Friday, August 24, 2012

Foraging Sumac- Edible Wild Plant

Having grown up in a climate completely different than the one I live in now, and having only really taken up foraging seriously lately (as in the past year or two), there aren't many things that I forage now that I foraged growing up.
Sumac, though, is one of the exceptions.
We used to go to Six Flags amusement park on a semi regular basis with my family as a kid. While waiting on line for the roller coasters, I remember my mother pointing out sumac trees growing on the other side of the fence. She'd reach over and pick some sumac clusters, and we'd suck them, puckering our lips at their sourness, while waiting for our turn on the ride.
We didn't just eat sumac at the amusement park though; my mother actually purchased sumac as a spice from the grocery store, and she'd use it to make a delicious chicken with onions.

"Hold on a second," I can hear you asking, "Isn't sumac poisonous? Why are you telling us to eat it?"

Yes, and no.

It's a case of mistaken identity. Or rather cousins.

Poison sumac, poison ivy, and poison oak are all related to edible sumac, but edible sumac is another plant entirely, looks very different, and is very much edible; it has been used for culinary and medicinal purposes by natives of the regions in which they grow for thousands of years. Speaking of which, edible sumac doesn't grow all over the world, but it grows in North America, Europe, the Mediterranean Basin, and the Middle East, and possibly other areas, but I don't know for certain.  Sumac, rhus in Latin, is a close relative of the pistachio and the cashew.

Staghorn sumac from Hunger 
and Thirst For Life Blog.
The sumac variety that grows near me is tanner's sumac (rhus cariara), so the majority of the pictures in this post will be of that variety, but the edible varieties growing in the US are staghorn sumac (rhus typhina), smooth sumac (rhus glabra), fragrant sumac (rhus aromatica), desert/littleleaf sumac (rhus microphylla), lemonade sumac (rhus integrifolia), sugar sumac (rhus ovata), and possibly some others.

The common trait that the edible sumac plants have that distinguishes them from poison sumac is this- edible sumac has reddish, brownish, or purplish berries which are edible. Poison sumac's berries are white. I bolded that and will repeat that point to make it clear- red sumac is edible, white sumac is poison. With that difference in mind, let us proceed.

So, how do you identify sumac?
Well, while I can't say this is true for every variety of sumac, this is what my local sumac and many others look like.
Sumac is a bush or a short tree, usually with branches growing in all different directions. They have branches with little leaves/leaflets on each side of the branch, growing in pairs, with one leaf slightly above the other. At the end of each branch is a leaf growing perpendicular to the other leaves. Each leaf is notched, so the edges look zig-zagged.

But the main identifying characteristic of sumac is its red, maroon, magenta or brown fruit, called drupes, that grow in clusters on the branches. In my opinion, these clusters look not unlike upside down clusters of grapes. Each of these drupes have a hard seed in the middle (which is what drupe really means- fleshy fruit around a hard seed). The drupes of my local sumac are each roughly a drop larger than the size of a peppercorn, and each cluster is between 3 and 6 inches tall, but other varieties of sumac have slightly larger drupes and much larger clusters.
When ripe, the drupes are somewhat wet and sticky. Most varieties of sumac have fuzzy fruit, but the smooth sumac's fruit are smooth (hence the name smooth sumac).
The berries tend to be ripe in the summer.

Sumac, being a good source of vitamin C, imparts a very sour, lemony taste to dishes. Sumac is typically dried, ground, and sold as a spice, especially in Middle Eastern markets. (You can also buy sumac on Amazon.com.) Sumac is used in the Middle Eastern spice mix called za'atar, together with herbs (often hyssop, but sometimes other herbs), sesame seeds, and salt, to make a really delicious spice mix, often eaten with pita bread.

There are many other dishes that can be made with sumac as well. Kebabs are often made with sumac, as is fish, rice, chicken, and many other dishes. I've seen an onion and sumac salad (looking something like this) being served as a condiment in felafel shops. I've made a terrific chicken called musakhan that is made with sumac. My friend, Butter, even makes her applesauce with sumac. Many people make drinks with sumac. So many sumac recipes out there!

Some delicious foods I've made with sumac-


 The question is- how do you start with what you have on the tree and end up with a spice usable for cooking?

I have to thank Butter for cluing me in on how to do this.

1. To make sumac spice, you first lay your sumac out to dry. I lay mine out on newspaper that I put in a box, which I left open so it had good access to air. Every few days I mix around the sumac, so that the whole thing dries.

2. Once the berry clusters are dry, either all the way, or somewhat, stick the whole cluster into a food processor (but remove all leaves first).

3. Process for a few minutes. This will break apart the fruit of the sumac, chopping it up, but leaving the seeds intact.

4. Put the sumac into a mesh strainer and sift. This is the sumac spice that I sifted out, and now use in my recipes. If I wanted to, I could have ground it further in my coffee grinder, but I see no reason to do so.

