Wild Edible Plants: Eat your sumac

Sumac plants in winter.

There are 250 species of sumac growing in subtropical and temperate regions all over the world. The fruits of the genus Rhus are ground into a deep-red or purple powder used as a spice in Middle Eastern cuisine to add a lemony taste to salads and meat.

In Arab cuisine, sumac is used as a garnish on dishes such as hummus and added to salads in the Levant. Iranian food features sumac on kebabs and lahmacun. In North America, the smooth sumac and staghorn sumac can be used to make "sumac-ade", "Indian lemonade", or "rhus juice". This drink is made by soaking the berries in cool water, rubbing them to extract the essence, straining the liquid through a cotton cloth and sweetening it. Native Americans also used the leaves and drupes of the smooth and staghorn sumacs combined with tobacco in traditional smoking mixtures.
Photo of sumac berries drying out from First Ways. Blogger Rebecca Lerner suggests spreading the berries out on a shelf in a warm, dry room.
A lot of people mistakenly assume all sumac plants are poisonous. But poison sumac, while related to the sumac trees this post is about, is not the same thing and actually looks very different. Poison sumac has smooth leaves and white berries, while edible sumac has tightly clumped red berries and jagged, toothy leaves:

Sumac contains calcium, potassium, magnesium, citric acid and antioxidants, according to a plant physiology study conducted by the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. Sumac bark is useful medicinally as an astringent tea for anti-diarrhea purposes. It’s also antibacterial.

Sumac makes a great, healthy lemonade alternative. Just soak the berries in cold water, rub them to release the juice, and then leave them for several hours to infuse into the water. You can also heat it up to speed the process. You can also freeze the liquid in ice cube trays and use it year-round like lemon juice. “Wildman” Steve Brill’s Wild Vegan Cookbook offers several interesting recipes for sumac concentrate. 

If you dry the sumac berries out and grind them into a spice powder, it will last year-round without refrigeration. Sprinkle the powder on rice, hummus, or kebabs. 

Here's our friend Bob Laisdell showing how to retrieve the drupes (clusters of berries): 

And our friend Rick Lopez showing off the berries up-close:
Want to give it a go? Here's an easy recipe for sumac tea:

Fresh Sumac Iced Tea
Serves 4
6 cups near-boiling water
2 drupes of staghorn sumac berries
Honey or other sweetener to taste 
  1. Remove the berries from the drupes.
  2. Pour nearly boiling water over the berries and steep for an hour. Smoosh the berries in with the water. Strain the berries.
  3. Chill the drink.
  4. Take the warm berries and add to an ice cube tray. Fill with halfway spring water or with the drink itself and freeze.
  5. A few hours later fill up the ice cube tray. This way the berries will be prevented from floating to the top. Freeze again.
  6. Add the ice cubes to your glass and fill with the chilled drink. Add sweetener if you like.
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Nicole Caldwell

Nicole Caldwell is a self-taught environmentalist, green-living savant and sustainability educator with more than a decade of professional writing experience. She is also the co-founder of Better Farm and president of betterArts. Nicole’s work has been featured in Mother Earth News, Reader’s Digest, Time Out New York, and many other publications. Her first book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, is due out this July through New Society Publishers.