Posted: July 27, 2023
The name “sumac” often evokes thoughts of poison sumac and general itchiness. But poison sumac (Toxicodendron vernix) is actually more closely related to poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) than staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) despite the shared common name.
Staghorn sumac can be differentiated from poison sumac through a variety of characteristics. Both can grow fairly tall (~20 feet) and have pointy, alternate, compound leaves, however, they have very different habitat needs. You’ve most certainly seen large stands of staghorn sumac with their cones of bright red berry clusters along the highway or in other dry roadside areas, while poison sumac is almost always found in wetlands. In addition to where they grow, these plants can be distinguished based on flower arrangement: staghorn sumac flowers (and the subsequent berry clusters) grow upright at the terminal ends of branches, while poison sumac flowers hang downward below the leaf axils. Staghorn sumac also gets its name from the fuzziness of its stems – thought to resemble the velvet on new deer antlers; poison sumac, on the other hand, has smooth branches. Finally, the berries produced by staghorn sumac are red and fuzzy, while the berries produced by poison sumac are greenish-white and smooth.
It is the red fuzzy berries of staghorn sumac that make a pretty excellent wild edible, with a tart citrusy flavor. The individual berries are about 1/8 inch in diameter, but entire berry clusters can be harvested (no need to pluck individual berries) once they have turned dark red in mid- to late summer by snipping them off at the base. Note that rain will wash away the acids that give the sumac its lemony flavor, so avoid harvesting immediately after a rain. To test whether the berries are ready for harvesting I lick my finger to get it wet, rub it on the surface of the berries and then lick my finger again – the flavor should be fairly tart or sour. If the taste test is mild or flavorless, wait or find another stand of sumac to pick from.
To prepare your “sumac-ade” or “Rhus juice”, a beautiful pink drink with a lemony taste, break the berry clusters apart in a large bowl or pitcher, then fill the container with water. Stir the berries around in the liquid for a minute to mix thoroughly and ensure good surface exposure. Some books recommend letting it sit for 15-30 minutes, but I always leave mine soaking over night. The next day I pour the liquid off through a coffee filter to strain out all the little hairs that were on the berries. What’s left can be consumed as is, or sweetened to taste. Enjoy!
Written by Elise Leduc-Fleming, WLT Executive Director