Finding Magic in The Staghorn Sumac—Foraging

Staghorn Sumac Lemonade, served cold

It was a hot day in early June when I emerged from the cool cedar forest into the clearing of lilac shrubs and grasses. The lilac field had just finished its aromatic show of purple flowers and now yielded to a profusion of young Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina) trees. The sumacs formed lanky archways over the path and perched at the ends of each terminal branch of whorled compound leaves were cream-coloured blooms resembling pale yellow Christmas trees. The entire colony of sumacs was blooming. I smiled and realized that I’d traded one jungle for another and plunged in for a closer look. 

Male staghorn sumac grove in a mixed cedar clearing, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Colony of male staghorn sumac trees, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The Staghorn Sumac gets its name from the hairs on its young stems that resemble the velvet softness of a stag’s young antler. If you haven’t drawn your finger along a sumac’s stem before, it’s worth it to feel that delightful almost sticky-soft velvet. Each ‘Christmas tree’ flowering panicle contains hundreds of tiny pale yellow-green florets. As I inspected them I tried and failed to distinguish the male and female parts of a floret. 

Male staghorn sumac flowering panicle in a clearing, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

It all fell into place when I later discovered that sumacs are dioecious (a single shrub is either male or female). Flowers of the male plant form dense panicles or spikes of hundreds of greenish to creamy white florets with five greenish petals. The flower spikes grow out of the ends of terminal branches, and release clouds of pollen when disturbed. 

Each male floret contains five bright yellow-orange deeply-grooved anthers that carry pollen at the end of a whitish filament. The purpose of the male flower is, of course, to carry pollen that will be collected and distributed by wind and insects to the female plant, which holds flowers that carry eggs to be fertilized. This is how the sumac reproduces (fertilized seeds are eaten by birds and other creatures then carried elsewhere by droppings). Sumacs also reproduce as new shoots from rhizomes that form large clone colonies.  

Staghorn sumac male flower showing both male and female parts (photo by Nina Munteanu)

When I returned with this new knowledge, I inspected the florets of a male tree more closely and was puzzled that at the centre of some of the florets I saw a three-lobed stigma (the female part of the flower). I later learned that male flowers can still have female parts—such as stigmas—but they are sterile and do not produce eggs. It turns out that male and female flowers initially form with the same parts but in a male the gynoecium aborts and in the female the stamen and anther abort. So, in some cases, they’re still there; they just don’t function.

Having found the males, I searched the grove for female trees—not sure what I was looking for. I couldn’t find them or distinguish them from the male trees. Surely there were female trees nearby to fertilize!

Female stag horn sumac trees on the edge of a meadow, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

It was only later in the season, in July, that I was able to distinguish the female trees whose flower inflorescences had turned pink just as the male flower clusters shriveled and curled and eventually dropped off.

Male flower heads eventually shrivel and their stems curl and drop off (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Unlike the male sumac, which remains leafy the rest of the season, the female tree develops colourful ‘fruit’ that eventually turn hairy and deep red. I spotted the female colony in the eastern section of the lilac-sumac field. Dense clusters at the branch tips first blush pink then deep red as the fertilized ovaries turn into reddish fruit called drupes (which contain a single seed just like a cherry) and are covered in hairs (actually tiny fibers covered in sticky resin) when mature. These long panicles of dense drupes are called sumac bobs.

Female stag horn sumac tree with well developed bobs, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

On close inspection, I even noticed three black dots on the top of a drupe; the darkened tops of each three-lobed stigma. Each drupe contains a single seed with a hard coating. Drupes turn darker and go almost black as they mature and become infested with worms and other organisms feeding on them.

Closeup of female hairy drupes (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The mature drupes last well into and through the winter, though some will be eaten by birds. I noticed several robins and catbirds frequenting these sumac groves, for both the berries and the worms living in the bobs. I even discovered a Goldfinch nest with four baby chicks in a female sumac tree. I watched them successfully fledge with the diligent care of their two parents.

Goldfinch chicks nestled in a sumac tree, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Each flower of a sumac, regardless of sex, has a nectar-producing disk at its base that produces large amounts of nectar. Research has shown that bees actively gather pollen from the male flowers in the morning before the sun has stimulated the nectaries, and then move to the nectaries of both male and female flowers later in the day, achieving cross pollination. Greco et. al. (1996) also showed that female flowers make a lot more nectar than the male flowers, encouraging the diurnal movement of bees from male flowers to female flowers over the day. 

