Wild Edible Recipe: Staghorn Sumac Tea

This refreshing beverage is also known as Indian lemonade.

Staghorn Sumac (Rhus hirta) berries grow in velvety RED clusters on shrubby trees 20-25 feet tall.

Staghorn Sumac

This is NOT poison oak (R. quercifolia or R. diversiloba) The first has white berries, the second is a vine.

Always refer to my test for determining edibility before consuming a full portion of any wild edible.

Always be careful not to gather wild edibles within 50 feet of any regularly traveled road.

I happen to like the lemony taste of sumac hot or cold, so I do not add flavor. However, a bit of maple syrup, honey or other flavors makes sumac a very versatile, easy to prepare wild edible. These berries are most flavorful in summer, but even in autumn they are a reliable wild food.

Ingredients:

1 quart sumac berries*
1 gallon water
Optional: maple syrup, cinnamon, cloves
Cheesecloth or drip coffee filter

Procedure 1:

1. Bring water to a boil
2. Immerse sumac and any spices
3. Bring water back to a boil, lower heat
4. Simmer for 15 minutes
5. Drain through cheesecloth or coffee filter

Remove berries and strain liquid through cheesecloth or coffee filters

Add honey or maple syrup and enjoy or
Refrigerate and enjoy cold

Procedure 2:

Rinse seedhead and drain on a towel
Fill a container with cold water
Put sumac seeds and spices in water
Set aside at room temperature or in the sun for 1-2 hours
Remove berries and strain liquid through cheesecloth or coffee filters

* For a Single serving:

2 quarts water
1 cup sumac berries
Flavors of your choice
Cheesecloth or drip coffee filter

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    36 Comments

    1. Dave September 27, 2008 at 11:46 AM #

      Does anyone know how to prepare sumac for the Medeterranian bread called Monoosh (probable spelled wrong)? Is the sumac in NY and the sumac in the Middle East similar in taste?

    2. JJ Murphy
      jj_murphy September 27, 2008 at 7:44 PM #

      Hi Dave,

      The sumac plant featured in this article staghorn sumac, Rhus hirta, sometimes listed as Rhus typhinia, which is common in most of Eastern North America. I have never heard of it prepared in any other way than as a tea.

      Other edible Rhus family members in North America include two varieties of smooth sumac, Rhus pulvinata and Rhus glabra, fragrant sumac or Rhus aromatica, and shiny sumac or Rhus copillina.

      I have no direct experience with these other sumac varieties.

      There are many Rhus family members worldwide. I have no knowledge of these plants.

      What I can tell you about staghorn sumac, is that often berries with the best flavor have a white slimy textured coating.

      I have no idea if this can be used in any other way than as a tea.

    3. Medhat November 12, 2008 at 9:25 AM #

      You can finely grind the sumac berries in a coffee grinder and use it for seasoning salads or in Middle Eastern recipes.

    4. JJ Murphy
      jj_murphy November 12, 2008 at 5:56 PM #

      Great idea, thanks.

    5. Matthew Johnson March 8, 2009 at 2:46 AM #

      I was told to never put Sumac in boiling or hot water.
      It brings out the silicates (hairs like fiberglass) making it harmful to drink.
      Is this a wives tale?

    6. JJ Murphy
      jj_murphy March 9, 2009 at 10:58 AM #

      Hi Matthew,

      According to Sam Thayer, the white bloom that forms on the outside of staghorn sumac and trapped in the fine hairs is the source of the best flavor.

      Realize that staghorn sumac is one of many edible sumac family members, including slimy sumac, smooth sumac, and fragrant sumac. I have not harvested and prepared these other varieties.

    7. Clay September 9, 2009 at 3:17 PM #

      Sumac is also dried, crushed and used as a spice. Great sprnkled over fish and grilled. An old Cherokee recipe. Enjoy

    8. JJ Murphy September 9, 2009 at 8:19 PM #

      Thanks for sharing this, Clay. I have not tried to dry sumac. Now that I know it can be done successfully, I’m looking forward to enjoying it in new recipes.

