Fruit is in terminal clusters, also note “wings” between leaves

Sumac, Rhus Juice, Quallah: Good Drink

Sumacs look edible and toxic at the same time, and with good reason: They’re in a family that has plants we eat and plants that can make you ill.

Brazilian pepper does not have terminal clusters

Sumac, poison ivy, Brazilian pepper, cashews, mangoes and pistachios are all related. Poison ivy, of course, is a problem. The Brazilian pepper is on the cusp of toxic/non-toxic. Some people mistakenly call the seeds “pink peppercorns” but true “pink peppercorns” come from a Madagascar relative, not the Brazilian Pepper found in the New World. Cashews have a poisonous shell. Pistachios taste good. Many people are allergic to mango. Often they will also be allergic to other plants in the family as well as sumac or the sap of the sumac. Proceed accordingly.

Poison sumac has white berries, likes to be very wet

There are some 250 sumac species in the genus. All the berries of the red sumacs are edible. I know the ones I’ve encountered in Maine and Florida are edible. Acid on hairs on the berries is used to make an ade. The berries themselves can be used to make a spice, sometimes a tea. Sumacs are found throughout the world, with many species in North America. You’ll find them across all of the United States and Canada except for the far north. Sumacs are a shrub or small tree that can reach from four to 35 feet. The leaves are arranged in a spiral and the flowers are dense spikes, an inch to four inches long, on the end of branches called terminal clusters. The fruits are technically drupes and collectively are called “bobs.”

Poison Ivy has green to white berries

Sumac species tend to be regional. However, one species, Rhus glabra,  (Roos GLAY-bra) the “smooth sumac” is found in all contiguous 48 states. The Indians used the shoots of the Rhus glabra in “salads” though many ethonobotanists say the natives never really made “salads” as we know the term.  In the northeast the staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina, synonym: Rhus hirta) predominates. It’s the largest of the sumacs and the one with the least tart berries. In Florida the predominant sumac is Rhus copallina, also known the shining sumac, the winged sumac, dwarf sumac, flame leaf sumac and the mountain sumac (curious as there are no mountains in Florida.)  The multitude of common names is why botanical names are important. Rhus is what the Greeks called the sumac and it has come to mean red. Copallina (rhymes with Carolina) means gummy or resinous, referring to the sap which turns black when exposed to air and has been used for varnish, particularly in Japan.

Collect terminal clusters before a rain

Rhus copallina is an attractive bush that turns flaming red in the fall before losing its leaves. Flowers are yellow and green and small, in clusters at the end of branches. Fruits are BB/pea-sized berries with hairs and are covered with malic acid, which is what makes grapes and apples tart. Inside the berry is one seed. You know the berries are ripe with they give a tart taste. (Touch your finger to a berry then your finger to your tongue to test, but not right after a rain, which washes off the malic acid. )

Sumac turns ruby and maroon in the fall

Soaking the unwashed berries in faucet-hot water releases the acid to make a drink, after being filtered twice to get rid of little, irritating hairs (through cloth then a coffee filter or the like.) The Cherokee Indians called the juice Quallah. The seeds of the sumac have tannic acid in them. Putting the berries in boiling will release the tannic acid. It can make a tea but it can quickly become too bitter to drink. To make an ade, use one to two cup of berries per quart of water. I prefer two cups and less water.  The “bobs” of berries can be cut off and dried for later use.

Staghorn Sumac

Berry pulp, read cleaned seeds, when ground add a lemon-like flavor to salads or meat and is used often in Levant cuisine.  They make a purple-colored spice, which is very handy where there are no lemons. Native Americans also mixed the leaves and berries of the smooth and staghorn sumac to extend their tobacco. The leaves of many sumacs yield tannin and leather tanned with sumac is flexible, lightweight, and light in color. Oddly, dried sumac wood is fluorescent under long-wave Ultra Violet Light

The fruit of staghorn sumac is one of the most identifiable forming dense conical clusters of small red drupes at the terminal end of the branches. I can remember them growing all over southern Maine and to this day can still go to a stand of them where we used to play. I can remember marveling at their shape. Sumacs flowers from May to July and fruit can ripen from June to September. The fruit often lasts through winter and into spring. While many birds eat sumac berries apparently they are not a preferred fruit in that they are amongst the last to be eaten after a long winter.  Deer nibble on the branches, as do people, kind of.

