Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) grows just about anywhere and everywhere all across the eastern part of the United States.
All it needs is an abandoned field, highway median or roadside ditch and it’s happy as can be. There’s nothing like a tasty plant that just loves to grow in just about anywhere, it’s a forager’s dream.
Everyone has their gateway plant into foraging, and more often than not it’s something like fresh dandelions on the lawn or a sweet patch of wild chanterelles happened upon in the woods. Mine’s a bit different you see. For me, sumac changed everything.
I’d been into herbal medicine since my early teens, but I never really considered myself a forager. At one point I found myself reading a herbal manual, learning about some of the medicinal plants traditionally used by native peoples in the northeast.
I came across a description of a plant with bright red, hairy fruit that grows upright in a pyramidal shape. It said they were just about everywhere in Vermont, but to the best of my knowledge, I’d never seen any hairy red fruits.
Of course, no pictures in the manual didn’t help. How on earth hadn’t I noticed sumac, if it does indeed grow everywhere? I kept my eyes peeled for over a year, hoping to spot a hairy red fruit, but no luck.
Then something magic happened. I was pulling out of the parking lot at work, right after I’d given my 2 weeks notice because we were moving to our dream homestead off the grid.
At one edge I see this strange-looking plant and realizing I have nowhere to be in that strange lame-duck period before you actually finish at a job, I stopped and got out to look. I examined it and found these strange upright clusters of bright red fuzzy seeds. They were beautiful, what on earth could they be?
And then it hit me all at once. The plant I’d been looking for all year had been growing not 50 feet from where I’d parked my car every day for the past 5 years. Sometimes all you have to do is open your eyes, and take the time to stop and really look, and there you find what you’ve been searching for.
Identifying Staghorn Sumac
One of the reasons I had such a hard time finding staghorn sumac is that all the descriptions I read of the plant’s fruit and growth habit were absolutely useless. By some definition, it does have bright red “fruit” covered in fuzz, but more practically speaking the “fruits” are just clusters of seeds. Think of it more like the seedhead on millet or sorghum, but tightly packed and tapering to a point at the top.
The seeds are covered in bright red “hairs” that aren’t really hairs. They’re tiny fibers that are covered in a sticky resin-like substance. When you hold staghorn sumac, the fuzz will gently brush off and the aromatic oils within the “fuzz” will stick to your hands.
Sumac grows in colonies, with the older trees in the center as the tallest, and then gradually shorter tree/shrubs radiating out. They’re usually somewhere between 8 and 20 feet tall.
The leaf stalks reaching out from the main branches are large, around 2 feet long, and individual leaves coming out in matched pairs all the way down the stalk. In botany speak, they’re pinnately compound, with each leaflet lanceolate and serrate.
Here’s a bit of a better view of the leaves…note the serrated edges, an important identification characteristic.
While most descriptions of this really common weed shrub come up lacking, I wasn’t disappointed when I finally flipped open A Forager’s Harvest, one of the best foraging books I’ve read to date.
The descriptions and pictures are consistently good, and the text is written from firsthand experience. Unfortunately, I found this book about 5 years after my first sumac, so alas…
The seed pods come out of the top of branches and usually point upward towards the sky. In the early spring, the immature seedheads are green until they slowly develop a pinkish tinge that spreads and gradually turns to a bright velvet red.
When to Harvest Staghorn Sumac
Once the seed pods ripen, staghorn sumac persists all throughout the winter. That means it can be foraged at almost anytime throughout the year assuming you can find seed pods in good condition. Depending on the weather and the exact site, the pods may degrade or discolor.
Often the pods become infested with worms in the center too, so the older the pods the more likely they’ve got someone living inside. For the most part that’s not a huge issue, if you just strip off the clean-ish seeds on the outside and discard the wormy center of the seed pod.
As the pods age, they begin to lose their flavor. The rain washes them out a bit and they’re not as potent or tasty. By late summer, flavors are waning, but they’re often still great in some locations into October or November.
Nonetheless, they’re one of the wild edibles that can be foraged all winter long if you choose. Even when it’s -20 here in a Vermont January, there’s still sumac a plenty, much of it still bright and almost good as new.
