How (and Why) to Eat Sumac

When you say you’re going to eat sumac, people often respond with worry. “That’s poisonous!” they say. They are thinking of poison sumac, which is related but looks very different. Poison sumac has smooth leaves and spaced out white berries, while edible sumac has tightly clumped red ones and jagged, toothy leaves (as above). The species pictured is an edible one, Rhus typhina, known as staghorn sumac. It was growing in direct sunlight near my apartment on a shrub that was 10 feet tall with a fuzzy stalk. (Well, sort of like Britney circa 2001, it was more than a shrub, but not quite a tree).

I took that photo of a sumac fruit a couple days ago. This afternoon, the tree/shrub was gone.

I was out walking my dog, Petunia, when I saw a neighbor cutting down the landscaping outside his house. I (politely) intercepted. He pointed me to the debris pile and I was able to dig out the fruit before they ended up in the city’s yard-waste collection bin, fortunately. My plan is to do what Middle Eastern chefs do and dry the berries, and then grind them up into a spice powder that lasts all year without refrigeration. I could then sprinkle it on rice, hummus, kebabs, etc. Sumac tastes slightly sour, tart and citrus-like, very similar to a lemon.

Drying sumac, spread out on a shelf

Sumac is native to the Mediterranean. It now grows here in the States — often as an ornamental — in the northern and middle parts of the country from coast to coast. Sumac contains calcium, potassium, magnesium, citric acid and antioxidants, according to this plant physiology study conducted by the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. Sumac bark is useful medicinally as an astringent tea for anti-diarrhea purposes. It’s also antibacterial. You can read more about medicinal applications here.

Another thing you could do with sumac fruit: Make a lemonade substitute by immersing the berries in cold water, rubbing them to release the juice, and then leaving them for several hours to soak and infuse into the water. Then strain and drink it. You could freeze the liquid in ice cube trays and use it year-round like lemon juice. “Wildman” Steve Brill’s Wild Vegan Cookbook offers several interesting recipes for sumac concentrate.

Sumac on a highway one winter in New York, missing its warm-weather leaves.


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43 thoughts on “How (and Why) to Eat Sumac

  1. Pingback: How and Why to Eat Sumac | First Ways | Sundry Information

  2. We have tons of Sumac along the bike trails in London Ontario Canada, I think I will try it soon ,and see what it is like. Rene

  3. Thanks for the book rec! I love Steve Brills’ app (Wild Edibles- full version $9.99 and a free lite version) and use it all the time, I didn’t know he wrote a book. I just got a bunch of sumac from a medicinal herb CSA I belong to and am not sure how to dry it. Do you recommend breaking it up like you showed in the picture?

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  6. This is excellent! I remember when I was real little going and playing in the woods with my friends we used to pick this just because it was the perfect addition to our “soup” in the puddles :) I remember putting my fingers in my mouth afterwards (b/c what kid doesn’t… ) and thinking it tasted like a sour patch kid. We have these all over the place in upstate NY and now I know what I can do with them. Thanks a bunch!

  7. I just found your post by Googling about using the local Staghorn sumac berries in Mediterranean cooking. Thank you for clearing up my worries in using what is so abundant in in my locale. I have missed the window of opportunity this year, but will be in active pursuit of this plants seed heads next fall!
    Thanks!~Lynda

  8. I’ve always loved sumac and have nibbled on the berries while hiking. I’d like to plant some in my backyard in WI, but I have dogs and I wonder if the berries are poisonious to them? My mastiff will eat anything on the ground, so my large backyard is mostly grass. I’ve googled far and wide trying to find this answer. Perhaps you know?? Thanks for supporting this splendid shrub.

      • There are many things such as chocolate etc that dogs are intolerate of and before planting items in their play ground I just like to make sure they are safe to plant in case my pups ingest them.

      • Hmm that’s true about chocolate. Dogs can take most herbs people can take, which is fortunate. I would suggest asking a holistic veterinarian, or maybe even reaching out to Greg Tilford, the herbalist who wrote “Herbs for Pets.” (I looked in the book for you and it’s not mentioned).

  9. hey great post. i was wandering if all types of sumac (aside from poison sumac of course) are edible and can be used as the spice. i think i have winged sumac growing wild in my yard and was just curios. also how did the sumac you dried turn out?

