Even those of us who are not intimately acquainted with the wide diversity of useful and beautiful plants that grace our rural and urban landscapes here in southern Ontario (or eastern North America in general for that mater) can at least recognize the staghorn sumac, Rhus typhina, even if they do not know it by name. This characteristic, thicket-forming shrub in the cashew family (Anacardiaceae, which also includes such familiar species as mangoes, poison ivy and pistachios) can be found growing in a wide variety of different but open, sunny habitats including the edges of forests, along dry ridges, invading open meadows and bordering farm fields and railway corridors just to name a few.
Staghorn sumac can be easily identified especially in mid to late summer by it’s long terminal clusters of tightly packed fuzzy red seeds that last well into winter and only begin to lose their red glow and look tired come spring. The long pinnately compound leaflets with pale white undersides that look almost palm-like are also quite hard to miss and stand out from the surrounding foliage. Each individual specimen is short-lived but sends up new shoots from it’s invasive root system that can grow several feet in a single year, making this a very aggressive and successful species, quickly occupying new territory and shading out competitors. The alternating, angular pattern of growth near the ends of the branches coupled with the soft, velvety texture of young twigs vaguely resembles the antlers of a male deer, hence the common name staghorn.
Just in case this wasn’t enough new information for you to absorb today, there’s another secret that the staghorn sumac holds that makes it even more interesting and something that you might want to deliberately seek out. When the seeds, often incorrectly labeled as ‘berries’, are at their peak of redness in late July to mid-August they have a very tangy, sour taste if you pluck one from a cluster and pop it in your mouth. There is barely any flesh attached to the small, hard, round black seed and the majority of the flavor comes from the fuzz surrounding the seeds. This downy coating contains quite a substantial amount of ascorbic acid, commonly known as vitamin C, as well as a few other trace minerals and vitamins.
Due to the lemon-like tart taste of the berries and the convenient, easily harvested clusters that they are produced in, a wonderfully refreshing beverage can be made from the fruit clusters known cleverly as sumac lemonade or simply sumac-aid. Steeping the berries (striped from the long, terminal stem which they all emerge from) in cold clean water for a day or two will produce a pleasantly pink colored drink that resembles iced-tea in flavor but ‘wilder’. I prefer my sumac-aid steeped for around 48 hours with some lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) herb added to it but you could add sugar or lemon juice to sweeten it or modify it however you like. An important thing to know is that you should never use boiled water to speed up the steeping process of the sumac as hot water will extract tannins from the berries and produce an astringent, puckering drink that is not nearly as palatable as when the berries are steeped in cool water over a long period of time. Unfortunately, in the case of sumac-aid among many other of nature’s pleasures, good things come to those that wait.
It is, however, fairly easy to get a good system going where you can drink a little bit of sumac-aid every day and while you are enjoying your today’s beverage you can have more steeping that you will be able to enjoy tomorrow. The fruit clusters will remain in fairly good condition for several weeks and can even be harvested into September from a few shrubs that happened to have ripened their fruit later on. Later in the season however, the berry clusters become infested with bugs and therefore become significantly less appetizing to some folks, although to me the insect larvae merely adds some additional protein to the mix! If you are reading this post shortly after it was written (19th August 2014) then make sure to get out into the field soon to get your fix of sumac lemonade this year! It’s one of those things you won’t fall in love with and understand the appeal unless you try it for yourself. I don’t think it is an overstatement to say that there is probably more vitamin C readily available right now then at any other time of the year!