Peeled perfumish sumac shoots

There is another edible part to the sumac: Young shoots, peeled. First year shoots off old stumps are the best, but the spring-time tips of old branches are also edible but not as good. Look at the end of a shoot after you break it off. If you see a pith, an off-white core, it is too old. Break off that part then look again. You want a shoot stem that is all green inside. Then strip off the leaves and peel the shoot. You can eat it raw or cooked. They very purfume-ish and slightly astringent.

As for other uses of the sumac some landscapers remove all but the top branches to create a “crown” effect making it  resemble a small palm tree. All parts of the stag horn sumac, except the roots, can be used as both a natural dye and as a mordant. The seeds have an oil that can be made into candle wax. Even the sap of the poisonous white sumac makes a black varnish.

Yes, there is one poisonous sumac but you probably won’t ever see it and it really doesn’t look like the rest of the sumacs. It resembles an alder, has white berries that grow out of leaf axils and prefers to live deep in swamps, meaning you will have to wade to find it. In my many years of foraging I have see only three. You should avoid it though because it is like poison ivy on steroids. It is the most toxic contact plant in North America. And without going into a long story I did get poison sumac once.

So, to get that straight: The edible sumacs have red berries in cone-shaped clusters at the end of main branches. They have skinny leaves and like dry ground. The poisonous sumac has roundish leaves, pointy on the end, has white fruit that grows out from where a leaf meets the stem, and grows only in very wet places.

Now that you know about the poisonous white sumac, also avoid when looking for sumac the Brazilian Pepper which to the unfamiliar eye can look similar in growth pattern to the regular sumac. The edible sumac has terminal clusters of dark red, purse-shaped berries with a fine coating of fuzz (often gray.)  The leaves are skinny, lance shaped. The Brazilian Pepper has long ovalish leaves and clusters of bright pink/red smooth, hairless berries growing off stems.

My video on sumacs is here.

The following three recipes are from fellow foragers Dick Deuerling and Peggy Lantz and their book “Florida’s Incredible Wild Edibles.”

Sumac Jelly: Take prepared juice and use the Sure-Jell recipe for elderberry jelly, 3 cups juice to 4.5 cups of sugar. Leave out the lemon juice.

Sumac Jello: Mix the prepared juice with unflavored gelatin per instruction on package.

Sumac Rubber Candy:  Take on cup of sweetened juice, add two envelopes of gelatin, mix. Pour into an 8×8  or 8×10 inch baking pan and refrigerate for an hour or more. Cut and serve.  Dick credits that recipe to his wife, long involved with the Girl Scouts as Dick was with the Boy Scouts.

Green Deane’s “Itemized” Plant Profile: Sumac

IDENTIFICATION: Rhus copallina: Shrub, or small tree in Florida,  leaves large, divided into 11-23 leaflets, midrib has thin “wings.” Twigs and leafstalks velvety, round, with raised dots. Fruits, red, short and hairy.

TIME OF YEAR: In Florida flowers summer to fall, fruits summer to fall, fruits in fall in northern climes.

ENVIORNMENT: Sunny to shady dry areas, often found on banks.

METHOD OF PREPARATION: Ripe berries soaked in warm water, filtered then sweetened into an ade. Sometimes the ade will be clear, other times light pink. A drop or two of food coloring can make it any color you want. Whole berries can be made into a tea but the hot water can make the tea very bitter very fast so proceed carefully.   Peeled shoots, raw or cooked.

If you would like to donate to Eat The Weeds please click here.

{ 41 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Mike Krebill October 25, 2011 at 23:08

Hi Deane!

Congratulations on the look of your new web site. Most impressive!

Pretty good info and photos on sumac. However, a small percentage of people are emergency-room allergic to the safe sumacs. Anyone with a trip-to-the-hospital or need-a-shot-of-epinephrine reaction to poison ivy, poison sumac, poison oak, cashews, or mangoes should stay clear of the edible, red-druped sumacs. I can relate three cases to you that I personally know about. Let me know if you are interested, and I can send you a M.S. Word document.

Second note: the only two sumac species I have looked at whose drupes have hairs are Staghorn Sumac and Fragrant Sumac. Smooth Sumac and Winged Sumac drupes are hairless when examined under a stereomicroscope.

You’ve probably noticed that I have been calling the fruit of sumac “drupes” instead of berries. Berries are fleshy and often juicy and typically have many seeds. Sumac fruits are dry, consisting of a thin coating over a single seed. The technical name for that type of fruit is a drupe.

The Middle Eastern spice that I bought in Detroit’s Eastern Market was ground sumac drupes; the seeds were not removed, they were simply pulverized. Seed fragments were visible with a binocular/ stereomicroscope. While not too objectionable on flat breads or chicken, the tannins were disgustingly noticeable when I experimented with making a beverage from the spice.

