Possibly due to the influence of Lowe’s Garden Center, the Minot gardening community seems to be in love with sumac. Not vining poison sumac – tree-form staghorn sumac, smooth sumac, ornamental cut-leaf sumac (above), or the tiny almost-hardy ornamental Tiger Eyes sumac. Most of the homes on the North Dakota State Horticultural Society garden tours had a nice 6-8′ specimen serving as a screen, hedge, or focal point for autumn color.
Sumac is one of my favorite urban edible landscaping choices. The fruit is formed in cones at the end of the branches, which make a great architectural addition to the winter landscape if you choose not to harvest. But you should harvest! The fuzzy red hairs on the outside of the berries are essentially malic acid, which has a lovely tart flavor with a hint of wine – so make a perfect substitute for lemon juice in any recipe. Robert Henderson suggests sumac meringue pie, yummmm. So far, I had only encountered sumac trees growing on the side of a busy road in the city, which weren’t exactly suited for picking and processing for food. The generous Ken and Colleen Eraas of Norwich were kind enough to gift me with a few garden-raised fruit clusters so I could try the following instructions myself.
Snip the fruit clusters off the branches once the fuzzy red berries are fully filled out. You can dry them in a paper bag until you’ve collected enough to make processing worthwhile, so you can harvest over a period of time as your cones ripen. Just to be sure to get to them before autumn rains wash off all the tasty tartness. You may want to use gloves if harvesting a large portion as the fuzzy branches do have a sticky white sap.
To process, put cones in a blender and cover with twice the amount of COLD water. Whirr to blend, then strain to remove any bits of bract and twig. The resulting juice can be used one-to-one as a lemon juice substitute. Sweeten a bit for the famous sumac lemonade; use as a seasoning for chicken, or to cut the cloying sweetness of elderberry drinks as Euell Gibbons did.
Do I need to add the standard First Try Protocol for testing new foods? Always try just a bit of a new food at first, then give it some time to see if it agrees with you. Sumac is high in tannins. I’ve had no problem.