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Foraging For Vermont's Surprisingly Scrumptuous Sumac

There's a plant that produces a berry you can use to make a lovely, citrusy tea. Intrigued?

It’s sumac.

Now, before you start itching and scratching and thinking of the poisonous variety, please pay close attention. VPR recently had the opportunity to go foraging for a specific edible variety of the plant with Vermont’s self-described Johnny Appleseed of sumac, Stephen Marshall of North Ferrisburgh.

So, what is the difference between the poison sumac and the edible Staghorn sumac?

First, there’s the difference in their appearance. Poison sumac has a white berry—sort of like a white blueberry. The Staghorn, on the other hand, produces a red, standing, fuzzy fruit called a "drupe," which grows at the very top of the tree. Unlike other plants, the Staghorn produces its fuzzy fruit in winter, with a harvesting season of five months, Marshall says.

“It’s an amazing fruit because it’s actually harvestable from the time that the leaves fall off the plant until the leaves grow back the next spring,” he says.

Credit Ric Cengeri / VPR
The "fuzz" on the drupe is the sumac's depository for sugars, starches, antioxidants, vitamin C and tannins.

The "fuzz" on the drupe is the plant’s depository for sugars, starches, vitamin C, tannins and antioxidants, and its seeds are transported and deposited by birds. Its ecological role is to provide food to birds during the winter, according to Marshall.

Another difference between the Staghorn and poison sumac is that the poisonous variety doesn’t grow in Vermont, except in the southernmost reaches of the state. Marshall says that means that there is little cause to worry about selecting the wrong kind of sumac for your tea.

All right. Now that we know what it looks like, how does one make sumac tea?

The first step: harvest the drupes. This year, drupes were dried and ready for picking in October.

“If they’re well-dried out, you can keep them for a whole year,” Marshall says. “I have some now that I harvested last spring, and they’re still in prime condition.”

Sumac tastes sort of like cranberry juice. It’s very sour, with a fruity flavor. 

“Like most people, I’d heard that you can make a beverage with sumac drupe,” says Marshall. “I was visiting some folks I knew, and they were cutting down some sumac trees, and right at waist level were some drupes from this plant, staring at me. I said ,‘I can’t walk by this!'"

So Marshall broke some off and put them in water for sumac tea.

Unlike other plants, the Staghorn sumac produces its fuzzy fruit in winter, with a harvesting season of five months, Marshall says.

“It was delicious,” he said. “I was like, ‘Why aren’t we using this stuff?’ It’s delicious, and it’s everywhere.”

Once the drupes are harvested and ready, heat the water to between 150 and 170 degrees. Be careful not to overheat the water—this cooks the starches, removing some of the sumac’s citrusy flavor. Overheating the water can also release tannins, which are chemicals that make the beverage bitter, Marshall says.

Marshall recommends putting enough water in the pot to cover the sumac, then dilute that once, doubling the water to bring the tea to the desired strength.

“Think of it as a one-to-one ratio,” he says. “If I take a drupe, and break it up, and I have a cup of seeds, then I would end up putting probably a little more than a cup of water over that, and that will give me a very strong, concentrated solution of the sumac beverage."


Ric was a producer for Vermont Edition and host of the VPR Cafe.
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