Sumac is useful, neglected & misunderstood

Sumac was once highly esteemed and used by both Native Americans and Settlers.

Sumac is a common sight along country roads as well as 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 do not readily germinate. I suspect, though, that birds spread them far and wide and even if only 1% were to germinate this plant could easily extend its domain.

USDA Guide: Smooth Sumac

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. Though they are best if harvested before heavy rains leach their flavors.

Link to Stalking the Wild Asparagus on Amazon

Sumac flowers
This is what sumac flowers look like, before the berries are formed. Bees LOVE them for their nectar! Sumac is useful as a honey crop.

There are numerous varieties/species of sumac which are usable to making this flavorful drink. 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.

Sumac is useful because of its reddish/burgundy colored seeds.

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.

Try to pick sumac berries before heavy rains hit 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!

Sumac seed clusters are called “bobs.” They’re borne on the ENDS of the branches.

Sumac is useful for:

  • Grinding the seeds to powder to use for seasoning meats. This powder has long been used as a seasoning in Middle Eastern and Asian cooking.
  • Making “sumac tea,” which tastes similar to lemonade.
  • Making sumac jelly, for use on toast.
  • The dry bobs (seed clusters) make great fuel for bee smokers. I used them all the time when I was a kid.
  • A late summer nectar source for bees: 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).
Winged sumac, winged sumac berries
Winged sumac is also useful. It has a “wing,” or line right down the center of the entire leaf assembly. This picture shows its leaves turning red in the fall.

Look-a-likes to avoid:

Poison Sumac

Sumac is useful, but poison sumac is not! In fact, it’s not even related. Poison sumac has rounder leaves, white or gray colored seeds and sparse foliage. It grows in wet places, not dry, like the “good sumacs.” Though there is a superficial similarity in appearance, poison sumac is not even related to the true sumacs.

Good article describing Poison Sumac

Brazilian pepper tree

Is 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.

Related post: Recognize Poison Ivy

Ailanthus altissima (Tree of Heaven)

This is a tree, imported from China. I grew up hearing this one called “Alanthus.” The Tree of Heaven doesn’t produce red/brown berries. It also grows quite tall. Leaves are rounded, without serrations, whereas Sumac, in all its kinds, has serrations on its leaves. Furthermore, the leaves and stems of Ailanthus Altissima let off a foul odor when broken or crushed.

PennState Extension Article on Ailanthus Altissima


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