Speaking of experimenting, my 7th grade science classes experimented with “how to produce consistently good-tasting sumac lemonade.” We worked with Staghorn, Smooth, and Winged Sumacs. After 20 years of controlling and manipulating variables, we came up with two techniques that we felt produced good results. One we called the “giant tea bag,” the other the “two-minute stir.” I’d be happy to send you a pdf describing each, if you would like it.

My best, and keep up the good work.

Mike Krebill
150 Oakcliff Lane
Keokuk, IA 52632
(319) 524-4576

Reply

2 Green Deane October 26, 2011 at 04:37

Ah, one of our venerated foraging instructors…. I will get my resource page with you and others up soon. One challenge at at time. I have it completed just have to make the page. I haven’t run into any common sumac allergies but I would not be surprised. As for the spice, a more proper way is to use just the outside flesh of the drupe to make the spice, not the seed as well. As for the recipe, sure, I’ll post it and give credit.

Reply

3 Mackenzie July 5, 2012 at 17:17

Are those recipes up yet? I’d be very interested as sumac is plentiful here right now.

Reply

4 Kat August 21, 2012 at 23:23

Hi Deane,
What is the best way to remove the outside flesh of the drupes? I would like to grind them into a spice without the seeds.
Thanks!
Kat

Reply

5 Green Deane August 29, 2012 at 12:29

Why? Usually the entire fruit is ground up.

Reply

6 forager January 24, 2012 at 12:59

I ran into a couple of French Canadian women who were picking the Brazilian Pepper. They said they ate it. It was very expensive back home and considered a delicacy. I ate some and enjoyed the taste. I now read it may be poisoness.
It did not seem to have any short-term or intermediate-term effects on my health.
Is it really harmful to eat?

Reply

7 Green Deane January 24, 2012 at 13:11

Edibility is the question. Those ladies were not eating berries from the same species from which those expensive pink peppercorns are made.

Reply

8 NIcholas Alday October 4, 2012 at 17:23

as always-excellent article! Sumac is extremely plentiful here(outside metro atlanta) and i always enjoy a little on the trail!
Thank you yet again for an excellent article

Reply

9 Laurie Gebert December 11, 2012 at 19:51

Is there anything one can do with the drupes once they are dried? I picked some this fall from the Staghorn Sumac that are so plentiful here. I wasn’t sure what to do with them or even if they were edible so I just let them dry because they are such a beautiful deep red color.

Reply

10 Green Deane December 11, 2012 at 20:25

yes, it’s in the article. The deseeded drupes are ground up into a spice.

Reply

11 Cynthia December 12, 2012 at 07:18

Your site is by far the most informative and interesting !……thank you
for all the time you have dedicated to making it so!……you are greatly
Appreciated……I always look forward to your e-mails!
Slainte!
Cynthia

Reply

12 Marion January 21, 2013 at 14:55

I hope you can help me. I am armenian and a senior citizen. My entire life I’ve known about sumac, but only the dried seeds. My mother would buy it in an armenian grocery store, bring it home and make a dish we call “dolma”. She would boil the seeds in water, then strain it and pour the liquid over the dolma which is small eggplant and grape leaves stuffed with ground lamb and rice, parsley and spices. My mother has passed on, however, I still make this dish. But now I can only get the sumac in a ground form which we do not like. My question is this – do you know where I can buy the whole sumac seeds? I live in Havertown, PA (just outside of Philadelphia. ) Thank you in advance.
Marion

Reply

13 Don Nalley January 12, 2014 at 22:28

Marion that is a great recipe! Albania has a lot of food I like, spent some time in southern Italy Calabria and there were a few towns Albanian, We really ate well! Wow.. I have fresh sumac and live in Oklahoma I would be glad to send you..You pay shipping and a little for the spice say $10.00 for 1/2 pound.? I’m on Facebook

Reply

14 Neale February 25, 2014 at 13:14

The staghorn or smooth sumacs are such common plants that it would be very easy for you to collect more seed than you would be able to use in a year. Dry it and store it as dry whole drupes (berries) and it should keep well in storage for at least 6 months. I’m in Toledo OH, and both types of sumac grow are found in abundance nearly everywhere you look. There are no posion sumacs up here either (or at least none with red fruits). Although I would not recommend eating Rhus Aromatica (a small landscaping plant) its leaves have three rounded lobes unlike edible sumacs which typically have many pointed leaflets.

