Cooking With Invasives, or this week, over-abundances: Sumacade
by libby, August 4, 2021
Unfortunately we missed last weeks CSA due to an unfortunate cooking disaster (we have not quite cracked how to make roasted burdock root delicious yet). But this week we came back stronger and with one of our best recipes, sumac-are. This week has been busy for us... we are coordinating a invasive species management project with grazing goats! So unfortunately, we did forget to take our usual thousands of photos this week so you are going to have to simply imagine us looking cute serving our sumac tea.
12-13 clusters of sumac berries
1 gallon of cold or room temperature water
Sweetener (sugar, honey, maple syrup) to taste
optional flavors: mint, lemon, violets!
Harvest sumac berry clusters and check for any discoloration or bugs
Soak sumac berries for 10-15 minutes. While doing so massage berries off cluster with hands and gently squeeze berries in water
Strain mixture into a separate pitcher through a cheese cloth.
Refrigerate and enjoy! Experiment with the flavors in cocktail and mixed drinks or enjoy on its own.
How simple and refreshing! Its tart flavor is similar to that of lemonade and other citrus juices. I personally find the unsweetened tea to taste like hibiscus tea! While Staghorn Sumac is not quite an invasive, I encourage you to continue reading on about its abundance and why we encourage you to forage it!
What is Staghorn Sumac?
You might see the thin long leaves of stag horn sumac and mistake it with its commonly misidentified twin tree-of-heaven, an invasive in Vermont. Staghorn sumac is not invasive to Vermont but is highly abundant and an aggressive native. Rhus typhina, its scientific name, is representative of its rapid reproduction and distinct appearance. "Rhus" is Greek for run, due to its fast spreading rhizome root system that allows the plant to create quite dense clusters of sumac quickly. It also is Celtic for red, symbolic for the plants bright red clusters of berries. "typhina" refers to the hairy branches said to resemble cattail shoots (whose Genus is Typha)- it also was said to treat typhoid fever. Its young fuzzy branches resemble the horns of a stag- which explains the common name staghorn. You can find it on roadsides and forest edges and once you learn to identify its vibrant pink cones, it seems to pop up everywhere you look.
How to Identify:
Sumac ranges between 3-40 feet tall, averaging at 10-15, resembling a tall shrub to small tree. Its bark is distinctively furry all over, a similar texture to peach fuzz. The tree has compound leaves with 11-31 green leaflets. The most distinct feature of the tree is its conical fuzzy red drupes, which stand in upright cones on the tree. These are the fruit of the tree and what we use to make tea! Chances are poison sumac is coming to mind! Don't fret, the cones of stag horn sumac are NOT poisonous. First, poison sumac does not grow in the state of Vermont, excluding only the southernmost regions, so it is nearly impossible to mistake the two. Second, poison sumac does not grow the red clusters stag horn does, instead small white berries with an appearance resembling blueberries. So feel free to harvest this plant with the peace of mind that you will not be poisoned. The second plant you might be worried about confusing this with is Tree-of-Heaven. Again do not fret! While the leafs are similar, Tree-of-Heavan does not produce red berry clusters but instead single winged tan-red samaras. Another easy way to check is by crushing the leaves, Tree-of-Heaven smells distinctly of cat piss! Staghorn also has toothed leaf edges.
Top left: Poison sumac berries, Top right: Tree-of-Heaven, Bottom left: Fuzzy branches of Staghorn Sumac, Bottom right: Staghorn sumac cone
Why to eat, how to eat:
While many native species enjoy the berries of sumac, its aggressive sprouting can prevent other less aggressive natives from sprouting! Therefore foraging for this plant is encouraged. Taking the berry clusters, while following the sustainable foraging rules, will help stop excess seed distribution allowing for more diversity. The best time to harvest is from August when it starts to ripen to September, but truthfully can be harvested for five months, anytime the cones are ripe. The fuzz on the berries helps deter rain from washing away the flavor as seasons progress. If the seeds are dried properly it can be stored and used year round. Simply pull down the plant and remove the drupes. There are several recipes for this tea, we choose to not use boiling water like many due, because it releases tannins within the berries and can make the tea more bitter- but some love this flavor! These droops are filled with the plants nutrients and antioxidants including vitamin C and provide an important food source for bird, such as chickadees, in the winter! You can also make a delicious jelly out of them, boil 4 cups for 1 minute, add berries, a package of powdered pectin, and 5 cups of sugar! Medicinally the fruits have historically been used to stimulate appetites, treat coughs, help intestinal troubles, as a blood purifier, and was used for various female disorders. You need to try it!
This week was a hit. We quickly found phrasing the drink as a juice we made with sumac berries drew more people than calling it sumacade. But people- especially kids found its tart flavor refreshing and unique. Two boys came back for fourths and told us they saw sumac growing all over their soccer field and could not wait to make the ade at home! Many shared with us their own experience with sumac and making tea but many where so happy to finally place a name to the abundant pink cones they see everywhere. More people this week than ever told us they planned on trying it, which made my heart sing. We gave out around 35 brochures and more than 60 samples. We had several CSA members tell us how they missed us last week and not to take anymore weeks off. We promised them we would try not to ever again. See you next week fair share!
Here are our goats Guy and Gordon saying hello.