    9. Sheila September 9, 2009 at 10:41 PM #

      I made the sumac tea yesterday for the first time and I absolutly loved it :) I would like to know exactly how you dry it and make it a spice. I cook with spices all the time and I would love to add a new spice to my collection

    10. Sheila September 9, 2009 at 10:42 PM #

      I boiled it yesterday for my tea and I drained it through a coffee filter..

    11. JJ Murphy September 10, 2009 at 10:59 AM #

      Glad you enjoyed the tea, Sheila. I hope Clay shares his drying technique.

      I’m going to experiment with drying the seed head as a whole and also with breaking it up and spreading it out on a screen.

      Once I get results, I’ll let you know.

    12. Sheila September 11, 2009 at 2:28 PM #

      Thank you JJ I really appraeciate that. I wanted to say I am really enjoying looking through your site and all the different techniques and ideas that flow here it is amazeing!

    13. JJ Murphy September 11, 2009 at 3:51 PM #

      Thanks for taking the time to visit and comment, Sheila. It’s important for me to know what’s important to readers who spend time on this site.

    14. robin June 20, 2010 at 6:11 PM #

      has anyone made a fermented drink w/ sumac tea, like kombucha?

    15. JJ Murphy
      jj_murphy June 20, 2010 at 8:44 PM #

      What a fascinating idea, Robin. I did find this link, but have not put the recipe to the test:

      http://www.annarbor.com/entertainment/food-drink/wildcrafting—staghorn-sumac-soda/

      Many wild food recipes are a result of experimentation. If you do create a fermented sumac beverage, please share the recipe.

    16. MarchHare July 24, 2010 at 7:27 PM #

      I recently made this recipe for Sumac wine. I just used the red sumac that grows at the edge of my lawn. Made about 3 gallons using 5 lbs sugar and champagne wine yeast. I took some out of the fermenter early and it tastes and looks like fizzy grapefruit juice. Reminded me of kombucha… though I’m sure the biotics in that are more complex. Think I’ll give the wine at least 6 months to age after bottling.

    17. MarchHare July 24, 2010 at 7:28 PM #

      http://winemaking.jackkeller.net/staghorn.asp
      oops there’s the link

    18. JJ Murphy
      jj_murphy July 24, 2010 at 8:39 PM #

      MarchHare, I would never have thought of making Staghorn sumac wine. Please let me know what you end up with in six months.

    19. Deb August 6, 2010 at 7:50 PM #

      hi , I mix 1/2 sumac juice with 1/2 elderberry juice for the best Jelly! what is the vitiamin content? do you think the juice would freeze for winter use? I have many trees on my property and don’t think the birds will mind sharing. Deb

    20. JJ Murphy
      jj_murphy August 6, 2010 at 8:56 PM #

      Deb, thanks for sharing this unique recipe. I’m not an expert in nutrition, but I would not be surprised, given the lemony flavor of staghorn sumac, if it were high in Vitamin C.

      As for elderberries, many of the foraging experts I trust believe that they provide very large amounts of potassium and beta-carotene, as well as sugar and fruit acids, calcium, phosphorous and vitamin C.

      My rule of thumb when foraging is to gather no more than one-third of any wild foods I find, even in abundance. That is usually enough for me to have some fresh and freeze or dehydrate what I want to store for the future. That also leaves plenty for wildlife to eat and an opportunity for the plant to reproduce for future harvesting.

      As for freezing the juice, I’ve never tried it. If I were to experiment, I might try freezing the juice in ice-cube trays and then testing cubes at intervals – say every month – to determine if the flavor changes.

      Let me know if you do freeze the juice and how it turns out.

    21. John September 12, 2011 at 12:07 AM #

      In the Western U.S, we have three leaf sumac which is also edible

    22. Captain Cook September 20, 2011 at 10:34 AM #

      I am a big fan of dried sumac as a spice. I purchased a 14 oz bottle of Lebanese Sumac to use in my Middle Eastern recipes. It is from a different plant than the Staghorn Sumac. But, the lemony flavor described leads me to believe that Stagnorn will make an excellent substitute when dried and ground.

