonade type drink, and that Native Americans included its seeds in pemmican recipes, as seasoning. The dry bobs (seed clusters) can be stored for months before using them.
There are numerous varieties/species of sumac which are usable to making this flavorful drink. Just the ones I’m familiar with are Staghorn (Eastern part of the USA), Smooth and Winged. Essentially any reddish or burgundy seeded sumac you find will be usable. Some will produce a “pink lemonade.” Some will produce a “clear lemonade” type drink.
All sumacs which produce reddish/burgundy colored seeds are usable for flavoring.
The acid from sumac, which is so useful as a flavoring, is water soluble. So, you want to pick the heads (bobs) of seed when they mature, and, if possible, before any heavy downpour rinses the it off them. To make some sumac drink, place about 2 cups of the seeds, which can include some of the stem) in a colander, which in turn is placed inside a mixing bowl. Pour some warm (not hot) water over the seeds, enough to submerge them. You can speed things up a bit by agitating and pressing down on the seeds a bit, helping the acid to dissolve from the seeds. Once finished, lift the colander out of the bowl. The liquid left in the bowl will contain the flavor. Before drinking it, you’ll want to strain it through a cloth and then, preferably, also through a coffee filter, which removes the tiny hairs which fell off the seeds during this process. You can then use the drink how you wish, sweetened or unsweetened. It really does taste a lot like lemonade!
Other Uses for Sumac:
- Grind the seeds to powder and use the powder to season meats. This powder has long been used as a seasoning in Middle Eastern and Asian cooking.
- Make the drink and add pectin and sugar to make jelly.
- Dry bobs (seed clusters) make great fuel for bee smokers. I used them all the time when I was a kid.
- Sumac flowers in the summer, providing a valuable source of nectar for honey bees.
- All parts of sumac plants have been used for tanning leather (tannic acid) and natural dye (purple).
Look-a-likes to avoid:
Poison Sumac – has rounder leaves and white or gray colored seeds and sparse foliage. Grows in wet places, not dry, like the “good sumacs.”
Brazilian pepper tree– a foreign import, the Brazilian pepper tree can grow into a bona fide tree. Seed pods are not covered in tiny hairs, seed clusters are brighter red than a real sumac, and they are not borne on the terminal end of the branch. All sumacs, usable for human consumption bear their seed heads at the very end of the branch. Unless you live in Hawaii, California, Texas, Arizona, Nevada, Louisiana and Florida, you shouldn’t have to worry about the Brazilian pepper tree in the USA.