Helpful Herbs: Sumac
A small tree that can be cultivated for its many benefits, Sumac isn't hard to find in the wild or to grow in your backyard. In the Northeast, the most common variety of Sumac is the Staghorn type.
Sumac is widely considered a weed or "junk tree". It is often one of the first invaders to overtake an abandoned space, and large thickets of it can be found around old farm houses here in Maine, or filling in sunken foundations. It is definitely not useless, however, and its vigorous behavior can be helpful if you are using it for any of its many helpful properties.
If you cannot forage Sumac, you can plant it in a hedge or bordering a space where you don't mind if it spreads over time. The plants can be started from seeds, cuttings, or seedlings, and grow quickly in full sun or partial shade. If you have too much Sumac, goats are an excellent way to keep your grove in control.
Many people believe Sumac to be poisonous, however, only a specific variety of the plant which is called Poison Sumac is toxic. Staghorn Sumac berries or fruits can be harvested for a wide array of uses, including cultivation as a spice.
The bright red berry clusters of the sumac tree can be harvested when they are in full flower, at their reddest, in late Summer or early Fall. Clip the clusters off at the base and then remove the individual berries with your fingers. To make Sumac spice, you can dry the berries by leaving them in a dry place for a week or two, or by using a food dehydrator. Many recipes also use Sumac berries fresh.
Sumac's flavor is widely compared to that of lemons, with a woodsy tang. Once the dried berries are ground into a spice, they become a flavorful addition to many meals. The Sumac tree is native to the Middle East, and its tart taste is a staple of many traditional recipes. The spice is particularly delicious sprinkled over a fresh salad, goat cheese, or used as a rub on a meat dish. You can even sprinkle Sumac spice over a fresh slice of melon for a quick snack.
Sumac beverages are very refreshing on a hot day. Known as "sumac-ade" or "Indian lemonade", a fresh drink made from Sumac extract is both healing and delicious. Sumac tea is often used as a soothing drink which is said to calm upset stomach.
A powerful antioxidant, Sumac is recommended as a antiseptic treatment for bruises and rashes. Because it is so full of good vitamins, Sumac can help treat the common cold or more persistent health issues such as asthma or tuberculosis.
Native Americans used Sumac to treat many ailments including digestive and reproductive issues, and early Settlers would use Sumac to help reduce fevers. Before its introduction to the New World, Sumac was native to the Middle East and was used a tart spice in Europe prior to lemons becoming a common ingredient.
In addition to flavoring and healing throughout history, Sumac has also been used extensively as a natural dye. Its bright red berries can be turned into a dye will color cloth a deep purple, a richer color than many other natural red dyes are able to offer.
Sumac does not have to be a nuisance, in fact the berry clusters are a wealth of resources for your kitchen, medicine cabinet, and more.