Nancy Helms, UM Extension Master Gardener in Anoka County
Growing up in Minnesota, sumac was everywhere, in people's yards and on the hillsides. The red berries added color to the landscape and its leaves were the first harbinger of fall, turning bright red. The best hiding spots for hide and seek were under the sumac branches. But that was about as much thought as I ever gave this roadside bush until I heard about the wonderful benefits and uses for the berries. Sumac is now one of my favorite wild edibles.
Sumac extract tastes slightly sour, something like a lemon. The beautiful blush color of rose wine and the citrus-like flavor make it the perfect starter for a summer refresher high in vitamin C, sumac-ade. It is one of the easiest beverages to make.
Start by harvesting the berries. There is almost certainly a bush growing near you. The shrub can grow into a small tree as tall as ten feet. Sumac with white berries is poisonous, so be certain you only use one of the many varieties of red sumac.
They are easily identifiable. There will be red cones of tight berries pointing skyward that are fuzzy to the touch, called drupes or sumac bobs. A hand pruner will easily remove them. Gather as soon as the berries turn red, usually late summer. As with all fruiting trees and shrubs, harvesting the berries will not harm the shrub.
If left on the bush too long, or after a heavy rain, they lose their flavor. The tangy flavor comes from water-soluble crystals that cover the berries. Rain will wash them off over time. Do not wash the berry cones after you harvest them. Simply submerge them in a bowl or jar of water. Swish them vigorously and allow them to soak at least 15-30 minutes. Strain the liquid through a very fine sieve, a coffee filter, or several layers of cheesecloth. Sweeten to taste, serve chilled, and enjoy.
The flavor is somewhere between lemonade and cranberry juice with a lovely pink color. Six heads of berries makes a nice pitcher of sumac-ade. It may take a bit of experimenting to get the correct amount of fruit to use but it can always be tamed down by adding more water. The unsweetened extract can be frozen in ice cube trays and used all year long, wherever you would use lemon in sauces or marinades. This is an especially good substitute if you suffer from citrus allergies.
You can also make hot sumac tea. Simply cover berry cones with boiling water and let them sit for 10-15 minutes. Sweeten to taste with honey. Refrigerate the rest for later. The same process can be done with simple syrup rather than water. The resulting syrup is delicious as part of a cocktail with club soda and vodka.
The sumac bush may look like just another roadside shrub to many, but now you know the secret. Begin foraging and enjoy one of nature's prolific bounties.
For more information on red sumac and other edible fruits, see: http://www.extension.umn.edu/garden/yard-garden/fruit/docs/MN-Wild-Edible-Fruit.pdf