The only time it’s tricky to harvest staghorn sumac is in the late spring, when the old pods have begun to degrade and the new ones are still too green to harvest. You’ll often see the last remnants of last year’s pods picked over by the early spring birds. Generally, birds don’t go in for sumac, but early spring arrivals are less picky.
While spring may be a dry time for sumac pods, I’ve recently learned that the shoots are edible! Samuel Thayer describes his experience harvesting new sumac shoots as a child, “In the late spring and very early summer, I would gather these shoots on a daily basis and peel off the leaves and bitter outer bark, then eat the shoots raw. These are slightly sweet and delicious, tasting more like a fruit than a vegetable.”
Toxic Sumac Look-Alikes
Poison sumac (Toxicodendron vernix) is considered a “look-alike” though really they’re only alike in name if you’re paying any attention. They’re not even in the same genus.
“The most important distinction is in the berries, which are whitish, waxy, hairless and hang in loose, grape-like clusters – quite unlike the berries of the edible sumacs. The leaves of poison sumac differ in being hairless and shiny with smooth margins. Poison sumac also differs in that it rarely grows in dense, pure stands, and it inhabits swamps. (Source)”
If you do manage to somehow mistake poison sumac for sumac, you’ll be sorry though. It causes skin reactions much worse than poison ivy and poison oak. If you’re looking at a stand, be sure to look at the leaves before you touch them.
Make sure the edges are serrated on the individual leaflets. Nonetheless, the presence of big red velvety seed pods is an easy giveaway, especially since poison oak berries are white and hang in bunches like grapes.
Processing Sumac Pods for Food
So now that you’ve harvested a few staghorn sumac “fruits,” how do you process them into food?
It’s actually the red velvet on the outside of the sumac berries that’s the tasty part. It has a wonderful sweet/tart citrus taste, that some liken to strawberry lemonade.
Since it already has that flavor, making a sumac lemonade is the obvious thing to do. The seeds and stalks contain bitter alkaloids that are extracted by hot water, so it’s important to only use cold water when making a sumac infusion.
The first step is to break apart the seed heads. In my first harvest, I just stuffed the whole pods into cold water and make lemonade that way…and it was horrible.
I cracked open the pods after and found them full of putrid dead worms and worm poop. Mmmm…worm lemonade. Don’t make that mistake, take them apart first. Start by pulling back individual bundles of seeds from the outside of the fruit clusters.
With a little gentle pressure, these break right off into your hand in tiny clusters.
Work slowly, because if you do hit a batch of worm poop you can keep the clean sumac separate if you’re careful.
Individual clusters can then be broken down into individual seeds, removing as much of the stem as possible.
All the flavor is in the fluff, so try to just get red velvet-covered seeds separated from everything else.
In the past, I’ve found a few sumac pods without worms, but those are rare in my harvests. Just about all of them are full of black worm poop, and this one was no exception.
As I pulled off the fluffy outer seeds I hit the poop layer right on schedule. That obviously, is where you stop. Keep pulling the clean seeds off the outside and leave the wormy parts for the compost heap.
Even a wormy sumac pod still has plenty of velvet-covered sumac seeds to harvest. Work around the outside pulling off clusters and separating them out from the stems and worms.
I generally get a good-sized handful of clean berries from each pod, even the worst wormy ones.
How to Use Staghorn Sumac
At this point, a simple overnight cold water extraction is the best way to get to the flavor. My friend Susan at Learning and Yearning suggests allowing sumac lemonade sit for just half an hour to extract, but I tend to like pretty tart lemonade with barely any sugar and a lot of lemon juice.
For your own tastes, you’ll have to work it out on your own. The berries aren’t particularly sweet, so add sugar to taste too.
I’ve seen a few sources that claim sumac was used by Native Americans to make cough syrup, and that a sumac infusion was gargled for sore throats. It is an excellent source of vitamin C, which would support its use for coughs and other illness.
For foragers in the northeast, where lemons are nowhere to be found, it’s a great option for extra vitamins year-round, and it’s a welcome change from the pine needles tea you’d otherwise be drinking for foraged vitamin C.
I’ve also heard it makes a great wine, and that’s next on my list to try this year.
The article says a cold water extraction is best for,the seed pods. What, exactly, is a cold water extraction? Just letting it sit in cold water overnight?
