Mar 10, 2015

Edible Sumac (Not The Poisonous Kind!)

By: Lawanda Jungwirth    

You’ve probably heard of poison sumac, but it’s not likely that you’ve seen it in Wisconsin.  It’s quite rare here.  No, the sumac that grows in Wisconsin is not poisonous; in fact the young spring shoots and the red berries that ripen in fall are edible.  And it’s from an entirely different plant family than poison sumac.  Here’s what you should remember:  poison sumac has white berries that hang downward.  Edible sumacs have red berries that are held above the branches.  So, white = no; red = go.

You might not notice the sumac plant at all until the fuzzy red, sticky clumps of berries form atop the branches in late summer.  It’ll definitely turn your head in fall when the leaves turn brilliant scarlet.  On a winter hike, you’ll spot the velvety stems of the younger plants and see that the berry clusters are still there, now turned a rusty red. Apparently birds eat sumac berries only as a last resort. 

Sumac is a native plant that grows in fields, edges of woods, disturbed areas, trail and roadsides, and stream banks in full or partial sun, in dry sandy or rocky soil, throughout the United States.  You’ll often see huge colonies of arching sumac shrubs covering hillsides of raised highways.  This shrub or small tree can grow up to 35 feet tall.  Of the 250 species of sumac, the two most commonly found in Wisconsin are staghorn sumac and smooth sumac.

In spring, look for the bright new growth of suckers or stump sprouts and at the tips of older branches.  Snap off the young shoots as you would asparagus.  Look at the broken end of the shoot.  If you see any white pith, that part is too old to eat.  Snap off small sections further toward the end of the branch until you find solid green inside. That’s the part you want to eat.  Pull off any leaves and peel the thin outside bark of the shoot.  Eat the shoots either raw or steamed.   

High in Vitamin C, sumac berries are used to make berry tea, sumac-ade, jello or jelly.  They also add a unique flavor to other dishes.  No matter which recipe you are preparing, sumac berries should never be boiled, as the seeds inside will release bitter tannic acid into the water.  The tannic acid won’t hurt you, but it won’t taste good.

Pick the fruit in late summer or early fall when berries turn red.  It’s best to harvest after a dry spell because rain washes away the tangy flavor of the berries.  To test if they are ready for harvest, pinch a berry and lick your finger.  If you taste a strong, tart flavor, it’s time to harvest.  Cut the berry clusters off with a garden scissors or knife.  Pick through the berries to remove any insects, but don’t rinse them, or you’ll wash the flavor right down the drain. 


  • Both staghorn and smooth sumac have pinnately compound leaves with serrated edges. For non-botanists, “pinnately compound” means that leaflets are arranged on either side of the stem, typically in pairs opposite each other.  “Serrated,” means toothed or jagged, like a serrated knife edge or a saw.  Sumac’s leaflets are elliptical to lance-shaped and are pointed on both ends.  The leaflets and stems make up a leaf that can be up to two feet long.
  • Staghorn sumac has velvety twigs resembling a stag’s antlers. Smooth sumac has smooth stems covered with a white powder that comes off when you touch it.
  • Tiny white or yellow spikes of flowers are held upright above the branches in spring.
  • Red cone-shaped fruit clusters are held above the branches in summer, autumn and winter. Staghorn sumac’s fruit is held in tighter clusters than those of smooth sumac.
  • Twigs and branches exude a milky sap when broken.


  • If you are allergic to mangoes, cashews or pistachios, you may be allergic to sumac.
  • Always identify with absolute certainty any wild plant you plan to consume.



Use one to two cups of berries per quart of cold water.  Place the berries in the water and gently squeeze and swish them around to release their juice.  Let the berries soak in the water overnight.  If you like, add whole cinnamon sticks or cloves to the water/berry mixture.  Strain the mixture through a double layer of cheesecloth or a coffee filter.  Sweeten as desired with maple sugar, honey or any other sweetener.  You can warm the sumac-ade for a hot drink, after straining if desired.


Following the directions for sumac-ade, process four or five batches of berries through the same water.  The concentrate can be used in any recipe that calls for lemon juice, lime juice, or vinegar.


Sprinkle two envelopes unflavored gelatin over ½ cup of cold sumac-ade in a bowl.  Let stand one minute.  Warm 1 ½ cups of sumac-ade and add to cold juice.  Stir to dissolve the gelatin which may take several minutes.  Stir in sugar or other sweetener if desired.  Refrigerate until firm, about 3 hours. 


1 head cauliflower broken into florets

1 c. water

2 T. plus 2 t. olive oil

1 T. plus 1 t. sumac concentrate

2 ½ t. salt

Place the water, 2 T. olive oil, 1 T. sumac concentrate and 2 t. salt in a saucepan.  Bring to a boil and place cauliflower in steamer rack above the water.  Steam, covered until cauliflower is just tender, about 10 minutes.  Serve sprinkled with remaining olive oil, sumac concentrate and salt.


6 c. diced watermelon

1 T. sumac concentrate

Sweetener – sugar, honey, stevia, etc. (optional)

Puree watermelon and sumac concentrate in blender.  Add sweetener to taste and blend.  Pour into ice pop molds and freeze about three hours.