Bee looking for pollen on a male floret of staghorn sumac, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Foraging the Staghorn Sumac

Ontario Culinary shares this important context in foraging with a special note on the Staghorn Sumac:

Foraging is a long-practiced part of our food culture in Canada, particularly in Ontario, but until very recently it had lost its appeal. Fast forward to today, and folks go nuts over mushrooms, wild leeks, and other hard to find edibles. Peoples’ voraciousness for wild food is becoming a problem.

One of the best options, especially for those concerned about our fragile ecosystem, is to forage for abundant, invasive species like garlic mustard, day lilies or Japanese knot weed. At this time of the year though, our favourite invasive edible is Staghorn Sumac.

Merridy gets into the spirit of collecting sumac bobs for lemonade (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Collecting Staghorn Sumac Seeds

The best time to harvest staghorn sumac for its seeds (to make drinks or spice) is August and September, before the pods get too old and the autumn rains wash out their flavour. 

Cutting off sumac bobs (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Making Sumac Lemonade from The Seeds

The staghorn sumac is used to make a beverage termed “sumac-ade”, “Indian lemonade”, or “rhus juice”. The drink is made by soaking the drupes in cool water, rubbing them to extract the essence, straining the liquid through a cotton cloth or coffee filter, and sweetening it with honey, maple syrup or raw sugar. Because the seeds and stalks contain bitter alkaloids that are extracted by hot water, use only cold water when making the sumac infusion.

Ashley at Practical Self Reliance describes the three step process: 

Step 1—Preparation: break apart the seed heads, separating clean red seeds from dead worms and other critters, etc. Pull back individual bundles of seeds from the outside of the fruit cluster. This ensures weeding out the putrid dead worms and their black poop, etc. inside. Gentle pressure will break them off in your hand in tiny clusters. Individual clusters are then broken down further into their individual seeds. Remove as much of the stem as possible. The flavour is in the fluff; try to just use the red velvet-covered seeds separated from everything else.

Separating the drupes by first picking out clean tiny branchlets of the sumac panicle (bob) then picking out the drupes from the branchlets (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Step 2–Infusion: immerse the red fuzzy seeds in cold to room temperature filtered water. Susan Vinskofski at Learning and Yearning suggests using only enough water to just cover the fruit. Extraction can be from half an hour to overnight, depending on how tart you like the sumac lemonade. I like my lemonade not overly tart but flavourful and sweet; so we tried both short and long infusions.

Pouring cold water into drupe collection (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Sumac drupes soaking in cool water (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Close up of sumac drupes soaking in water, already taking on a pink hue (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Step 3—Filter, Sweeten & Drink: sieve the infusion through a cheese cloth, coffee filter or fine sieve and sweeten to your liking. 

Pouring sumac drupe mash that has soaked for several hours through coffee filter (photo by Nina Munteanu)

One morning in mid-August Merridy and I collected six sumac bobs to process. Some were a dark red wine colour but still looked fresh. Others were a lighter colour. We used the red wine coloured bobs and Ashley’s steps to prepare the fuzzy drupes for sumac lemonade. We started by separating out worm-infested parts (usually on the inside of the panicle) by pulling apart the small branches of the panicle. Separating the fresh drupes from the detritus on each panicle branch was a sticky process and gave me the excuse to lick my fingers. The burst of ‘citrus zest’ surprised me. We then immersed the fresh drupes in cooled boiled water. Almost immediately upon immersing the fuzzy seeds, the water took on a pink tinge. We waited about four hours until tea time to sieve our infusion through a coffee filter.

Our forage booty of several sumac bobs (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The result was a delicate peach-pink liquid that smelled like wild berries and tasted acrid but burst with citrus flavour. According to Merridy the drink smelled “like fairy petals” and tasted “rather astringent.” We both added maple syrup to our lemonade and drank again. I discerened a wider chorus of floral berry notes as the sharp acridness was subdued by the syrup. The syrup “adds spring to the summer,” Merridy said happily. I had to agree.

This wonderful delicate looking drink is a fresh answer to a hot summer’s day. Attractive and refreshing (especially on ice) this drink gives a burst of lemon-berry flavour with the lingering finish of a summer field. The added satisfaction of having made this drink from the wild, made it more delicious!

