How to Make Survival (Sumac) Lemonade
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This is the first in a series of posts/videos dedicated to wild edible and medicinal plants. Each season I will be covering some of the most easily identified and useful plants that you can use for food and medicine.
Disclaimer: Eating certain wild plants can be deadly!!
Be certain to consult a professional (or a really good field guide) in order to positively identify this plant before trying this for yourself. The owners of this site will not be held responsible for any lapses in judgment or stupidity when handling or consuming wild plants.
One of my all-time favorite drinks for the late summer and early fall is Sumac Lemonade. It is made from a plant that is widely distributed throughout most of North America and easily identified. This juice is made from either the staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) or smooth sumac (Rhus glabra).
Here’s how you can make it:
Step 1: Positively Identify Staghorn or Smooth Sumac
For this step, it’s always best to consult a good field guide or someone who has experience identifying this plant. In general though, here are the four key items to look for in order to positively identify staghorn and smooth sumac:
- Compound Toothed Leaves: Both species have pinnately compound leaves with serrated edges.
- Unique Stems and Twigs: Staghorn sumac has velvet (hairy) twigs and smooth sumac has no hair but instead a fine white powder that is easily removed when touched.
- Red Fruit Clusters: Since poison sumac has white berries (green early in the season), if you see the red one’s you’re safe. See the following pictures of the two varieties.
- Milky Sap: Both varieties exude a milky sap when broken
Just to see the contrast, here’s a picture of poison sumac fruit cluster and leaves (notice they are smooth and not serrated). Stay away from this plant:
Step 2: Collect Fruit Clusters
The strength of the fruit clusters is highly dependent upon the season it’s collected. Ideally, you’ll want to collect them in the mid to late-summer / early-fall time. While you can collect them in the winter, you’ll just need to gather more. It’s best not to gather them right after a heavy rain, since most of the fruit’s tasty acids will have been leached out by then. I usually grab a few of the berries, put them in my mouth and taste them. If they are nice and sour, they’ll make an excellent juice.
For a half-gallon of juice, I typically gather enough fruit clusters to fit in a ¼ to ½ gallon container.
Step 3: Soak the Fruit Clusters in Water for 10 to 15 Minutes
For this step it’s very important you use cold water and not hot water. Hot water will leach out the tannins and you’ll be left with a bitter medicine and not a tasty refreshing drink. Just grab a big bowl of cold water, throw the berries in there, crush them with your hands and let them sit for a good 10 to 15 minutes.
After letting them soak for that time, what you can do is filter out a small amount in a glass cup. You should be left with a liquid that looks anywhere between pink lemonade and cranberry juice. Of course the best test is the taste test. Give it a quick taste, if it’s too mild let it soak a bit longer (or get more berries), if it’s too strong, you can always dilute it a bit with some more water.
Note: If you are making a small amount of the drink, another option is to place as many heads as possible in a clean tube sock, let it soak in the container until the desired strength is achieved, pull out the sock and then you’re done! (You can skip the next step)
Step 4: Filter out the Berries and Twigs
For the final step, I’ll first filter out as much of the twigs and berries as I can with my hands. After that just grab some cheesecloth, or an old t-shirt (make sure it’s clean), or even some sturdy paper towels (Bounty) and place it over the container you will end up storing it in and filter out the rest of the stuff. It’s as simple as that! If you’re out in the bush you can always make a improvised filter using a big handful of fresh long grass (not grass from someone’s lawn).
You can now optionally add sugar or honey to taste or drink it as is (I prefer it this way). What you’re left with is a delicious and healthy drink.
Nutritional and Medicinal Properties of Sumac
Not only is sumac juice loaded with Vitamin C but the rest of the plant has amazing medicinal properties. Here’s just some of them:
Leaf infusion (tea from the leaves) helps with:
Inner-bark and root-bark decoction (boiling) helps with:
- astringent (contracts tissue like hydrogen peroxide)