Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Sumac 'lemonade'

 Stag's-horn Sumac (Rhus typhina), or simply Sumac(h), was bought over from North America as an ornamental shrub and has now widely naturalised in parks, gardens, roadsides and railway verges. I've only recently discovered the edibility of this plant, which is a great shame, as I remember having a large Sumac tree in the garden of my old house, which was rather unkindly nicknamed the 'dog poo tree' due to the dark, elongate appearance of the mature fruit heads (this was quite a while ago, by the way; I'd like to think I've matured a little since then).

These unkindly nicknamed flower heads contain malic, citric, tartaric and ascorbic acids (all the acids normally found in fruit) and are used in Middle Eastern cuisine to add a tart, lemony flavour to rice, meat, vegetables, hummus etc. The spice is produced by drying the fruit heads and rubbing over a sieve to remove the red fibres that coat the seed pods; this is where all the flavour lies. Fruit heads are collected when vibrant red and fuzzy, and preferably before it rains, as this leaches the acidic flavour from the fruit heads.

Despite being a fairly common household spice, Sumac seems to be somewhat misunderstood in the UK; I've told a number of people about this and have been greeted with the same response of, 'oh, I thought that was poisonous!' Even the RHS have gotten a little confused over Stag's-horn Sumac, writing on their website that 'all parts are highly toxic if ingested, contact with foliage may aggravate skin allergies.' Although this information is incorrect, some caution should perhaps be advised when handling Sumac; on www.pfaf.org it states that 'there are some suggestions that the sap of this species can cause a skin rash in susceptible people, though this claim has not been substantiated.' It is, however, widely documented that some people are allergic to the berries, they should therefore be tried in small quantities to begin with.

Although Stag's-horn Sumac poses very little real threat to the forager, it's bad public image probably stems from confusion between it and the very nasty Poison Sumac (Toxiconendron vernix, previously known as Rhus vernix). All parts of this plant contain a resin called urushiol that causes long-lasting, painful rashes. Poison Sumac is much less frequent in the UK than Stag's-horn Sumac, but it sometimes grown in gardens, so it's worth being able to differentiate the two - see identification section below.


> Some people are allergic to the berries: use in moderation to begin with. Perhaps take special care if allergic to            other plants in the same family such as cashew nuts and mangoes
> There are some suggestions that the sap can cause skin rash in susceptible people
> Misidentification with Poison Sumac


Luckily, it's very easy to identify Stag's-horn Sumac and to differentiate it from Poison Sumac. Stag's-horn Sumac leaves are divided into densely packed pairs of long, thin opposite leaves with toothed edges. The younger stems in particular have a red coloration and a fuzzy lining to them that is soft to the touch. Poison Sumac has widely spaced oval, toothless leaflets. Stag's-horn Sumac fruit heads (drupes) are dense, velvety clusters with deep red fuzzy berries, whereas Poison Sumac has drooping clusters of white drupes, arranged much less densely than Stag's-horn Sumac.

Stag's-horn Sumac

Stag's-horn Sumac leaf structure

Pick the seed heads when vibrant red, fuzzy, and full of flavour

The younger, more vibrant red specimens have a superior sour flavour


This Sumac 'lemonade' is made using still water, so will obviously be a flat lemonade. I haven't yet tried to make it fizzy, but I'm sure using sparkling water instead and sealing in a large jar or kilner to keep the water carbonated whilst infusing would work. If you can't find a fruiting Sumac tree, this lemonade can also be made from the dried Sumac available in spice stores and supermarkets. Enjoy this drink serve chilled on a sunny summers day with a sprig of mint - it has a wonderfully light and refreshing sour taste.


- 6-8 young Sumac flower heads
- Cold water 
- Sugar

This recipe really couldn't be any easier, simply place the flower heads in a bowl and cover with cold water and leave for 1-2 hours to infuse (I stripped the berries off the the stem as much as possible, but this isn't necessary). Do not use boiling or hot water as this leaches tannins from the stems which produce a bitter flavour. Strain the liquid through a sieve. Create a simple sugar syrup by adding equal parts sugar and water to a pan and heat quickly over the hob to dissolve the sugar. Add to the Sumac water, taste, and adjust. You can add as much or as little sugar syrup as you please - I prefer mine sweetened only very slightly. Serve chilled.

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