Country Lore: Sumac Lemonade

A reader in Massachusetts describes how his family collects sumac berries to make tart sumac lemonade, or sumac-ade as they call it.

  • sumac lemonde - Staghorn Sumac
    Staghorn sumac like this bunch is one of three types of sumac berries you can make into sumac lemonade.

  • sumac lemonde - Staghorn Sumac

My family and I like to pick the small clusters of red fuzzy berries that grow on the top of staghorn, smooth, and winged sumac trees to make a kind of lemonade. The clusters ripen around mid-August. Sumac-ade is my name for free, homemade pink lemonade.

To make sumac lemonade, pick about a dozen red clusters. Then rub, crunch, and squeeze them in about a gallon of cold water for five to 10 minutes to release the flavor. Next, drape a piece of cheesecloth over a bowl, and strain the liquid. Then add sweetener to the liquid to taste — but not so much that you lose the acidic taste of the sumac-ade. Serve over ice.

Staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) is found in the upper Midwest and Northeast, winged sumac (Rhus copallinum) in the East and South, and smooth sumac (Rhus glabra) prefers all of the east and central United States and western locations. These non-poisonous sumacs grow in open and edge habitats. Poison sumac (Toxicodendron vernix) is found all over the eastern United States, in wetlands, and along streams.

Lucas Lombardi
Billerica, MA

Corvi Zeman
8/2/2009 12:10:40 AM

There is a "poison sumac" but it isn't the same plant as "regular" sumac, the same way "poison ivy" and "regular" ivy are completely different plants, too. Poison sumac is really nasty stuff - if you burn it, people who inhale the smoke get blisters and rashes inside their lungs. It's possibly the most toxic plant that grows native to North America. Luckily, it's pretty easy to tell poison sumac berries from staghorn or other regular sumac if you want to follow this recipe. Poison sumac has white berries that grow along stems; regular sumacs have bajillions of tiny red berries in thick clusters, cuvered with furry stuff (I think? Maybe not all sumac species are furry). There's a picture of poison sumac berries here: A real sumac:

Carolyn Coxson
7/9/2009 3:26:01 PM

Isn't Sumac poison? I was always told to keep away from it as it causes a rash similar to poison ivy. Does anyone know if this has any nutritional value or health benefits of any kind? It would be great to see a picture of the plant along with this article so that we are all in agreement as to what sumac looks like.

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