The best time to collect it is in late july or mid august out here, and you want to try to harvest after a stretch of at least three days of dry sunny weather. I’ve found that placing clear water proof but well ventilated bags over the seed heads after fruit set helps to produce much better quality fruit since it is not exposed to rain or birds. I’ve had lots of trouble trying to clean the seeds though. Can’t figure out how to do this without washing away the flavor.

Reply

15 Ms Pony August 24, 2014 at 19:36

Marion, if you’re still interested in finding whole sumac seeds, you might try
https://www.mountainroseherbs.com

My late uncle (by marriage) was Armenian. Sure do miss him…

Reply

16 Korina January 24, 2013 at 15:34

The African Sumac (Rhus Lancea) is a very popular landscaping plant, here in the southwest. In fact, we have three in our back yard.

The flowers have a lovely, heady scent. They are followed by tons and tons of white berries, which – unfortunately – sprout all over our landscaping.

I researched it some more on the internet, and found mentions the berries being pounded and fermented into a sort of mead, but have been unable to find any specifics on the matter.

Do you happen to know anything about this process? Perhaps a version using our native sumacs?

Another thought was to use the flowers as people user elderberry flowers (such as a syrup, or fried), as they smell so sweet. But I don’t know if they are edible.

Many thanks!

Reply

17 Green Deane January 25, 2013 at 06:14

I have references that say the berries are edible but I personally know nothing about this African native.

Reply

18 Gary June 23, 2013 at 13:38

Any experience with Rhus trilobata / skunkbush sumac? I found some on a hike in Kansas amongst many staghorn sumac. The berries look a lot like those on staghorn and but is a much lower bush with compound, green leaves with 3 leaflets.

Reply

19 Pam July 9, 2013 at 22:16

Hi Deane,

I was lucky to attend one of your Orlando foraging days a year or so ago. Good times!

I am reaching out to you as my last resort. I have a few seedlings growing in our garden and they have all the characteristics of staghorn sumac (leaves a bit droopy, reddish stems, the general shape of leaves, etc.)…with the exception of no hairs at all (smooth stem & leaves) and the fact that the leaves are not toothed at all. Not even one little bit.

I cross checked with many a book and web-sites and I came up with nothing that looks exactly the same.

It is not, for sure, Ailanthus altissima (tree of heaven) as it does not have the gland on the leaves nor the foul odor characteristic of this species.

In your experience, is it possible that the seedlings of staghorn sumac may not show hairs nor serrated leaves while under 4 feet?

I also ruled out smooth sumac as the leaves do not look the same, nor does mine have the little “wings” between each leaf characteristic of the winged sumac.

Sorry I wrote this much but I wanted to be sure to give you all the info.

Thanks so much for any insight you might be able to offer.
Pam

Reply

20 ej July 20, 2013 at 18:42

Great website!

I have a question regarding the dried Staghorn Sumac: What temperature is the max for preserving the high vitamin C content?

I’ve harvested and want to dehydrate and grind for spice :)

Thank you

ej

Reply

21 Green Deane July 20, 2013 at 19:47

Under 212F is usually recommended.

Reply

22 Jennifer July 21, 2013 at 09:23

I have been soaking my sumac berries in water over night and drinking the water (no filtering) in the morning. The water colour is a soft amber when fresh from the fridge but if left overnight on the bed-side table the ade turns greenish blue, left longer the water turns indigo. What it going on?

Reply

23 freejutube August 15, 2013 at 04:13

Hi,

I love your videos.
But here I feel puzzled.

Because I see elsewhere “Staghorn Sumac” associated to the latin name “Rhus Typhina” and to the images on this page : fruits arranged in bright red and dense conical clusters. And “Rhus Copallina” seems associated to the names “Shining Sumac” / “Winged Sumac” and with images of shiny leaves very different from “Rhus Typhina” leaves.

Can you give some precision ?
Thanks.

Reply

24 Green Deane August 15, 2013 at 05:45

With apologies, I don’t understand the question. Sumac species leaves do vary. The Winged Sumac have little “wings” on the stem that other sumacs don’t have.

Reply

25 Jenn August 23, 2013 at 11:58

This year, for the first time, all of the Rhus Glabra and staghorn sumac bushes/trees around here have berries that are mostly BROWN (only a few red berries in each cluster) and drooping rather than upright on the plants. Our area has had unprecedented copious rainfall this year; I picked some berries and tasted them and they taste sour as usual even though brown; are they still good?

Reply

26 Green Deane August 23, 2013 at 15:11

Yes, if they are still tart they have the acid you can use.

Reply

27 Karen Gauthier September 29, 2013 at 14:33

The sumac color is so beautiful, Iwould like to dry some. Is therea good way to do this to keep the color?