  10. I had no idea what we call “summaq” in Syria is the same as edible sumac until recently! And here I’ve been bringing some back in my suitcase whenever I go. Well, now I have my very own Rhus typhina in my front yard. Yay me! Although it hasn’t started producing yet, my neighbors recently moved to a new house nearby that AMAZINGLY had a very large mature TREE in their backyard. So I have my first berries to harvest and dry myself. Thanks for this post. I was happy and amazed to see that there are so many people out there who have an awareness of “summaq.” Up til now, people have looked at me with blank faces when I talk about it. Gotta love the world wide interweb!

  11. In my dendrology classes i was taught that it is smooth sumac and winged sumac. Now down here in the deep, deep south sumac is every where but as far as i can tell we do not have poison sumac.well not in the state of Arkansas , Im sure some one will debate this .If you can prove to me and take me to the poison sumac shrub i will gladly rebuke my statement. An for the young man (The Greek Geek) if you truly want to learn plants .I suggest you start out with the trees of your area.The trees and shrubs are a bit easier to learn at first.I would then start with your regional flora , and then you can study the grasses the grasses make up a huge part of the plant kingdom. Now i have been studing plants for almost 30 yrs. Im no damn expert …but i can get by pretty damn well in the bushes . I know you are going to say you have gone to college and studied plants and trees ,yes i did but school only helps you to structure your studies. Now you get as many books as you want geek . but it only takes a few good regional guides. plus miss Rebecca has this most fabulous blog .Go to different Universitys i know some give classes on plants to the public for free or a small fee. Go to nature centers they are usually free. Find someone to forage with and then come back to this blog or website and post .And guess what i took all those plant class for fun , Im a Artist with a minor in plant bio. And i hated math, bio. classes , and chem was B.S. ….Now i draw an paint plants an mushrooms ,but not for a living.I only wish. Any how anyone can do it on his or her own but find a friend or friends and things are more fun to learn and you learn faster with help. O yea you must learn the scientific names , no way out of it ,,,,,,good luck geek . thank you again miss Rebecca i truly love your site.

  12. When I was a kid living in East Texas, it grow wild all over the place. My neighbors and I would run around like little heathens sampling all of the goods nature provided. Sumac was one of our favorites; you just pulled the cluster off and suck on the little red berries one at a time. It was like sucking on bitter candy. Like muscadine grapes, we never ate the fruit, just sucked the entire flavor out. I loved my childhood!

  13. Hi Becky hi everyone. I looke up in a lot plant books rhus typhina is escriped as toxic. i found it ornamentel in zuürich nd heidelberg.whis is useable which is toxic?

  14. Nice idea about the powder. You have a dried acid for many uses. I just made the drink. I wonder if it can stand in for cream of tartar with baking soda? We had so much rain this year, and the fruit has not had any bite. Not sure if this season will work out. I had a few shoots this year too, but it seems of the two varieties, only the smooth one isn’t bitter.

    • Hi Nancy,
      Thanks for the link to your sumac post. I agree the leaves on the tree by you and the one by me do look different, though the fruit looks the same. Perhaps we’re dealing with different species. Might yours be smooth sumac rather than staghorn? They’re both edible and the fruits look about the same. Here’s a photo of smooth sumac leaves: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Rhus_glabra_nf.jpg

  15. Thanks for the information. I live in an area of Maine where sumac is considered a pest due to its ability to form huge clumps which can overtake wild areas. As a grounds-keeper for my town, I was required to wear gloves and long sleeves while cutting it back. The requirement was based on a belief that even staghorn sumac can cause a skin rash when in continual contact with the fuzzy bark. I sit looking out my window at my neighbor’s 20ft tall stand, considering asking permission to harvest some berries. How can you tell the berries are ready to harvest? And, are the berries fuzzy? They certainly look fuzzy from a distance…

    • Yes, they are fuzzy. They’re not like regular berries. I wouldn’t try eating them right off the tree because of the texture (it’d be safe, just unappetizing). When do you harvest them? Generally late summer or fall. The “Peterson Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants of Eastern/Central North America” says take them before heavy rains come and wash out the acids inside. They can also get moldy. In Portland it gets rainy in November, so I’d do it before then.

  16. Weird. Staghorn sumac is not native to Oregon, unless I am mistaken — which is possible. It is everywhere in the East, though, and I love making sumac-ade. Learned the trick from Euell Gibbons’ books…

  17. Dear Becky, i now remember while research that my persian friend from belrin used sumac powder for some thing.im still on a challang on how to care on my herbs i have here, proper. and care proper about me….. probably sumac is also growing here where i live in middle south west germany. Still i fear the lots of pollution here. i fascinated cause US has also a lot pollution and still you going for wild plants. that amazing. maybe the things are in a flow. that everything heal in it way up. and you go with the stream.

    i see a lot poisonous gardenplants or decoration plants or planted walls also the yew tree. beside yew otherp lants and most of them are poisonous. the yew berrie. only the red jelly the seed is also very poisonous.

