Tuesday, September 13, 2011


Winged sumac bob
Sumac shrubs [Rhus sp.] are invasive around here [southern Indiana].    They grow from the root rhizomes - like iris do - to form large clonal colonies.  The short trees get about 15 feet tall when they're really happy.  The branches ooze a white sap when cut.  The good news is that they're attractive and the ripe red berries are very useful. 

The branches bloom and form dense clusters of red berries, called 'drupes'.  The name 'sumac' comes from the Old Arabic word for 'red'.  The cut branches make a beautiful fall arrangement that will dry on its own and last for months.  The dried drupes have been used throughout the world as a cooking seasoning [sumach] and they are very popular in middle eastern cooking.   We harvest the drupes to make the best lemonade you can imagine.

There are three common varieties of sumac here:  Smooth sumac [Rhus glabra], Winged sumac [Rhus copallina] and Staghorn sumac [Rhus typhina].   Staghorn stems and drupes are covered with fine velvety hairs.  Winged sumac has little wings that grow up along the twigs between sets of leaves. Smooth sumac is .... smooth.   No hairy stems or drupes.  The red drupes of the smooth sumac are often covered with a milky or waxlike substance - it's delicious!

Note:   A lot of people freak out about these plants, believing that all sumac is the poison sumac.   Poison sumac has white or gray berries - 'Berries white, take flight!'.   Not red berries.  Not red berries covered with milky wax.   It's easy to tell these plants apart.   Really easy.  

Winged sumac with bobs
Sumac spice.  To harvest the drupes to use as a spice later, cut the clusters, called 'bobs' and lay them on screens or sheets to dry.   When the drupes are good and dry, rub them off the twig and put them in jars.  Save the little hairs of staghorn sumac - they're tasty! This spice lasts for a long time.

Smooth and winged sumac drupes are often waxy or covered with a milky substance.  The best flavor is in that wax but it's tricky to get it dry enough to store.    Be patient.  Keep them in a very dry place.

Lemonade.  Our favorite way to use sumac is in lemonade.   Here's how:

Sumac bobs soaking for lemonade
Cut the bobs - the waxiest ones you can find - oozing the white stuff over the red [or purplish] drupes.  [If you're using staghorn sumac, then go for the hairiest ones - that's where the flavor is.] Remove all the leaves.  Do NOT wash the berries - you'll wash the flavor off.

Pack the bobs into glass gallon jugs - pack them tightly.   Fill with cool water and set them in the sun for a few hours.   If the weather is cool and cloudy, then use lukewarm water and soak them overnight.  

Note:  Do NOT fill the jars to the top.   As they soak, the bobs release bubbles and the jar will overflow if the water level is too high.   You might want to put the jar in a dish to catch the overflow. 

After a few hours, the water will be a beautiful light amber color.   Strain the water through a fine mesh tea sieve as you pour it out of the jar.  It will be cloudy for a while.  Don't worry about that.  We got just over 2 quarts of juice from each of these jars.

Add 1 to 1 1/2 cups of sugar to sweeten [to taste].  Stir well and enjoy.   This is the best lemonade ever.  I much prefer it to regular lemonade. 

Sumac lemonade
Freezing.   I have had excellent success freezing the juice and using it months later to make lemonade with.    If you can spare the freezer space, it's worth freezing the juice.

Concentrate:  To concentrate the juice, soak a gallon of bobs the first day, then use that same water to soak another gallon of bobs.   Remember, the longer you concentrate, the more likely you are to introduce bad stuff into the water.   I don't concentrate unless I'm going to cook with it and it will be pasteurized in the cooking.

Canning.   I have tried to can sumac juice so that I wouldn't have to use my scarce freezer space for juice.  I concentrated the juice, then I boiled it and put it into jars and processed them for canning.   It worked beautifully - but the flavor was changed in a significant way.   I don't like the cooked juice nearly as much as I like the fresh juice.    If I want to preserve sumac juice, I'm going to freeze it.

Experimenting.  I used some of the concentrate to make sumac jelly and to make sumac lemonade bars [with a lemon bar recipe].   In both cases, the wonderful subtle flavor of the juice was lost.   The sugar overwhelmed the flavors and the finished product was unimpressive and too sweet.  

Other uses.  Sumac leaves have a lot of tannin in them.   Rumor has it that they're good for dyeing and will give either a yellow dye or grey dye depending on the fiber and mordant.   Someday soon, I'm going to use the berries to dye with.   I'll let you know how it turns out. 


  1. Fascinating, and I'm looking forward to hearing about the dye.

  2. Finding sunshine no matter where you look. I LOVE it!!!!!!


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