With vivid red berries and exotic leaves, staghorn sumac is distinct and recognizable along the roadside. My dad, who had solar hot water in the 70’s, collected wild onion, kept a few chickens and was generally up for what was called “back to the earth” stuff, would point out the dark-red sumac fruit. “Loaded with vitamin C,” was his comment, but we never stopped and picked, and the large colonies edging our family’s fields were left for the birds. He experimented with lots of things, including some explosive apple wine, so I don’t know why sumac never appeared at our table. I have been passing the lovely spires each August on the way to work, and realized it was time to give it a try.
Identification is pretty simple, not much else looks like staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina). In spite of having a name similar to poison sumac, there is no connection. A common roadside plant, staghorn sumac has compound leaves, and is either male or female. The males have a greenish flower, the females have the crimson spires. The young growth is covered with a soft fuzz, like the velvet on deer antlers, which is why it is called satghorn.
Something called sumac-ade seemed the easiest way to taste this wild edible, so I gathered enough clusters to make some, and a few extra to dry as a spice. Collecting is easy. The stalks are quite strong, and although I could snap the berry heads, called drupes, with my hands, a pair of garden clippers worked best. Standing under a canopy of delicate fern-like leaves, the sun made this year’s fruit stand out, crimson against a brilliant summer sky.
There were also clusters as dark as dried blood from last years’ crop. Each spire consists of many tiny, dry, fuzzy seeds. I nibbled a few and spat them out, they were like tart sawdust. Knee deep in grass–there was no other undergrowth– the quiet in the midst of the colony made me long to curl up for a few minutes. I could have picked my drupes in minutes and been off, but the open space beneath the branches drew me in and I lingered.
The fine hairs and soft shades of red and pink and yellow of the spires are as lovely as any hot house flower, and I took a few pieces to grace the dining table.
I put my drupes in a pitcher of cold water, and placed it in the sun, just like making sun tea. Three hours later the water was barely tinted, and had no flavor from the plant. Perhaps they sumac had not fully ripened, although the ones I picked were a deep rich color.
I didn’t dump it, I just left it there. Late the following afternoon, I saw it had developed a deep red-gold color. I poured some through a yogurt strainer into a glass. It was clear and sparkling. The raves I had read online led me to expect a strong sassy flavor. It was mild, but I was not disappointed. It had a soft subtlety, like the herb-infused waters I am so fond of—lavender water, elderflower water, and now sumac water. I think sumac-ade is not appropriate.
I will pick again later this season, and maybe next time I will get the intense lemonade substitute I have read about. But until then I will sip my delicate infusion, laced with visions of a secluded sanctuary under the sumac canopy.