Yup! I probably should have said cold water infusion. Anywhere from half an hour to overnight, depending on how strong you like it. I leave them overnight, but I’ve seen other recipes that say just 30 minutes. I like my lemonade strong though.
Staghorn sumac is the best thing you can use for smoking bees prior to entering their hive for working! It produces a “cool” smoke, for beekeepers know what that means. Collect it when it is completely dried out.
Are you the Adora that used to live in Stinson Beach CA? If so I remember you from Redrock Beach….so many years ago. I was with Jonathan T. for a couple of years. Pamela 💛🌻🌱
Wonderful information, thank you! Sumac is a common spice in middle eastern cooking. I wonder if you dry and grind these you can use it the same way? I sprinkle it over meats, use it in salads and vegetable–it gives a real lemony kick!
I live in Indiana and have about a 1/3 of a mile stretch of staghorn sumac on my property. I have never tried to do anything with them. They are actually attractive looking plants.
Just wondering: Has anyone tried making a jelly or jam with it? This is the first I’ve heard you can eat it or drink it though I’ve been told it’s used only for medicinal purposes. Thank you.
The flavor has to be extracted cold, but if you did that, you could make a jelly from the pink lemonade like liquid from the extract. I would think that’d be tasty, but I can’t say for sure since I haven’t made it. If you do, let me know how it goes!
This is AWESOME! I could never get a positive id on these more than “sumac” so I stayed away just in case! We have them in abundance where I forage, and I want to grow some on my property to create a sort of archway along my trail in the woods…the spindly branches are so beautiful. Thanks so much for the great info! ☺️
You’re very welcome. So glad you enjoyed the post.
Hilda – Yes! Sumac jelly is amazing! 🙂
Just harvested our first-ever sumac from across our road here in central Maine. Looks like it could still use a couple of weeks based on descriptions and pictures. We’ll post follow-up info if it helps but just wanted to say thanks as this information gives us the confidence to go forward on yet one more foraging adventure. A good end to a day that started with picking one and a half pounds of chanterelle mushrooms down on the coast (and one lone hedgehog). Late for chanterelles, but a little early for staghorn sumac. Nice post and love the comments.
Awesome, thanks Mark! Congrats on the chanterelles too =)
Great pictures at all stages of your description. Thanks for sharing.
I have a lot of these trees on the farm how many berries(seeds) would it take to make a gallon of the lemonade?
I use about 2 of the big ones for a half-gallon mason jar, so roughly 4ish?
I’m so thankful for this post. Every summer vacation up to northern NY state, I’ve wondered what those almost tropical looking trees were. They really are beautiful. I finally got the nerve up to stop and pick some off the side of a quiet road this year. I can’t wait to make sumac lemonade. I’m just wondering how much worm poop is too much worm poop? I’m not sure I can truly say that all of the berries I’ve pulled of are poop-free lol. Is is very toxic? Should I boil the berries first?
Definitely don’t boil or heat the berries in any way. There’s a latex-like substance that comes out when they go into hot water and it tastes horrible. Keep everything cool and do a cold infusion. I’ve made it with quite a bit of worm poop, to be honest, and it’s still fine. It’s not toxic to the best of my knowledge, and honestly, even if you only do a half-hearted cleaning job I personally wouldn’t worry about it.
I haven’t had that issue with my sumac. I put it in hot water, squash it a bit with a teaspoon, and steep it for 5 minutes, just like black tea, and it tastes fine. It’s the tannins that make it taste bitter, so if you steep it too long it turns bitter.
I used to have one of these trees in pur front garden as a child. I used to sit on the wall picking them and nibbling all the lemony fuxx off the seeds . I had no idea if they were edible but I was a terror for eating things out of the garden lol. Amazed me when I realised years later how this is a prized aromatic !
I’m still here to tell the tale so I must have had good intuition on what was good and what wasn’t 😊
Yes! Kids always seem to know what’s edible! Maybe it’s our ancestral knowledge at work.
Hello Ashley, fellow Vermonter! Are the seeds themselves edible? I’ve made sumac spice powder (instructions from another site) but have about 2 cups of small seeds remaining. Not berries – seeds. Hate to compost these, and am wondering if these can be roasted and eaten. Can’t seem to find anything about this in all my searching…your thoughts?
