Sumacs are short lived weedy shrubs to small trees that take over open areas if given the chance. Three species found in North Carolina are quite useful. Three close cousins are downright despicable.
Let’s start with the three cashew family members that can be useful to us. Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) and smooth sumac (Rhus glabra) are both common around here. Fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica) is common in the piedmont and mountains of North Carolina.
These three species have clusters of red berry-like drupes. Red is important. Sumacs with red fruits are not poisonous, even the fragrant sumac, which has leaves in clusters of three. Beware of sumacs and their relatives with white berries though.
An old saying warns that if leaves are in three, then let it be. I’d like to add if fruits are white, run with fright.
Poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac all have white berry-like drupes. Poison oak and poison ivy are much more common here. Anyone venturing into brushy or wooded areas should learn to recognize them. Poison sumac is less common, but more powerful. Urushiol is much more concentrated in poison sumac.
Smooth, staghorn, and poison sumacs all have leaves that emerge from the stems singly and are comprised of multiple blades or leaflets with toothed edges. Botanists call them pinnately compound serrated leaves. Stem tips of staghorn sumac are velvety, much like deer horns are in summer. Smooth sumac stems are somewhat waxy and the leaves are whitish underneath.
So what’s so special about these two cashew relatives? They can make great beverages that can be consumed warm or cold. Many call the cold version wild lemonade or Indian lemonade.
Fruits begin to ripen in midsummer. The strength of the flavor depends on when you collect it. You can gather fruit in the fall or winter, but its flavor won’t be as strong or as good.
Collect from areas away from road dist. If you gather fruit clusters when they are wet, like after a rain, flavor from the plant acids will be diluted. Once you taste a few samples you will get the feel for it. If they have a strong tartness, they’ll make great juice.
Fill your pitcher a third to half full of fruit clusters. Don’t rinse them off as this dilutes their flavor. Fill the container with cold water. Warm or hot water will leach out the tannins producing sumac tea and not the lemonade flavor. Sumac tea is also fine, but it is not our goal.
Let the mixture stand for 15-20 minutes and remove as much of the fruit and twigs as you can. Use a piece of clean cotton cloth to sieve out the remaining solid material. Sweeten your masterpiece to taste. I drink mine straight, just like my iced tea.
Dried and ground sumac fruits also make a great seasoning for poultry and fish. They add color and tang to rice and potato salad too.
Those who are allergic to cashews and pistachios should stay away from sumac preparations unless their doctor advises otherwise.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.