Sumac lemonade with a pinch of maple syrup to add that Canadian touch (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Sumac Spice

Eric at Anise to Zaatar evocatively describe their experience with the sumac tree near their home in Toronto:

I first noticed sumac on that trail in the hydro corridor near my house. It spread down each side of the path, arcing over the top in a canopy that reminded me of pathways from picture books or from the movies, where only dappled sunlight pierces the dense, umbrella-like foliage. With its long, glossy day leaves and bright clusters of scarlet drupes, paired with the abiding humidity of Toronto’s summers, when you were walking the path you could almost pretend you were somewhere tropical. It felt lush. The sounds of the city disappeared and the sumac transported me somewhere magical. It was a special pathway for me, and I walked it frequently.

Archway of female staghorn sumacs in a meadow, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Eric then describes how he uses sumac as a spice in Middle Eastern dishes such as mussakhan and fattoush. Sumac spice is a standard ingredient in za’atar, a popular Mediterranean spice blend used to top everything from pita to lamb chops. Sumac spice is also commonly dusted on meats, salads, breads, and desserts, providing a unique citrus zest and colourful garnish. I’ve used it this way on many dishes for a je ne sais quoi exotic appeal.

Sumac spice is made from the dried berries, ground into a coarse powder. The spice is dark crimson, almost purple, with a bold citrus tartness that makes it a wonderful spice to use in cooking. Eric provides the steps in preparing Sumac Spice

Sumac spice, showing mostly the leftover drupes after collection of the spicy ‘hairs’ in the jar (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The Chopping Block describes the preparation of Sumac Spice this way:

To prepare the sumac as a spice, I start by removing the little individual red berries (drupes) that make up the stag. I take all the berries and put them in the blender and process for a minute or two. The red fluffy outer part of the berry separates from the seed in the center. I put the mixture into a fine strainer and rub the mixture. The red fluff will fall through the strainer leaving the seeds behind. I discard the seeds and put the red fluffy stuff on a parchment lined sheet pan. I toast this in the oven at 300 degrees for just about 5 to 8 minutes. The spice will just start to get aromatic. I let this cool and put it in an airtight jar. The sumac spice will keep nice and fresh for about a year.  

Rainbow trout and smashed potatoes and carrots garnished with sumac spice (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Once we’d created the spice, the next thing to do was try it out. I made a dish of rainbow trout with smashed potatoes and glazed carrots with parsley and a pea salad. I then garnished the meal with sumac spice. Because of its similarity to lemon zest, the spice went extremely well with the fish and the potatoes. We were impressed!

Eating Staghorn Sumac Leaves & Shoots

Native Americans also use the leaves and drupes of these sumacs combined with tobacco in traditional smoking mixtures. The tannin-rich bark and leaves also provide tanneries with a natural tanning agent and dye. Sumac is an excellent source of Vitamin C, with additional antioxidants, antifungal anti-inflammatory and antiviral properties. No surprise—Indigenous peoples use the sumac to make cough syrup, and a gargle for sore throats among other uses.

Ashley tells us that Staghorn Sumac shoots are also edible. In late spring and summer, you can gather the shoots, peel off the leaves and bitter outer bark, then eat the shoots raw. According to Samuel Thayer, author of The Forager’s Harvest, they are “slightly sweet and delicious, tasting more like a fruit than a vegetable.”

Risks

There is little chance of accidentally mixing up Staghorn Sumac with Poison Sumac: Poison Sumac has smooth, non-serrated leaves, lacks a fuzzy stem like the Staghorn Sumac, and does not produce the fuzzy, dark red fruit cluster found on Staghorn Sumac. It also lives in swamps and rarely grows in dense, pure stands.

References:

Greco, C.F., D. Holland and Peter G. Kevan. 1996. “Foraging behaviour of honey bees (Apis mellifera L.) on Staghorn Sumac (Rhus hirta Sudworth (ex-typhina L.): diffrences and dioecy.” The Canadian Entomologist 128: 355-366.

Thayer, Samuel. 2006. “The Forager’s Harvest: A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting, and Preparing Edible Wild Plants.” Foragers Harvest Press. 368pp.

Sumacs with previous year’s bobs in a dry meadow in spring, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

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