Good question, and honestly I don’t know! You’re actually ahead of me because I’ve never gone through extracting it for a spice, I’ve always just made lemonade. I’d guess they’re full of the bitter alkaloid that comes out if you put boiling water on them (instead of cold for the lemonade) but I cant say for sure.
I know this is commonly used in India for seasoning. I understood that it’s not water extraction but you might be able to buy on ebay as I have seen it sold there.
I have read that they used to make candles (tallow-waxy type) from the Sumac seeds! I can’t find a specific recipe though, just references in the encyclopedias
The map does not show Arkansas as having stag horn sumac but I have been collecting and using it here for awhile. Same structure but smaller seeds on the pod in comparison to your pictures….yes tall erect cluster and exact same leaf pattern. We also have common sumac. I’ve made lemonade as well but this year we are using them in the greenery for a wedding! Dark red gives and incredible punch of color. Great article
Today we came across these trees and they had small round white objects also hanging from them. They were soft to the touch and felt very light. Do you. Have any idea what it might be?
Not a clue, that’s a new one for me. If you do find out, let me know!
From what I’ve been reading about Sumac, the white berries belong to Poison Sumac and the leaves have smooth edges, whereas Staghorn Sumac leaves have jagged edges and deep red seed clusters which point upward. Poison Sumac grows in wet ecosystems versus the Staghorn Sumac found here in Colorado Springs’ high desert. Hope this helps.
TY for the information. I’m sure we have these on our farm. I’m keeping my eyes open!
Thank you for this great article! I’ve tried collecting the seed heads to make the lemonade, years ago, but was really put off by the worms. Now I have a better idea of how to proceed. As for the worms, I realize many cultures consider non toxic insects, even worms, as food. I’m not there yet. Perhaps a realistic follow up at some time?
Hi i am just learning about foraging and also love Samuel’s books! I picked some sumac this summer and dehydrated overnight and placed in an air tight jar for later use. Annnnd forgot about it, then found it. I ended up putting it in cold water and heating it to a boil and reducing it until it fit in my ice cube tray. I have had fresh sumac tea and now tried this creation. fresher is better and boiling it seems a little bitter. But it is still nice and refreshing to have a glass of water with a sumac ice cube.
It is SO refreshing to find such a detailed description of all the practical parts of foraging AND preparing. SO many articles just gloss over so much it makes you wonder if they’ve ever actually done it themselves or if they’re just regurgitating what they read on the internet. We recently moved to rural Vermont from Northern California and have been enjoying foraging in our new forest. You’ve just gained a new fan in me. I signed up for your emails and can’t wait to hear more. Thanks for sharing your experience!
Wonderful, so happy to have you along!
I couldn’t agree more! So many times I think I find what I’m looking for only to read an article with no pictures, little processing information and a vague description at best…so frustrating when you are trying to positively id something.
TY for this page! I have a pretty large stand which I’d previously been trying (unsuccessfully) to eradicate by lopping off and burning branches/pods. With this “economic bio-weapon” / “panicdemic” destroying so much of our food chain, I’m taking a serious look at wild-crafting. What I have LOOKS identical to what you show (perhaps, a bit less “hairy”); but, I’m in (eastern central, @50 miles east of OKC) Oklahoma ~ which isn’t listed on the map you show. I’ve seen them all over the area as an “invasive weed;” which would lead me to believe that they’re indigenous to the area. Which is more likely: 1) The map is wrong? or 2) This is a different species of Sumac? If 2, should they “be close enough” for our purposes?
Has anyone figured out how to dry for middle eastern spice?
There is a video on YouTube. Basically remove berries, blend in a blender. Strain the seeds out and the rest save to use as spice.
You map needs updating, as staghorn sumac has spread all the way to the other side of the US. I think your’s might be more accurate as the original native range, though. We have quite a bit here in Washington State. I originally tried making the lemonade with ours, but it never comes out right, despite trying several different recipes and watching numerous YouTube videos. I’ve had much better luck steeping it like black tea for 5 minutes (being sure to squash everything a bit). It tastes a lot like thimbleberries to me. I always hear people talk about finding bugs in the clusters, but that’s only been an issue for me once. Our biggest problem has been getting it to be dry long enough to use the fresh clusters once they’re ripe because, as you mentioned, the rain tends to wash out the flavor.
