“Rhus Juice”- In Praise of Sumac

Staghorn Sumac

A few weeks ago I posted this image on my Facebook Page “Divine Journeys”. This is a Staghorn Sumac (rhus typhina) drupe, almost ready for harvest. I was very excited by the early appearance of the fruits, as I use Sumac for spice,decoration and medicine. However, the comments on my photo indicated that some of you may not be as excited about Sumac as I am. I think you may have actually hit “DISLIKE” if you had the option!


“Trash trees” said one person. “Sumac is poisonous!” says another. “They are annoying garden weeds!”, and “Ghetto palms!”. You get the picture. WELL! I am going to give you a recipe for a pretty pink summer drink, Rhus Juice, that will change your mind about Sumac forever… I hope. But first you’ll forgive me if I expound on how much I love Sumac; dispell some myths; and expose the devious imposter that you REALLY love to hate- Tree of Heaven.


First, about Sumac. We have two species that I see growing abundantly in the area- Staghorn Sumac (rhus typhina) and Smooth Sumac (rhus glabra). Both are easily identified by the dark red drupes (fruits), sometimes called Sumac bobs. The leaves are large, feathery and compound. Staghorn sumac has little hairs on the twigs and fruits, Smooth Sumac is, well, smooth! You may use them interchangeably for the upcoming recipe.


Poison Ivy

Secondly, Sumac has a reputation for being poisonous. There IS a poison Sumac (rhus vernix), but I have never seen it growing around here- although that does not mean it never does. Apparently it prefers wet, swampy areas. But the big kicker?? The berries are white. Not red- white. Now Sumac does have a few less friendly cousins- Poison Ivy (rhus toxicodendron) and Poison Oak (rhus diversiloba)- that are best avoided. But they too have white or green-white berries, and they don’t grow in the pointy Sumac bob fashion. Really, they look nothing alike.


Tree of Heaven

Finally, there is the big fake- the giant imposter- Tree of Heaven! (ailanthus altissima). I often see people look at a Tree of Heaven and call it a Sumac. I used to make the same mistake, actually. There are so MANY plants to meet! Tree of Heaven was imported from China around the mid 1700’s. It quickly became very happy living here, and has spread like mad. Now, where Sumacs rarely get over 30′ tall, Tree of Heaven can grow to 100′, and very quickly. It is known to be one of the fastest growing trees in North America, spreading aggressively from both root and seed. At one point it was named “Stinking Sumac” for its unpleasant odor. In fact, it’s Latin name means “malodorous tree”. It is used in China medicinally, and it’s claim to fame in the U.S.? It IS the tree referred to in the book “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”!  But here it has misplaced the blame for its stinky, aggressive, weedy growth habit on poor Sumac. Tree of Heaven looks VERY much like Sumac, but once again it’s in the berries that we expose this imposter. Tree of Heaven has seed pods that are large and twisted at the tips, to help them get airborne. No drupes, no red berries.



OK, so give Sumac a break. While it does grow abundantly, I’ll bet that most of what you are cursing as “that !@#$ Sumac” is really Tree of Heaven. And Sumac is tasty and attractive. I yearly pick paper bags full of the drupes in late Summer/Fall when the berries have turned from fuzzy and pinkish to a deep red with a waxy looking coating. This waxy coating of malic acid gives Sumac it’s tangy-lemony flavor, so don’t harvest after very heavy rains as it may have washed off. Store the drupes in paper bags or use as ornament- set out in a pretty bowl with gourds and pumpkins. The deep red lasts all Winter. There is a variety of Sumac (rhus coriaria) used in Middle Eastern cuisine. I believe our Staghorn & Smooth Sumac to be similar, and will experiment with grinding the dried berries with some other herbs to make the delicious spice blend, Za’atar. Special thanks to Bonnie Deahl for giving me the recipe!


Cuisine Sauvage!

I could go on and on about how I use Sumac medicinally; how it’s energetic signature is very male and virile, how much I love walking among the plants in the Fall, snapping off the prettiest bobs. But I suspect you want that recipe! If you want to hear more about Sumac and other Wild Weeds, join me for two days of just that- picking, cooking and eating weeds and herbs- at the upcoming Cuisine Sauvage! workshop.


Rhus Juice, aka Sumac-aide

Go into the wild during late Summer or Fall. Find Sumac. Walk among Sumac, and snap the deep red, waxy looking drupes off the end of the branch. Only take one out of three, please, and thank the plant if you will. Knock off the bugs and drop into a paper bag. For a gallon of Rhus Juice, you will need only 6 or 8 drupes, depending on the size. Take a few extras for jelly, decoration, spice, admiring.

Go to the kitchen. Get a big pot or bowl that will hold your Sumac drupes. Using your hands, crush the drupes into the pot or bowl. The crushing isnt to pulverize, just to break apart the berries a bit. Now, cover the berries with cold (meaning, not heated) water, and maybe another inch or so. Put your hands in there and swish and rub the berries a good bit. Then let it sit for a while- until it is as tart as you like it. This could be from 20 min to a few hours. Strain this through cotton cloth or cheese cloth and sweeten to taste. What a pretty pink drink, and very refreshing! I’ll bet your kids will love it. Let me know!

7 thoughts on ““Rhus Juice”- In Praise of Sumac”

  1. Hi Kristen,

    Thanks for the shout! I never knew that the sumac along the roadside is the same that is used in the middle eastern spice zaatar. Thanks for bringing that connection together. Take a piece of pita bread, brush with olive oil, sprinkle with your zaatar spice then toast in the oven on 375 for about 5-7 minutes. Dip in any yogurt dip or smoked eggplant dish. Wonderful!

  2. Sumac is awesome! I wish more people understood the great benefits! Middle eastern spice is great for antibacterial and anti microbial benefits. The staghorn sumac here in the USA was used by the AMERICAN Indians they knew it was full of vitamin C and used it to treat many illnesses! Love it!

  3. Thanks for revealing the truth about the Tree of Heaven. Neighbors about to crash into my house, thought it was sumac. Still an accident waiting to happen.

  4. I live in upstate NY and have been making “Sumac Tea” for years. Great substitute for lemonade and costs nothing, except for whatever you use to sweeten it. So glad my grandmother taught me to identify wild plants and some of their uses. When I was a little kid, she would break icicles off sugar maples at this time of year for me to suck on. (Sweet!) I’ve always let the yard go wild, and fortunately I live in a rural area, so nobody’s going to tell me to mow it! Lots of good stuff growing around the house, including staghorn sumac, tansy, St. John’s wort, elderberries, blackberries and raspberries, mint, catnip… Yes, definitely recommend sumac. I usually put it into cheesecloth first so I don’t have to strain it out, then just give it a good mash and soak as you describe. When it’s strong enough, pull out the cheesecloth with the sumac heads, sweeten and use.

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