      I have been looking for over a year for a “free” source of the Staghorn Sumac. And I found one yesterday. And abundant to boot. If you have dried and ground any in the last year, please e-mail me with the results.

      I use Sumac to “brighten up” dishes, from grilled meats to bean dips. It is also great as a lemony accent on veggies. I sprinkle sumac and chili powder on buttered or oiled corn on the cob for a Mexican twist. I used to use lime juice, but it basically floated off the butter and went in the plate. Sumac adds that astringent zing I want from lemon or lime.

      As for nutritional value, the label on Lebanese Sumac says that is has nominal nutritional value, ergo, none. Ha, but no calories either.

      My plan is to gather some Sumac today and dry the entire drupe by hanging it upside down at room temperature. Even in labor intensive kitchens of the middle east, I suspect that dring individual berries would take too much time and space.

    23. JJ Murphy
      JJ Murphy September 20, 2011 at 11:01 AM #

      Greetings,

      Thanks for sharing your sumac experiences. I had not thought about the advantages of sumac over lemon juice.

      I have dried the sumac heads and also dried the individual berries on a cookie sheet. Sometimes the drying heads fall apart. I get good results either way. I then strip the heads and store the berries in a glass jar and keep them in a dark closet.

      I find a little goes a long way. I have kept sumac two years with no loss in flavor intensity.

      Congratulations on finding a source of sumac. Don’t forget to enjoy sumac lemonade and tea.
      And keep me posted on your progress.

    24. Captain Cook September 21, 2011 at 12:05 AM #

      Hi JJ,

      I may have jumped the gun. I harvested a sample today, but the drupes were very dark, not much color left to them. My guess is that they will be fine. Have you dried any berries this late in the season> I am in Pennsylvania, and this Sumac area is massive. if late season berries will work, I will harvest with a vengeance. But, if the flavor is gone, I will wait until next year, and get the berries earlier. Any thoughts?

      i have also been told by other gatherers, to leave at least 1/3 of the drupes rather than harvesting, so as to repropogate the species. I use the same 1/3 remainder in my secret ramps patch, with excellent results!

    25. JJ Murphy
      JJ Murphy September 21, 2011 at 12:38 AM #

      I just consulted my Sam Thayer notes and he writes that the rain will often wash the flavor right out of the staghorn sumac berry heads. He recommends, and I agree, that you should taste each berry head before harvesting.

      Typically August is the peak time for staghorn sumac – but weather can make a difference. There is no way to know what you have without actually tasting before you harvest.

      You may be lucky enough to find some good ones – but if you were hit with the heavy rains that hurricanes Irene and Lee deposited – you may have to wait until next year.

      Let me know what happens when you get out there and taste the current crop.

    26. Captain Cook September 21, 2011 at 1:13 AM #

      JJ,

      I did just that re tasting. I have about a 2:10 good to bad ration for seeds. The good ones are tasty, but it looks like waiting is the best bet. i can make a nominal harvest, but hardly worth the effort after the heavy rains we had all year. thanks for the tip.

      Now moving on to acorns. I will let you know hoe the few “good seeds” turn out!

    27. Mike Krebill September 27, 2011 at 6:05 PM #

      Hi J.J!

      Read this with interest, as i did 20 years worth of research with my 7th grade science classes on how to make consistently good sumac lemonade. They loved experimenting and taste-testing. The two techniques we came up with are posted in my sumac photo album on Facebook. Neither involves boiling or simmering the drupes.

      Am wondering if you made an error on your “For a Single Serving” amount. Shouldn’t it be one quart of water instead of two? Two quarts of water and only 1 cup of drupes would be pretty weak, I would think.

      Have used Staghorn, Smooth, Winged, and Fragrant Sumacs to make sumac lemonade, and every one of them produces a flavorful drink. The first three produce a weak cranberry-colored beverage, while Fragrant Sumac’s is clear, like flavored water drinks.