Are the unripe fruits, which taste lemony and I fancy be’d good in a leafy green salad unlikely to cause gastric distress? Thanks!
Honestly I have no idea
Here in Missouri we have four varieties of sumac. – staghorn, smooth, winged, and one more I can’t remember. I use smooth sumac which is similar to staghorn except the berries are smooth without the “hairs”. For lemonade I pick the good berries from each head, pour room-temp water over them, mash with a large spoon (I use a potato masher), and steep about 15-30 min. before straining. and making sumacade. I use about six heads per half gallon. To make spice whirl them in the food processor then shake the powder through a strainer and throw away the remains. Winged sumac looks the same as the others except there are small papery “wings” growing on both sides of the branches. I recommend finding sumac away from roadsides if possible – less dust on the seed heads and the more they are washed, the less flavorful the seeds. Sumac can be grown as an ornamental but will need to be tended or it can eventually spread to make a colony.
Last year I made a vodka infusion with the staghorns. It turned out wonderfully once some simple syrup was added. It was a bit tannin-y. Very much like a cranberry vodka drink. This year I wanted to early harvest some immature berry pods and infuse that. Have you ever harvested or infused early season berries? Today they were just starting to turn from green to red.
Anyone have a more clear photo of the worm poop that can be found inside? The sumac I harvested has lots of dried brown bits inside. They look more like chaff, or dried plant material to me. Don’t see any actual worms.
I would just harvest the fluff that you find on the outside and discard whatever is left in the middle.
I picked some sumac today for the first time. One had hairs on fruit (I got rid of it because I though it wasn’t ready) and other had just fruits only. Since I didn’t check the leaves, but only licked sticky liquid on my fingers and I didn’t have a bad reaction, after reading this blog, I can say that they are safe. I boiled them for few minutes and strained them. I didn’t check for poop, but after I picked them and put them in a bag I found spiders and ticks. My question is, did anyone worry about spiders and ticks in the liquid after they are boiled? Is my liquid safe? I want to make jelly.
Very interesting article! I grew up on a farm in Upstate New York and this grows everywhere! As kids we were always told it was poison and not to go near it. I didn’t realize it was used as a spice until I saw it in an Italian market in Toledo, Oh. It has been an addition to my spice cupboard.
Nice to hear about the smooth variety. That is what I find here in Long Island NY. It is late august and some are just getting good and red. Will try some of them maybe in two weeks. We use sumac powder on rice and beef kabob dish as it is traditionally required for the Persian dish Celo Kabab. Without a dehydrator I will need to research another method to dry the drupes before crushing into powder. Will try the cold brew soon.
Sharon -are your white balls on a vine.They May be seed pods of an invasive vine called wild cucumber in my area.Don’t know the proper name. Pretty flowers followed by lacy balls with several seeds in them.
Just collected a big basket of it here between Rochester and buffalo new York on nature trails. Can’t wait to make sumac-ade and make an Indian spice out of it! With winter coming I’m curious about the cough syrup options! All fellow Western New York foragers let me know what you think! #foragebuddies
Awesome! I hope you enjoy all the sumac recipes!
I found a Sumac tree in Eudora Mississippi today. I never seen one in person before. I foraged off of it and did a lot of research to make sure that it is the Real Deal. Well, it is and I’m Super excited to start preparing it for it’s many uses. However, since all ya’ll been talking about Sumac possibly having Worms/poop in the pods, I’m almost too afraid to touch it now. I’m terrified of Worms and I just planted my first Vegetable Garden this Spring. Didn’t see One worm all spring. I need to see a Therapist or Hypnotist before I can go close to or touch a worm. What do I do Now?
Hm, I’m not a therapist or hypnotist, but I can tell you that if you leave your foraged edibles outside after they’re gathered, most bugs or worms will vacate as soon as possible. I hope that helps ease your worries!
I’ve always steeped the berrie bunches I hot water(not boiling), I guess try your way & te the result.
Great! Keep me updated on your findings of both methods!
Smooth Sumac. I am very new to this. I picked some smooth sumac, since I didn’t know better, I cooked the sumac for 20 minutes, then split into 2 recipes. Made simple syrup and Sumac jelly. I didn’t look for worms or poop. Should I throw it out?
If you didn’t see any, I’m sure it’s fine!
