Staghorn Sumac


Fairview Town Crier
Roger Klinger

Staghorn Sumac is one of the more common and lovely shrubs seen along roadsides and open thickets in western North Carolina. It is easy to recognize with its clusters of brilliant red, cone shaped berry clusters that are a gorgeous addition to the stark winter landscape and they provide a wonderful addition to the wild edibles culinary taste bud menu.

Recently I went for a winter hike on a frigid, crystal clear day off the Blue Ridge Parkway. The air was so cold and crisp and the morning light was luminous. I stopped to drink in the beauty of the mountain views and noticed a large stand of staghorn sumac covering a hillside. There were about fifty 6-10 foot shrubs clustered together as sumacs usually spread and propagate from long underground runners along with the berries which are a favorite of many wild birds. The sunlight had set the red clusters of berries on fire but I soon saw a sight that took my breath away as there were over a dozen bluebirds darting in and out of the sumacs, feasting on the tasty berries. The contrast of electric blue and crimson red berries was a glorious sight.

sumac girlBluebirds, robins, mockingbirds and other bird species depend on wild berries as part of their diet. Humans have also used sumac berries for centuries. Many people panic when they hear me talking about using sumac berries either as a decoration or a food source as all they can think about is poison sumac which does indeed cause a very nasty allergic reaction similar to poison ivy but the good news is it is simple to distinguish between the edible and poisonous varieties of sumac. Poison sumac has drooping clusters of white berries and prefers moist habitats whereas ALL species of edible sumac have red berries.

In our herb pantry, we have two small containers of ground red sumac that we bought at a Lebanese market in California. Sumac is frequently used in Middle East cooking on meats and we enjoy it sprinkled lightly on fish and rice as it adds a tangy, lemony twist.

sumac leaf and berryThe sour flavor reminds most people of lemon and one of the nicknames for red sumac is “Indian Lemonade.” I had my first taste of this delicious beverage when I was nineteen on a backpacking trip in West Virginia. The trail we were on crossed a railroad track and there was a large stand of staghorn sumac growing on the embankment. It had been hot and dry  for several days so it was the perfect time for harvesting the berries. We clipped 7 big cone shaped clusters of red sticky seedheads and tied them onto our packs. Later that day, when we were setting up camp, we squeezed each head to bruise the berries and dropped them into a pot of boiling water, adding some maple syrup as a sweetener. A few hours later we had a cup of delicious sumac tea that tasted just like lemonade! The key to harvesting sumac berries is to make sure it has not rained for a few days as water rinses off the acidic ingredients that are prized in sumac. I found out the hard way, pun intended, that the ground sumac powder one finds in mid eastern markets comes from a different species of sumac than the ones we have here. The berries of red sumacs growing in North America have hard stony seeds inside the berries and one has to work a bit harder to grind them into a powder winnowing and separating the tasty chaff from the hard seed kernels.

The young shoots of sumac can be used as a potherb and make a tasty vegetable. Sumac is exceptionally high in vitamin C and has also has a long history as a valuable medicinal pant. Sumac is an astringent and has been used in herbal medicine as a tonic and as an antiseptic. Native Americans chewed the root to treat swollen and infected gums and applied sumac compresses to burns and cuts as it helped stop bleeding and reduced inflammation.

A word of caution- Sumac is related to cashews and mangoes so if one has an allergy to either of these plant species, it would be wise to avoid the use of sumac as a wild edible plant.