      Have done a lot of searching for scientific reports online, and have yet to find one that includes Vitamin C (or citric or ascorbic acid) in the analysis, although that is a common assumption and claim on websites and in the popular literature. Perhaps Sam has found it somewhere.

      Agree with you that the best time to harvest sumac is within a month after it ripens. While that typically turns out to be August, I have found clonal groups that ripened in the first week of July and others that didn’t begin ripening until September. During the first 10 days of September, they were dark, wet, and covered with a sour, waxy glaze. The sure-fire way to know if heads are worth harvesting is to taste a drupe or two. If it is super sour, it is worth collecting. If it is only barely sour, I leave it.

      I’ve also learned that brief showers, even heavy ones, don’t seem to leach out the sourness. All-day rains, however, do.

    28. JJ Murphy
      JJ Murphy September 27, 2011 at 7:10 PM #

      Mike, I’m impressed at the amount of research you have put into this. I find that when it comes to wild edibles, as your research has shown, there’s wide room for variation.

      When I first posted this article, whatever the sumac was doing that year influenced my recipe. Also, as you know, where you gather the sumac is as much a factor as when. Perhaps that year the sumac was strong enough to tolerate more water – or I may have packed the berries into the cup, instead of using a cup of loose berries.

      I trust “Wildman” Steve Brill who has stated in his walks and on his website that sumac is high in Vitamin C. “Wildman” typically researches the chemistry as well as the habitat of wild edibles.

      Sam Thayer, my other source, also states that sumac is high in Vitamin C.

      Both of these sources prefer to put the berries in room temperature or cool water for lemonade. Both say that harvesting too early is not going to give you the best flavor and neither recommends using hot or boiling water.

      Thayer uses the waxy glaze as evidence of peak ripeness.

      In addition to lemonade, I’ve tried drying the berries and crushing them in recipes that would also use lemon – including fish.

      Thanks again for sharing your results.

    29. Holly Garrett October 18, 2011 at 7:56 PM #

      I am happy to have found this page! I discovered some winged sumac berries today and will try the sumac-ade, as well as some dried for spices. i was just at the southeast women’s herbal conference and learned about the uses of the sumac there, and yes i heard that sumac has some of the highest vitamin C content and is good to mix into elderberry syrups for cold season.

    30. JJ Murphy
      JJ Murphy October 19, 2011 at 8:42 PM #

      Holly, thanks for taking the time to comment.

      As you can see from the long list of comments on the subject of staghorn and other sumacs, there is now some question as to the scientific data supporting the amount of Vitamin C in these plants.

      It would be great to get in touch with the people at the Southeast Women’s Herbal Conference who shared the information about Vitamin C. I got my information from “Wildman” Steve Brill and Sam Thayer.

      But as you can see from Mike Krebill’s posts – he asked all of us if there is any scientific data documenting the amount of Vitamin C in sumac varieties. If there is, I’d love to know about it. If not – I’m very sure Mike is setting up a scientific study as we speak.

      Thanks again for letting me know about the existence of the Southest Women’s Herbal Conference.

    31. Pro Al-Assad July 16, 2012 at 3:30 PM #

      yeah us Arabs use this to put it on bread called menaish (spelled wrong) and on a salad called fatoush.

    32. Joseph frye September 28, 2012 at 12:36 PM #

      Staghorn sumac is also used in Arminia as a spice call somac, dried and ground then sprinkled on food, very tasty, tart, and very little is needed.

    33. Sherry Nix December 3, 2012 at 3:31 AM #

      I just happened across your web site while I was looking for sumac recipes. I found a handwritten note in a Syrian cook book, that thyme was mixed with dried and ground up sumac to sprinkle on top of the bread before baking.

    34. JJ Murphy
      JJ Murphy December 6, 2012 at 6:02 PM #

      Sherry, thanks for visiting my site and taking the time to comment. I think dried sumac may have been used here in North America in much the same way.

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