I harvested some staghorn cones last week. I let them air dry for three days then removed the fuzzy parts. There are no hard shells only fuzz and the seeds are smaller than sesame seeds. I am having such a hard time separating the fuzz from seed even after using a coffee grinder. Is the fuzz what will be the dried spice that I can store in a jar?
I’m not sure. I haven’t heard of it being used like that but someone else posted a similar comment. Let us know if you find out.
Roberta R Fretz
Hi Ashley! Great article. Do you rinse the seed pods prior to putting them in the cold water infusion?
I don’t usually, but it’s probably not a bad idea.
I’ve been foraging for a couple of years now. In WV, we have the Smooth Sumac and we’ve been making “lemonade” forever. My goal is to make a pie, like Lemon pie. I’m still working on the details…
Oooo….that sounds like a great idea!
These grow prolifically in Ontario, where we used to live years ago. There was a large patch of them on our property, but I ignored them then. I have since discovered the “lemonade” in this article and wished I had that info when we had them on hand to harvest. I have not seen many up here and have not had the time to search for them. Maybe I will do that this year. Thanks for the info on the worms. Handy to know!
You’re welcome and good luck finding some sumac to forage.
Great, detailed post! Thank you for sharing your knowledge on this interesting plant! It’s end of July here in SE Michigan, and I see lots of staghorn sumac along the side of the highways/roads. Some are a maroon red, some are a dark red, and some are a bright red. I have a few questions: (a) Is it okay to harvest some sumac located near a busy highway/road? (b) Are the staghorn sumac ready for harvest this time of year? (c) Is there a difference to the quality/freshness of the sumac when considering the color (are the brighter red the best/only/healthiest ones to pick?)? Thank you in advance for any insights you can provide!
You want to harvest as far away from the road as possible. The staghorn sumac is not as susceptible to contamination from the roadways since the “fruit” is in the air. There are several factors to take into consideration. The distance from the road to the plant, the busyness of the road and whether the plant is uphill or downhill from the road. If they are red, then they should be ready for harvest. The brighter the color, the more fresh they should be. They lose flavor and nutrients as they age so the more bright red, the better.
That is helpful! Thank you so much for your reply!
You’re very welcome.
I was wondering if after I stick them in a brown paper bag for a while… can I then scrape off the berries and freeze them in a jar for winter.
Yes, that should work just fine.
Ewww. Found some horns. Can’t get passed the worms and poo. Tossing them. There are other things to ingest. They must use a different kind of sumac for store bought spice.
Thanks for the article!💕
It actually is the same although technically not a spice, it is made from ground sumac flowers.
Thank you so much for this article. The person who taught me about Sumac used to steep the fruit in just boiled water for a long time, and it was bitter! After reading your instructions,I am looking forward to trying it as a cold brew. Perhaps I will like it better, and not just drink it for its antiviral properties and Vitamin C!
What had me searching your site is that I just gathered some sumac and had it on a sheet for a day upstate for bugs to leave (and there were a lot of worms!) before coming back to NYC. I was too tired to get the dehydrator out when I got home, so spread them out on a sheet on the floor to continue drying. This morning I found about a dozen worms crawling around on the floor which I put outside. (I live on the 15th floor.) Now I am worried that something undesirable may hatch in my apartment! I have houseplants which a worm could eat before metamorphosing into a moth. I couldn’t find any info about what the worms are and what they grow into, so if you have any information to assuage my concern over an infestation, please let me know. Ingesting some is less scary to me than having them take up residence in my tiny apartment! Thank you.
I am sure you will be fine. If you find any stragglers, just put them out with the others.
Stag horn sumac is also used in natural dyeing.
Great article. Thanks!
Thank you. We’re so glad you enjoyed the article.
So I think I plucked mine too soon, didn’t break it apart either made it more like a black tea taste. Tried a few sips nothing bad yet. So wondering if i should dump it and try again. And also should i wait a bit they are more pinkish seeds than reddish
Yes, it sounds like you definitely need to let them ripen a bit longer.
I have read that they used to make candles (tallow-waxy type) from the Sumac seeds! I can’t find a specific recipe though, just references in the encyclopedias
That’s really cool. I hadn’t heard of that before but I would definitely be interested in learning more about it. Let us know if you find any more information.