No… not the Poisonous Sumac!

Many people will hear the word “sumac” and automatically think of poisonous sumac. Poisonous sumac (Toxicodendron vernix [previously rhus vernix]) is actually very different looking from edible sumac. There’s several edible sumac species and they can normally be found right outside your door!

Edible Varieties of Sumac:

  • Staghorn Sumac, Rhus Typhina
  • European Sumac, Rhus Coriaria
  • Smooth Sumac, Rhus Glabra
  • Fragrant Sumac, Rhus Aromatica
  • Desert or little leaf Sumac, Rhus Microphyllia
  • Lemonade Sumac, Rhus Integrifolia
  • Sugar Sumac, Rhus Ovata
  • Dwarf Sumac, Rhus Copallina

Poisonous Sumac

Poisonous sumac resembles an alder, has smooth leaves and bright red stems, has white berries, and only 13 leaves on the stem. These poisonous sumac plants are found in swampy wetlands, meaning you would most often have to go looking for them in wet spots of land. Poisonous sumac has the same toxin as poison ivy and poison oak called urushiol; a clear liquid sap of the plant that causes painful rashes and blisters on the skin. If you do find it, avoid it!

Edible Sumac

Edible sumac species, or sometimes called ‘Lemonade Tree’, have red berries in fuzzy fruit clusters growing upright from the large stems.These berries can be harvested and dried (or used fresh) for cooking, eating/snacking, and for medicinal uses. In fact, the sumac berry is filled with high levels of vitamin C and vitamin A, and it’s chalk full of antioxidants. Cooking with Sumac as a spice will offer a lemon pepper flavor that is absolutely wonderful and beautifully fragrant. You can also make tea with it; tea with sumac will have a lemon flavor and is often call “Indian Lemonade”. This plant is considered a dieretic, improves kidney function, and rids the body of toxins.

Harvesting and Keeping Sumac

To harvest the plant, simply pick the brightest clusters that are slightly sticky to the touch. Cut off the clusters at the base with pruning shears. Try to get as many clusters as you can early in the season, but don’t worry if you end up being a little late into the season. You can use the cluster right after harvesting for seasoning – it’s recommended that you soak them overnight in water first if you decide to eat them fresh.

The alternative is to dry them! Sumac berries will last up to at least a year if being properly dried and stored. I like to store mine in a mason jar and keep in a dark area (like my kitchen cabinet). If you can still find Sumac, grab it! Most of it is already past in the New England area. But, there will be plenty next year, so make sure you plan for it!

Purchasing Sumac

You can purchase Sumac online as a spice! Take a look at Amazon, Rose Mountain Herbs, or contact your local herbal or natural foods shop and ask if they carry any. Try out this ‘Lemonade Tree’ spice and let me know what you think!


References / Further Reading:

Wild Edibles: Sumac Berries

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