This is what remained behind in my strainer after sifting. I stick this back in my food processor and repeat steps 3 and 4 until I get out as much of the sumac spice as I can.

What remains behind, I set aside for use in another recipe, which I'll write about tomorrow.

Apparently, according to a survival video I watched, you can roast and grind the sumac seeds and eat them, but I've never tried it myself. Sumac berries can also be used as a dye.

So glad I was able to find it growing locally. Why don't you go out and go look for some sumac today?

P.S. One note of caution. While sumac is NOT poisonous, there are some people who are allergic to sumac as a spice, so be cautious the first time you use it, making sure that you aren't sensitive to this spice.

P.P.S. If you'd like to read about how sumac can be used medicinally, read some more here.

Have you ever eaten anything with sumac before? If so, what was the dish made with sumac? Have you ever cooked with sumac or seen sumac being sold as a spice? Ever seen sumac growing wild and foraged it? 
Would you feel comfortable foraging sumac after this description, or does the fact that a poison sumac exist make you wary of foraging it, even with the reassurances that poison sumac has white berries and edible sumac has red/brown berries?

Linking up to Monday Mania, Homestead Barn Hop, Allergy Free WednesdayReal Food Wednesday 


  1. Thanks! We're off to pick some tomorrow.

  2. I have been trying to decide whether or not dried sumac would be a good replacement for the citrus in a Midwestern-style crawfish boil, where citrus is not native. Some articles seem to suggest that boiling the sumac can cause it to become tannic. Thoughts?

    1. I have used hot water twice to make sumac-ade and it was very bitter. I only use cold water now and let it sit for a day or two. It turns out perfect.

  3. I like to use sumac in my tandoori spice mix.

  4. You know what? You are badass; a true heroine for all people. Thanks for sharing your recipes and way of life; it is illuminating. Recently I've been foraging around my town mostly for purslane, smooth cat's ear and dandelion greens. So far I've been successful with the purslane this time of year, but can't find too many mature dandelions. Anyway I'll be checking in from time to time cause this is awesome!

  5. what about picking it in the winter after it has dried naturally on the bush?

    1. that also sounds like a cool idea, but there may be bugs nested in it by then. ~Jade Wabbit

    2. Also, when it rains, it washes away some of the flavor. So the longer it stays outside the less flavor you will get.

  6. I'm still a bit wary about foraging for it. Purslane, broadleaf and narrowleaf plantain, dandelion, are all things easy to forage for. Purslane has two twins, one is super easy to tell apart (if milk leaks out don't stick it in your mouth) and the other is mat amaranth, which is edible. Dandelions and plantain weeds are really obvious. Sumac, on the other hand, isn't so obvious. How do I know for sure there are no poison sumac plants that have non-white berries, or that their berries aren't reddish or whatnot before they're ripe?

    1. You can either do your own research, or trust me when I tell you that there are no poisonous look alikes for sumac...

    2. I have been to several wild foraging type classes and read several foraging books and talked to other foragers. I consistantly hear that all red sumac berries are safe and the poisonous ones are white. It's funny - of all the wild foods out there, I think the sumac is the most obvious! Wait until you are confident in your own identification.

    3. Thanks for this! I'm an avid forager but have never thought of harvesting my own sumac-spice. I live in Virginia, USA and have encouraged our native sumacs to grow in my yard for 10 years (as much for their autumn beauty as for the food value). I've made sumac-ade but never thought of trying to keep it as a dried spice. It's ripe in my yard right now.

      For the skeptics: I've learned that Poison Sumac is confined to boggy coastal areas around here, and all the photos I've seen are of bright white berries. No chance of mistaken identity: the berries on my plants go from green to rosy as they ripen. I have two distinct species growing intermingled but am not worried about mistaken identity.

      Boiling the berries releases the tannins and makes them entirely unpalatable. Use cold water, like they say.

      Rainfall eventually washes off the good part, that is, the acidic hairs that give off the lemony flavor. I've tried harvesting them off the plant in winter and, again, they're entirely unappealing.

      Happy foraging, and I'll tell you how the harvest goes! -Kelly

  7. OK, I went out and foraged about7 seed pods, or drupes. Going to dry it and try making the spice as you've said, and make some lemonade from the leftovers also as you suggested. Any tips on how to propagate a seed or two to make it grow here on my own property so I don't have to go out "foraging" next time?? Jade Wabbit

    1. Remove some of the seeds from a pod ( each little berry has a seed inside ). before you run them through the blender. You should be able to plant them directly from there. Any sumac I've seen has spread pretty prolifically, so I wouldn't worry about being too careful with them. If you plan on planting multiple plants, keep them several feet apart, as the ones around me are about 5ft in diameter. They will grow together & it doesn't seem to bother them too much, but you don't want them to be overcrowded at an early stage.

  8. I found smooth red sticky sumac and furry red sumac... other than that they're identical. Are they both ripe and can I process them both the same way and together?


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