where the wild things are. gathering and processing wild sumac

 Staghorn Sumac is just one of the  North American edible Sumac's that closely resemble the tangy lemony, terra cotta colored spice from the Middle East. There are hundreds of varieties and all with red berries are edible. It grows wild and prolifically all over New England and Upstate New York. In fact, I am pretty sure it grows all over the Northeast. There are a couple varieties you might spy while whizzing down the highway, as it likes to grow along the road's edge. I prefer to collect Staghorn Sumac which has an almost tropical look to the vibrant, red, cone like berry clusters.  The leaves turn a brilliant red in the fall. I gather Sumac  in more remote areas along slow country roads or the edges of farms, even in a friend's yard where one tree I know of grows 30 feet high. When I mention Sumac, people often assume I am talking about Poison Sumac. The edible variety is completely different from its poisonous cousin - which has white berries - and is not poisonous at all, The berries of Poison Sumac  cannot be mistaken for Stag Horn Sumac. The moment is NOW to harvest! I keep clippers in the pocket of the door of the car, so I am at the ready when I spot some.


To Cut and Process Sumac:


 Harvest Sumac when the cone like clusters are vibrant and full and the little hairs that envelope each seed are intact. Rain can sometimes wash them away and If you wait too long to harvest they may get buggy.


In New York and New England I harvest anywhere from late July to early September,  depending on the weather.  Keep your eye on the sumac and you will learn to know when it is mature.


Clip Sumac clusters just below the end of the cone.


Leave  the whole clusters to rest in a dry space for a couple days. You want them to be dry when you process so nothing molds.


Rub your hands over the hairy red clusters and  the small individual berries will fall away onto sheet tray below.  Don't worry if there are some larger pieces or bits of twig and leaves, it will all get sorted later.


Leave the  hairy little sumac seeds on a sheet tray for 24 hours in a  thin layer.


Fill your spice grinder about half way with the sumac seeds.


Pulse a few times until it seems the hairs have separated from the seed. Your grinder will not grind up the actual seed, it is to hard, but it will separate the little hairy layer from the seed.


Pour the ground sumac into a a medium sieve and shake over a bowl until you have separated the hairs from the seed. Discard the seeds. Repeat until you have processed all your Sumac!


Lay your ground sumac out on a large sheet tray for 24 hours to make sure it drys or if you have a microwave you can give it a quick zap. I don’t use microwaves but I have heard the method works well. Alternatively you could throw it in your oven at at 140 degrees  overnight. I am into minimal work so I leave it on sheet tray in a nice dry spot and forgo the oven and microwave method.


Store the sumac in an airtight jar in your pantry. It will last indefinitely.