The Tart and Tangy Sumac

Published 7:37 pm Tuesday, November 14, 2023

By Mark Carroll

Western Tidewater Master Gardeners

Don’t overlook the variety of red colors that adorn the Winged Sumac, or Rhus copallinum, in Virginia’s annual fall display. Sumacs not only have vibrant fall foliage, but they can also help put a little spice in your life, or at least in your culinary endeavors. 

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Sumac is a deep red spice that comes from the dried berries of the sumac tree. It is a rather small, bushy tree that grows easily in most of our native soils. There are several native varieties, but they all have a fruity, citrusy flavor that can brighten up any meal, from salads and dips to meats and desserts.

Sumac has been used for centuries in Middle Eastern cuisine, where it is a staple ingredient and a popular spice blend that is sprinkled on breads, vegetables and meats.

It is not only delicious, but it is also nutritious. The berries are rich in antioxidants, which can help protect your cells from damage and inflammation. 

A National Institute of Health study found that sumac may be beneficial for diabetic patients to make them less susceptible to cardiovascular disease. Sumac also has been found to contain antimicrobial properties, which can help prevent infections and food poisoning. Please consult your doctor before using unknown or unfamiliar products. Even when a medicinal plant is found to be beneficial, the dosage and potential side effects can be varied for each individual.

So how can you use sumac in your own kitchen? Sumac can be used as a substitute for lemon juice or vinegar, adding a tangy touch without overpowering the dish. The most common ways to use the berries are to make hot tea, a cool lemonade, a spice rub or a marinade for meats. Za’atar is a popular spice blend that contains sumac. 

Personally, while I like hot teas, I did not care for it prepared this way. So, I crushed the berries with a coffee grinder, steeped them and chilled the tea. Adding a little honey made it well worth the effort. I am currently dehydrating some berries to grind them up for use as a spice. With Thanksgiving coming soon, try some in your cranberry sauce to brighten it up.

While there are various types of consumable sumac, be careful not to confuse edible sumac with poison sumac. 

They are fairly easy to tell apart. Poison sumac grows in wet areas and has white berries and drooping leaves. Poison sumac can cause severe allergic reactions if touched or ingested. Edible sumac has red berries and upright leaves, and is safe to eat.

Sumac is a versatile and vibrant spice that can add some flair and flavor to your dishes. Luckily, one single plant can provide more than enough spice for most home gardeners. In fact, you may already have it growing close by.

Virginia Cooperative Extension programs and employment are open to all, regardless of age, color, disability, gender, gender identity, gender expression, national origin, political affiliation, race, religion, sexual orientation, genetic information, veteran status, or any other basis protected by law. An equal opportunity/affirmative action employer. Issued in furtherance of Cooperative Extension work, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Virginia State University, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture cooperating. Edwin J. Jones, Director, Virginia Cooperative Extension, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg; M. Ray McKinnie, Administrator, 1890 Extension Program, Virginia State University, Petersburg.