Sunday, July 17, 2011

Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina): Tart Summertime Refreshment

Finding: Staghorn sumac is such a common sight on the roadsides of central New England that one hardly need try to find them. Just drive to work and keep your eyes peeled. Ooga and Yub-yub were meeting me at the end of a long marathon training run when they decided to harvest a few. The big, red, fuzzy berry clusters are so distinctive. I often hear people referring to these plants as poison sumac, but poison sumac (Rhus vernix) has white, hairless berries that I can't imagine confusing with the fuzzy red "elf hats" we gather.

In July, when the berries become red, they are ready for making into an amazing and tart cold drink. The ones in this picture are a little on the early side, but we just couldn't wait for one of our favorite summertime refreshments. We gather about 5-8 depending on their size.

Preparation: Crush the flowerheads with your fingers into a half-gallon container. Cover them with cold water. Hot water makes it taste yucky! Then put it in the fridge for 24 hours. When the water blushes to the color of a raspberry iced tea, take it out and strain the flowers out. We use jelly bags now, but before we discovered these wonderful inventions, we used an old, clean T-shirt. It worked just fine. I love the tart flavor of the unsweetened drink, but adding a sugar syrup to taste is great. To make the syrup, add equal parts sugar and water and boil until the sugar is dissolved. We've tried just sweetening by adding sugar right to the liquid, but for some reason the results were always disappointing.

This concoction is a great way to pique the interest of folks who have never tried wild foods. I once served some to a skeptical bunch of middle-school kids who drank almost two gallons and then begged me for more.


  1. Very cool! These trees aren't all that common here on the west coast, but I'm intrigued enough now that I'm going to have to keep my eyes peeled for one!

    Does the sumac flower have anything in the way of nutrients?

  2. Hey Michelle,
    I'm not sure what nutrients we're drinking. Malic acid imbues the drink with its charmingly tart flavor (according to Euell Gibbons). I could not find any other references to nutritional values in my guides. If you do an online search, let us know the results. Thanks for reading!

  3. I saw this while walking on Cape Elizabeth, Maine, and wondered about I have to go back and grab some!

  4. Some notes: We find the flavor varies from year-to-year. Not sure why. This year's first was very mild. Almost like an iced tea. We'll keep looking for something with more kick.

  5. great blog! we also just wrote a post about sumac on our new blog ( and are huge fans of sumac lemonade :)

  6. I've visited your blog quite a few times and have loved learning more about edible plants. Thanks. I wanted to let you know that I nominated you for a Liebster Blog Award. If you are not familiar with it, feel free to check out my latest post. I hope to see more posts of yours as you are able to post them.