    I ask probalby all this plants who are poisonous are in a medical healing effect or maybe they are even useable after cooking or preparing them in a special way.

    If the soil is sick and ill. and in inbalance. the plant can be edible. im more and more think how to get balance again. this is a politic thing also. cause the landowner soemtimes wanna changes and osmetimes maybe not.?

    Whatever. so far buidl building roads and houses is more important than healthy wild plants. edible plants are only a choice for some places. And later or later we have to get all this toxins out we eat with the wild edibles. This wild edibles are limited in filtering toxins afters this they are load with toxins.

    toxins from construction pollution from cars adn mashines and factories.

    As well the use of wild edibles connect ourself with the region. in a state of being mobile and on a run to flight form a situation. i feel its good to connect less. And be more in a just accepting relationship. Its also ok to just let the plant. And avoid touching or gathering it. it keeps a distance and respect. Also for a plkant a no is a no and maybe means as well no in a situation of unclearness.

    For Sumac. Im thank ful for your post. my persian friend has this sumac powder. i think he told its for a cold. or something. there is a lot on the local markets there. does petunia mean money in latin. its also a botanical name of a plant isnt it.

    Whatever.

    thank you for the latin name. i looked it up. And i found it the “Essigbaum” what is translated the vinegar tree. And from the german wikipedia its a Native American plant. ITs also used in anciet times by native americans. So im a bit confused is it now a neophyt coming from mediteranian area or is it a native american plant used by native americans in old days?!
    http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Essigbaum#Verwendung

    Still this german article on wikipedia says that all plant parts are toxic. Also the article doubt the toxicness of the Rhus typhina.So it still seem to be a secret. and maybe its toxic mayxbe not im still in a doubt cause different sources are in doubt to themselve.

    Can a plant be poisonous if its grown in a different purpose? As example i can grow cabage as a flower to decorate the garden or i can grow it as a vegetable. Is the decorational cabagge more poisonous as the vegetables cabagge. Cause of fertilizers and the way it is grown. Is it harmful to eat of “as used to be” edible plants. Plant which were used to be edible in old times and now are grown in a decorative gardening version. Does this breeding of plants change the ediblity of the plants. ….

    • Lakka,

      Thanks for your thoughtful response.

      On whether the ornamental version of a given plant is as edible as a wild version: It is really a case-by-case basis. Often they are, like with rose hips. Then again sometimes different species of the same plant can be toxic. Really depends on the specific plant in question.

      As for the sumac question — for a plant to be native to a different continent doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a recent immigrant to the US.

      Urban plants are not necessarily polluted and contaminated. Depends on the soil, depends on the air, depends on what the plant absorbs and how much. Getting a plant from a neighbor’s yard is a lot like eating plants from a garden.

  18. Thanks for using botanical name with common names, it makes it much easier and safer for people! my grand parents had this in their yard and I didn’t know what it was, I was told they were poisonous and around these parts,Tasmania they have removed most of them! all these years I could have been enjoying them, I love learning new things, I will be searching for them now! thanks again!

  19. Sounds wonderful! And thank you for the information about that plant.

    I haven’t found it yet in Southern California so I use wild berries I forage from the local mountain like Lemonade berries, Squaw and Manzanita Berries.

    Lemonade berries can be used pretty much the same way.

    Keep up the good work!!!!!!

    Pascal

  20. You know, this stuff is pretty cool. Thou I cant afford the nature walks here in southern California to teach me which is editable. Most of them want like 75-100 bucks. The only thing I have tried from the wild here is dandelions. They taste pretty good wish some ranch on them. Are there any good books with really good pictures, not sketches that you recommend.

    I want to also try that foraging near the ocean for things like seaweed and crayfish. Are there any good things by the ocean that would be good to forage besides those two things?

    Keep up the good work!

  21. Excellent post!. Sumac tea was a favorite of mine years ago when I was a summer camp nauralist back in Western N.Y. And I still work in that plant, and the story about posion sumac when I write my hiking columns. One day I must ‘do the spices’ from the sumac.
    Jonathan

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