By Larry Hodgson
Question: I have a weakness for the spice called sumac. I find it tangy, sweet and fruity, great with poultry, in particular. I always thought it was from the Middle East, until I heard that some trees growing wild near my town are called staghorn sumacs. Is this the tree that produces the spice? If so, when is the ideal time to harvest the fruits? And what treatment is needed to make this wonderful spice?
Answer: The spice called sumac that you see in stores is derived from a Eurasian tree or shrub, Rhus coriaria, called Sicilian sumac, tanner’s sumac, or elm-leaved sumac. But this is not the same species as the staghorn sumac (R. typhina) that grows where you live.
The word sumac, from the Syriac summāqa for red, originally comes from the color of the spice and was applied to the spice alone. However, the term sumac is used today not only for the spice, but also almost all of the 125 some odd species of trees and shrubs in the genus Rhus, distributed throughout the world, are called sumacs. Poison sumac (Toxicodendron vernix) and Japanese sumac or Chinese lacquer tree (T. vernicifluum) are likewise close relatives, although no longer considered to be true sumacs (Rhus). All the above belong to the Anacardiaceae family.
Sicilian sumac (R. coriaria) is actually not native to Sicily, although it has been grown there at least since the time of the Romans. It originally comes from the Middle East and Central Asia as well as the eastern shores of Mediterranean. It was introduced much to its current range 2,000 years ago or more and is now so well naturalized throughout the Mediterranean region that locals would certainly be surprised to hear it is not a native plant.
Sumac is produced commercially in many countries, including Iran, Syria and Turkey.
Staghorn sumac (R. typhina) comes instead from North America, including where you live. That said, it has been widely planted in Europe as an ornamental where it has escaped cultivation to become an invasive species. Its sale and use are even prohibited in some European countries.
The two sumacs look very much alike and they are clearly closely related. You can think of them as being two variations of the same successful growth habit, one (Sicilian sumac) adapted to hot, dry climates and the other (staghorn sumac) adapted to cold and rather humid ones.
Both are tall deciduous shrubs or small trees with similar pinnate leaves that take on blazing colors in the fall. The leaves of Sicilian sumac are shorter, however, with smaller and generally fewer leaflets and a rachis (axis) lined with little wings towards its tip.
Staghorn sumac’s longer leaves have more elongated and narrow leaflets; plus the rachis is wingless. Also, the North American species has thicker stems that branch less and are heavily covered in down, while those of Sicilian sumac are somewhat fuzzy in the spring, but become smooth afterwards. Both species sucker as well, but only staghorn sumac actually does so invasively.
Obviously, the biggest difference between the two species is one that is not visible: their cold resistance. While Sicilian sumac can only survive in areas with mild climates and will even grow well in the tropics (hardiness zones 8 to 11), staghorn sumac is better suited to temperate and even cold climates: hardiness zones 3 at 8.
Harvesting and Preparing Sumac
The rather insignificant greenish flowers of the female trees (sumacs are dioecious) give a tight cluster of fuzzy red fruits in the fall in both specices. If left on the tree, the fruits will feed animals and birds during the winter.
Harvested and dried, the fruits of Sicilian sumac are reduced to powder for use as a spice that is very popular in Arab, Middle Eastern and Central Asian cuisines. Sumac powder is also used as a medicine and as a red dye, and, as its name tanner’s sumac suggests, was long used in tanning animal hides.
The fruits of North American staghorn sumac are also edible, but, until recently, were not known to have been used as a spice. They were often used, after crushing them and soaking them in water, to make a kind tangy pink drink often called sumac lemonade. Delving further back in time, North American native peoples once used them as a dye as well.
But more recently, the increasing popularity of wild plant foraging has caused a renewed interest in the edible potential of native plants and gleaners have discovered that you can indeed make a spice from the fruits of staghorn sumac (and also of smooth sumac, R. glabra, a related North American species). Indeed, there are now commercial sources of what is being called “wild sumac” on the market in North America. It is similar in color to Sicilian sumac, and, it seems, has a tangy taste much like it.
So, you can harvest the panicles of fruit staghorn sumacs in your area and make your own spice.
It’s best to harvest them in early fall, shortly after they take on their full color (their taste decreases once they become overly mature). You’d probably want to dry them in a food dehydrator. (In the Middle East, fruits are dried in the sun, but that may be difficult to achieve in the fall in the colder, moister climate where staghorn sumac is native.)
Separate the tiny fruits from the stems and run them through a blender at slow speed to remove the fluffy outer husk from the seeds. It’s the fluff you want to keep, so rub the fluff/seed mixture into a fine strainer that will catch the hard seeds while letting the spice through. You can use it as is or process it further in the blender or a coffee grinder, turning it into a fine powder.
Wild sumac is said to keep for up to 2 years in a sealed jar.
So, to answer your question, no, you won’t be able to harvest true Sicilian sumac yourself, not in North America. You’re going to have to keep buying the imported spice. But you can experiment with wild sumac derived from local staghorn sumacs: maybe it will meet your expectations.