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.
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.
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!
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!