A quick disclaimer, any time you are harvesting wild edibles, please make sure to positively identify the plant, there are many very poisonous plants growing naturally, and it is up to you to make sure you are certain of what you are picking. Please check out http://www.poison-sumac.org/ for more information on identifying staghorn sumac VS poison sumac.
I love finding wild edibles, from eating dandelion flowers, to finding a nice patch of black rasberries. I also actively learn how to identify wild edibles in my area, while I would still consider myself a beginner at identifying plants I try to add more to my knowledge as often as I can.
I have been reading about how to make a drink from the berries on a sumac tree and that sounded like a really fun idea, I tried making pine needle tea last year and that turned out good, why not sumac? However, I keep putting it off because I was afraid of getting my hands on poison sumac and being in a world of hurt. Each time I mention making sumac tea to other people I get the same response, “Isn’t that poisonous?”.
In short no its not poisonous. After doing some research I found that around our area (Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York) there are two main types of sumac, poison sumac and staghorn sumac. If you ask someone to point out sumac, they will always point out staghorn sumac, that is the one most people recognize as being sumac. Actually after doing some research into it I found out that poison sumac looks nothing like staghorn sumac.
Staghorn Sumac Berries (Not Poisonous)
Poison Sumac Berries (Poisonous)
Now armed with the knowledge of how to tell staghorn from poison sumac I was ready to try it. You have to wait until the berries are red to harvest them, and you should also make sure it hasn’t rained in a few days (more on that in a bit). I found some sumac out at one of the parks that I walk Madison at and I stopped before work and grabbed five of the heads off the sumac tree. After I got home, dropped the berry heads into a mixing bowl full of cold water and I squeezed the heads a bit to try and get the water through them (they have a velvet over them, they seem almost waterproof). I then just let the bowl with the berry heads sit out for about 5 hours. After it had finished sitting, I squeezed the berry heads one more time and then tossed them. Next I strained the water through several layers of cheescloth into a pitcher and put it in the fridge. That is really all there is to making sumac tea.
After the tea was cold again I very hesitantly took a sip, half expecting it to kill me (I have spent years viewing that tree as being poisonous!) and low and behold, it was pretty good. Another name for this is Indian Lemonade, and I think that is much more fitting than calling it tea. It is pretty tart, the batch I made tastes a bit like watered down lemonade (the made from scratch stuff, not powdered). I think there are a couple things I can do to make it stronger next time:
- I have read a couple places about sitting your bowl of water out in the sun while it is steeping, I think that would help. However a quick note, never boil it, boiling the berry heads will release tannins into the water (which will make the drink very bitter).
- Next time I will be adding more berry heads to the water, it seems the more the merrier on this one. Also another quick note, when you are steeping the sumac, use a wide shallow bowl instead of a pitcher, the berry heads float very well and I don’t think they would work well stacked on top of each other.
- Next time I am going to wait for a dry spell of at least a week before picking the berry heads, it had just rained the day before I picked these. Much of the tart taste comes from a coating on the outside of the berries, so if its rained recently then the tartness will have been washed off. Also along the same lines, you don’t rinse off the berry heads before you put it in the water to steep.
So to sum it up, I am very happy with my sumac tea. I will be making it as often as I can as it was so much fun, it was really an easy process as well. The staghorn sumac has really gotten a bad rap because another plant with the same name happens to be poisonous, however spending just a few minutes familiarizing yourself with the differences and you can enjoy a truly unique beverage!