In Ojibwe, baakwaanaatig, mainly referring to the berry, staghorn sumac is the “lemonadiest” and most vinegary of edible and medicinal shrubs.
Staghorn sumac has been called the vinegar tree and the lemonade tree as its juice can be used as a substitute for vinegar or lemon juice. The “staghorn” part comes from the velvety branches that somewhat resemble antlers.
Edible Uses of Staghorn Sumac
It’s best to gather the lemony tasting berries just as the berry color has deepened in early Autumn and before much rain washes that red, hairy sumac goodness away. Being a chronic inventor of the wheel I boiled my berries the first time I made “sumacade“, and well, yuck. The tannins were overpowering. You just steep them! (Detailed instructions here.)
Sumac berries are also useful dried for seasoning. You have to sift out the seeds from the ground berries and discard the seeds. You can use sumac spice for cooking, perhaps as a rub for lamb, fish or chicken. It’s also a treat sprinkled on hummus. In middle eastern cooking, it’s a prime ingredient in the spice mix za’atar. Birds like grosbeaks and ruffed grouse will eat the berries in the winter as a starvation food.
The peeled shoots, tips of new branches and suckers are also edible. However, I found them – young and old alike – far too fibrous and not at all sweet as I’ve heard from one source. Perhaps he was eating a different variety. The general consensus is that this part of the sumac is a starvation food. The white-tailed deer, moose and cotton-tailed rabbits here like it, however, and can take a nap in it’s cover after their meal. Can you spot the buck in the picture below?
Medicinal Uses of Staghorn Sumac
Staghorn sumac is primarily said to support these body systems:
Medicinal tags include Antiseptic and Astringent. See Medicinal tag key for more information.
Common usage includes as a sumac-ade, unsweetened, it works as a gargle for a sore throat. This is due to its astringent properties. It’s blackened, reduced juice has been used as an ingredient in salves for wounds and other skin issues due to its tannic and gallic acid content.
Alternative Uses of “the Lemonade Tree”
The leaves and fruit are boiled to make black ink. A range of colored dyes is possible from yellows to greys-black, using every part but the root. And of course, a red dye can be made from its crimson berry hairs.
The twigs can be soaked, scraped, split and soaked again to use for weaving. The wood can also be useful for crafts.
It perhaps goes without saying, but Staghorn sumac’s tannin-rich fruit, bark, and leaves can be used to tan hides.
Sumac will spread and spread and spread, especially in full sun. To get a similar look without such spread check out the native mountain ash! Both are native plants.
My go-to staghorn sumacs are on other folks properties because my little acre could be overwhelmed fast. During a hard winter, I won’t be surprised if one of my many grouse poo-plant it for me, though. I’ll be offering a free staghorn sumac plant to whoever chimes in first if that happens!
Admittedly, they are stunningly beautiful, especially in the Autumn when they turn fiery red, and perfect if you want to unleash a shrub that’ll spread fast.
If you do choose to plant, you’ll need a male and a female plant to get the berries. Gather berries late in the Autumn to winter sow, and hope for boys and girls.
On a creepy-crawly note – Sumac has its own aphid, the sumac leaf gall aphid (melaphis rhois) which isn’t very harmful to the sumac itself. I was surprised to wander upon a cluster of their galls which look much like a fungus:
It’s is related to mangoes and cashews, so avoid if you are allergic to these.
If you are hypersensitive to poison ivy you may also be sensitive to staghorn sumac.
And the Usual Cautions:
1) Most medicinal herbs, if edible, are meant to be eaten in moderation, even sparingly. Some require extra preparation.
2) People can be allergic or sensitive to nearly any plant; try new herbs one at a time at your own risk.
3) For medicinal use, I must recommend receiving a diagnosis and working with a reputed health care provider. I generally do not post specific treatments and dosages because I think that is best between you and your health care provider, and ideally monitored. Herbalists do not have an official certification yet, but that may be in the works.
4) Anyone pregnant, nursing, or taking prescription drugs should talk to a health care professional before adding new food items to their diet.
5) Many plants have look-a-likes, and sometimes they are poisonous.
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Trees of Ontario
Field Guide to North American Edible Wild Plants