WESTPORT, New York—This season when the leaves show brilliant colors, none are more attractive in my eyes than those of staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina), now a bright scarlet. Looking back over a lifetime of gardening and living off the land, I find that, despite fighting nature to clear land, harvest crops and cultivate herbs, flowers and roses, I have a soft spot for wild growing things, from the tiniest herb Robert (a garden thug to some) to staghorn sumac (a no-account weed tree found in groves along dry, dusty roads and by railroad tracks).
Here, under stress in dry conditions, its leaves are even more colorful than in a garden setting. Who, you ask, would grow it in a garden? My mentor in thrifty gardening, Brother Gilbert, a monk from Holland, loved it, called it the velvet tree (for the velvety red hairs along its boughs) and considered it a fine small tree for his picture-perfect borders. In our previous home, I was thrilled to finally get a piece growing in dank shade, where it was dwarfed from its potential 30 feet to 6 feet. I loved it for its ability to thrive in adversity (an admirable trait in my world), for its spreading reddish velvet-covered branches, its canopy of long, feathery, deeply cut green foliage and, in late summer, its terminal clusters of small green flowers that turn into fluffy reddish heads of fruit by fall. Colorful foliage is a bonus.
Like most plants that come my way, staghorn sumac has a practical as well as aesthetic side. It was my husband, Jigs, always the leader in wild forays, who gathered the fruits in the fall and, with the children, learned to make a tart juice like pink lemonade. Inspired by Euell Gibbons to forage in the “supermarket of the swamps,” he tried just about everything. As we later learned, Euell Gibbons’ source for information was Edible Wild Plants of North America (Fernald and Kinsey, 1943). Our dog-eared copy attests to heavy use over many decades.
Several varieties of edible sumac grow across North America. They easily can be distinguished from poison sumac by their fuzzy red fruit. The poisonous variety, Rhus vernix (now classified as Toxicodendron vernix), carries white fruit and should never be eaten. The red berries — red by virtue of the same reddish hairs that cover the tree’s branches — are a great source of malic acid, the substance that gives them a tart, lemony flavor. One of the signs of summer’s end in our house was the first sighting of ripe sumac berries. Then Jigs would take off in our old Dodge pickup for some backcountry byway and return with a few bushels of fruit. To make his “rhusade,” fruits are pounded fresh, never boiled. This brings out their tannin content, once considered very useful in preparations for soothing sore throats.
Place sumac heads in a large preserving pot, cover the fruit with cold water and pound it (Jigs uses a heavy wooden mallet) for about 10 minutes until an extraction of juice is apparent.
Strain the juice through several layers of cheesecloth, then add sugar to taste, stirring well. This is delicious by itself or mixed with other juices, wherever you want a lemony flavor. We always kept a supply of dry heads over the winter so we could make juice fresh when we needed it — very convenient when you live far from a store and lemons are a luxury.
Staghorn sumac grows in most soils except wet, in sun to light shade and is salt-tolerant.
It does sucker, though, so mow around it to keep it under control. To dwarf it, grow it as I have in the past, in damp ground and partial to shady conditions. The cultivar ‘Laciniata’, which I intend to try, has more finely cut, ferny foliage.