Sunday, March 21, 2010

Staghorn Sumac

Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina) grows in abundance near my home.  Local food at my fingertips!  It is rewarding to gather as I can dry it and use it throughout the winter months.  I am just getting short on my supply now.    The red-berried drupes can be used fresh or dried to make delicious hot or cold beverages. I think it tastes like Red Zinger tea (Celestial Seasonings tea made from hibiscus). Impress your family and friends by brewing up some sumac tea or better yet, make my favourite mint and sumac punch.

The tartness of this sumac is partly due to the high ascorbic acid (vitamin C) content in the berries. They also contain tannin, the astringent that is in ordinary tea. Staghorn sumac was used by native people and I imagine they taught the first settlers how to make it into a refreshing bush tea. Below you can see that the leaves peak in colour in the fall.  You can pick stag sumac from August to mid-October in my area. 

Staghorn sumac is a small deciduous tree that grows in thickets or clusters. The largest trees are 10 meters (30+ feet). The ones around me are approximately 10-20 feet tall. It is named for its branches which resemble the velvety antlers of a deer. The bush is a member of the Anacardiaceae or Cashew family, and is a native to eastern North America. It grows naturally throughout Ontario and Quebec down to northern Georgia and Mississippi in the United States. The pinnate, compound leaves grow alternately along the branches. The serrated leaflets grow opposite one another. The most identifiable feature is its bright red, conical blooms of densely packed red drupes that grow from the terminal ends of the branches.

Your first task is to properly identify the plant. The 'WHITE' fruit of the 'POISON SUMAC' is as deadly as its name. The tree and fruits do not look the same and are very difficult to mix up. Use field guides to help you identify edible wild plants and you also ask someone who knows the difference to teach you. The sumac drupes are in the basket on your right in the photo below. High bush cranberry is on the left.

Collect the drupes when it hasn't rained for a few days as the rain washes out some of the malic acid and flavour components. Also, don't strip a tree of all of the seed heads or the tree can die. Take 5 or so from each tree and move on. You can pick the fruits from mid-summer through to fall. The drupes dry and stay on the trees over the winter and provide food for the birds.


Two large drupes, like those shown below, will make a large pot of tea. Put the fresh or dried drupes into the pot and pour boiling water over. The longer you steep the tea the darker red it will be. I steep it for at least 20 minutes and if I am going to drink it cold like an iced tea then I steep it overnight. Some sources say to soak the drupes in cold water as the boiling water method extracts too many tannins from the stalks and can make a bitter brew. I however, have used boiling water with good success. Don't boil the drupes in water. Just steep. Optional additions to the pot include garden mint and other herbs as well as whole allspice, cinnamon or cloves.

When the flavor is to your liking, strain the drink to remove seeds and hairs. The fruit can be used more than once in most circumstances. Sweeten to taste with honey or your favourite sweetener.


Dry the seed heads in a dehydrator or on a screen in a dry area with good air flow. You can also hang them to dry.  Below I have the drupes and high bush cranberry in a basket ready for my dehydrator.  I used my dehydrator a lot last summer as it was so wet and often raining.

Staghorn sumac fruit is high in vitamin C. It also contains malic and tannic acids and I am sure it provides other nutrients but I am not sure what they are! The sumac berries used in the Arab countries, Middle East and North Africa is a different genus. Their nutritional and medicinal characteristics are cited as diuretic, reducing fever, antiseptic and anti-diarrheal.

OTHER USES FOR SUMAC: Sumac juice makes a fine jelly (like making crabapple jelly), fruit syrup and delicious wine. The jelly is good with roast meats or cheese. For these recipes you will need to make a very strong brew or decoction. Add more drupes to make a stronger infusion. You can also infuse the same batch many times discarding used sumac as you move along.

© Nancy Guppy, RD, MHSc
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Nancy Guppy, said...

I composted so many sumac drupes that they started to grow in the garden beds. I let them be for 2010 but will have to find a sumac home for them this summer. Will be handy to have a grove closer to the house.... like an orchard really.

Anonymous said...

in german botanic books rhusthyphina is labelled toxic. niko

Nancy Guppy, said...

This sumac has been eaten in Canada for centuries. Used by native Indians to make a tea and it is sometimes called Indian lemonade. People here sell sumac jelly and also sumac syrup. The type growing where we live is not toxic. I wonder if it is different than the one in your German botanical textbook?

Anonymous said...

Rhus is the genus name for both plants, meaning that they share common close ancestors, but they are not the same plant. The species Rhus vernix is poison sumac; the species Rhus typhinia is staghorn sumac, which is non-toxic not only for eating or drinking, but was even smoked in a mix with tobacco by First Nations people.

Patty from Vermilion said...

Thank you! I have always found this plant so beautiful in the fall; when a middle-eastern friend introduced me to zatar, it was so fun to learn that it was edible and delicious too--I had always heard it referred to as "poison sumac," and I'm glad to learn the difference between the two.

Stephen Alrich Marshall said...

Hi Nancy
I've been studying Sumac in the Northeast for a few years now, in particular the practical details of harvesting it.
In my opinion, the best time to collect sumac is after the leaves have fallen from the trees, for several reasons. First, the drupes continue to develop well into winter, and the most flavorful drupes are those which have had time to dry out on the stem, a process which winter provides. Second, it is simply easier to find and access the drupes when the leaves have fallen off. Third, the drupes snap off easily when the stems have dried out for winter.
The first year I collected Sumac, I started in August and continued to collect until new leaves appeared in the spring. The sense to me was that it is a winter fruit, ecologically committed to being ripe and available, during winter weather, and therefor not truly ripe until after the leaves have fallen off.

Nancy Guppy, said...

Hi Stephen, I have collected the drupes in the winter but I find the tea doesn't have the same intense red colour and is not as tasty as the drupes picked in my area near the end of summer. I mainly use the drupes to make hot tea and the infusion in fruit punch. What do you use it for?

Author said...

Essentially the same. It could be a difference between our methods of brewing. I brew for a concentrated solution. My experience is that late season (before the leaves drop) drupes are not fully ripe. Obviously, our varied experiences give folks room to experiment!

Sumac presents several obstacles to harvesting. first, the drupes (which do not droop) stand tall on the tips of stems as far from the ground as the plant can support. If a harvester owns or can get permission from the owner of the plants, they can be cut as far off the ground as the harvester can reach, and will grow back the next year.

The other problem is that, in my neighborhood, they attract an insect that infests the interior. This turns off a lot of folks, but drupes without insects can be found, and I just separate the berries from the insect waste.

Since I do not have my own property, I have not been able to experiment and cultivate. I do have several drupes that are at least two years old, and one of these days I will make tea to see how well it self-preserved.