Reply

28 Green Deane September 29, 2013 at 20:45

Food coloring.

Reply

29 Mike October 7, 2013 at 13:37

I’ve been enjoying the sumac lemonade for a few years and I always wondered if it was possible to make jelly from it. That’s when I found your blog and I tried it. The jelly was delicious! Thank you for the info! I’m thinking about planting a staghorn sumac tree or two in my backyard.

Reply

30 Natachasheldon October 8, 2013 at 06:49

Where can I find in central fl sumac.

Reply

31 Green Deane October 8, 2013 at 10:41

Just about everywheres… dry places under pines, flatwood scrubs and the like.

Reply

32 Sharon October 27, 2013 at 18:45

I have just been made aware of using sumac for lemonade and am so excited! It is pretty late in the season here, but I did harvest some of the seed heads. They are quite dry (most of the plants’ leaves have fallen), have a bit of red color left. Are they still ok to use for sumac lemonade? Is the ideal time to pick them when the leaves are still green?

Reply

33 Green Deane October 27, 2013 at 19:31

As long as the seeds are tart they can be used.

Reply

34 Carol Fields March 1, 2014 at 11:48

Having read a bit about this plant, I have to make one exception: On the [banned site] page (and yes, I know you can’t necessarily trust everything there), it says Sumac is not necessarily the best source of food for birds and is the last plant they will seek.

That has not been my experience. On our southwestern Virginia mountain top, a large bush of Staghorn Sumac grows right outside our house. I have seen it repeatedly covered with birds nibbling its “berries”, including a flock of 30 or so robins. A Northern Flicker, Titmice, Grosbeaks and all sorts of other birds have also used it as food all winter long. It is such an effective food source that when we perform some reconstruction near our home, I hope to dig it up and re-plant the bush so I can continue to enjoy watching the birds all winter long.

Reply

35 cecil andre March 8, 2014 at 03:13

bonjour j ai une question j ai planter du fort longtemps un sumac espèce virginie c est a dire qu a la floraison apparent des épies de couleur rouge par contre je suis obliger de le surveiller car il est très envahissant ma question est t il comestible car dans mon île de corse il y a n a beaucoup mais planter comme arbre d ornement merci de bien vouloir me renseigner

Reply

36 Green Deane March 8, 2014 at 06:10

J’aurais besoin d’un nom botanique.

Reply

37 Beau March 11, 2014 at 15:43

Found a huge grove of these smooth sumac here in Oklahoma close to where I work alongside a railroad track. I’ve been harvesting the straightest saplings to use in a wattle fence I’m building.

Reply

38 Jill Ruoss May 29, 2014 at 11:10

Hi ! I just found your website because I was trying to find pictures of the staghorn sumac, and the other one that is like staghorn sumac except the berries hang down,so I could send it to my friend who has a sore throat. I used to have a book called ,”Eat the Weeds” back in the seventies. Was that you, Dean? I don’t know where it is right now to look, but that book kept my first husband and me alive in the summer of 1973. He was in college on the VA plan, there were NO jobs where we lived and we had no income all summer. We ate the wild plants in that book along with small mouth bass and a woodchuck, a muskrat which was too tough to even bite, a porcupine, which was really delicious, and some roadkill deer meat. I had the best shape I ever had in my life and we were healthy. I learned from that book that the sumac berries are good to make a tea that gets rid of sore throats. It is the best sore throat medicine I ever used. I have been using it now for forty-two years and it works fast. One cup can get rid of laryngitis enough that you will be able to talk right after drinking it. Love your site, I intend to explore it! Thank you. Jill

Reply

39 Green Deane May 29, 2014 at 15:36

I think the author of that book died about 20 years ago but it is still in print here and there.

Reply

40 arife rahman August 15, 2014 at 09:30

Take on cup of sweetened juice, add two envelopes of gelatin, mix. Pour into an 8×8 or 8×10 inch baking pan and refrigerate for an

Reply

41 Charles August 17, 2014 at 19:04

Thank you for your interesting comments and info,I live in NH and
I have many of these wild sumacs growing in my yard and even off the sides of roads.I would like to make tea or this aid people talk about,
as long as its safe.These sumacs I have growing in my yard are also
apparently growing near wild berries that iv’e eaten and wild grapes.
My only mistake was I got rid of alot of wild berries before I new how
good they were to eat, also remove wild elderberries from my wooded
areas but to my suprise they are all growing back with wild blueberries.
I am happy to have these plants around me. Comments Please

Reply

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: