You are viewing this article in the archives. For the latest breaking news and updates in Ann Arbor and the surrounding area, see
Posted on Fri, Sep 25, 2009 : 9:30 p.m.

Wildcrafting - Staghorn Sumac and Sumacade

By Linda Diane Feldt

couple pods.jpg

Sumac fruit at Barton Pond

Linda Diane Feldt | Contributor

Local Songwriter Dick Siegel sings about "when the sumac is on fire". And all around us, this conflagration has begun. Staghorn Sumac fruit is a fiery red, and the distinctive leaves are also turning with the fall. Easy to spot, easy to harvest, sumac is a pleasure to see blazing in a field, you can enjoy the sensation of the velvety branches, and be surprised at the taste of the fruit as a seasoning or drink.

sumac goldenrod arb.jpg

Linda Diane Feldt | Contributor

Staghorn Sumac Rhus typhina grows in colonies or clusters in many of the parks and open fields of Ann Arbor. It would be hard to confuse it, other than by name, with Poison Sumac, Rhus vernix. Poison Sumac is found in mostly swampy marshy territory. Stagorn Sumac like drier ground and right now the leaves are turning bright red. It has distinctive red fruit with berries arranged in a cone shape, and the final confirmation that you have the correct plant is that the branches have a thin velvety covering similar to the velvet of a stag's antlers.

many trees.jpg

A colony of Staghorn Sumac

Linda Diane Feldt | Contributor

Last year at this time, I was canoeing on the Huron River with my Foraging Friend. We spotted a cluster of sumac trees along the river, and picked one of the fruits. He put the whole thing into one of our water bottles, and left it in the sun. About an hour later, we enjoyed "sumacade", a lemony refreshing drink.

dried sumac.jpg

Dried Staghorn Sumac Berries

Linda Diane Feldt | Contributor

While the whole fruit pod can be used that way, you can also strip the cone so that you have individual seeds. Dried, these can be used later for sumacade or ground for a unique seasoning. There is a Middle Eastern mix of sumac berries, thyme, salt, and sesame seed that a friend shared with me called Zatar. I just kept wanting more once I had tried it. I first had it sprinkled over a hard boiled egg. But I've enjoyed it the most by sprinkling a piece of bread with olive oil, followed by the Zatar. Amazing. I don't hardly know how to describe the taste, with the heavy herb component, the subtle lemon sumac, a satisfying amount of salt, and the sweet sesame in balance.

There seems to be some difference of opinion about exactly when to harvest the sumac, how strong the sumacade should be, and even if Zatar is better made at home or produced more authentically. And not all versions of Zatar include the ground sumac berry. There are also a variety of ways to spell it. If you are interested in this condiment, I would encourage you to try a Google search to learn more about its history and variations. It can be found in Michigan at Middle Eastern grocery stores. I'm too new to trying different brands to have formed an opinion, perhaps a reader of this blog could help out.

zatar bag and powder.jpg

A bag of imported Zatar, a Middle Eastern spice using dried Staghorn Sumac berries.

Linda Diane Feldt } Contributor

If you want to harvest the sumac berries, the best flavor is before it rains. Rain will wash away a lot of the taste. So it can be a bit of chance to find the fruit just ripe enough, but not yet diluted in flavor. Rather than go by color, I suggest tasting a few berries and decide for yourself if you like the taste. But if you wait too late, you can easily miss the prime harvest time.

You can make the sumacade as we did while canoeing, or more formally as a sun tea. Many people prefer the cold water method, heat can make the flavor turn a bit more acidic and not as naturally sweet. I've made and enjoyed both, and do prefer the cold water technique. Depending on how strong you like it you can let it steep for a few minutes, or a few hours.

I've been experimenting with the dried sumac berries from last year. I've added them to a few simple sauces, sprinkled them on some rice dishes, but mostly used them to make a pleasant and refreshing drink. They retained their flavor nicely even a year later, but I'm ready to replenish my supply.

To dry the berries I separated them from the 6-8 inch clusters, discarding any that weren't in good shape. I spread them in a single layer on a cookie sheet, and left it in the sun for a few hours. My fingers tasted lemony and sweet after working with the berries. I then stored them in a glass jar with a tight fitting lid.

Another more unusual use for the sumac clusters is for bee keeping. Burning the berries in the smoker creates a dense, yet cool smoke that helps control the bees. I dry the whole fruit and use it for that purpose as well, or just collect some over the winter once they are no longer good for eating.

At this time of year, sumac makes a great nibble as you go by, as well as a good plant for storage. And it sure is pretty.

Linda Diane Feldt is a local Holistic health Practitioner, author and teacher. For information on a weed walk class Saturday afternoon October 3 please e-mail ldfeldt (at)