Sumac is one of my all-time favorite herbs, as you’ll read in my homage to the wonderful berry here.
However, you won’t find it lauded too much on the most popular websites, herbals, or materia medicas out there compared to wonders like goldenseal, echinacea, or ginseng – nor are supplements and tinctures of it too easy to come by.
An understated astringent, tonic, remarkable antibiotic and digestive aid, this bright crimson-berried shrub of late summer and fall holds a healing song that goes unsung.
Yet there is one enduring tradition involving sumac that gets sung loudly every year during sumac season: sumac-ade!
In the form of this tart and tangy beverage, you can enjoy some of the plant’s healing and nutritive effects for yourself, and it’s pretty simple to make as you’ll find in the recipe below.
You don’t have to enjoy it plain (though a very strong, cold infusion on its own with no additions will arguably be the most medicinal). Mix it up with your favorite mixers, liqueurs, or even your own favorite homemade healing shrub or hand-crafted simple syrup for a truly herbal beverage.
Sumac-Ade History in Brief
You might not know it, but sumac-ade (made from either smooth sumac Rhus glabra, or staghorn sumac Rhus typhina) is in fact a tasty herbal relic and beverage straight from the Iowa area of ancient times, as well as the rest of the heart of the Midwest.
The First Nation civilization and major economic center known as Cahokia, an extensive city and network of commerce among many ancient peoples in the Midwest, had quite the reach and influence all along the Mississippi River – including the Upper Mississippi area of Iowa, as evidenced by the many mounds still present there today.
Thick-clustered stands of sumac still grow on the banks of the Mississippi, strongly presumed to be planted or managed purposefully by Cahokian agriculturists as an important food source. It’s not hard to surmise that they were grown for medicine, too – and in the form of sumac-ade, a cold-steeped infusion of the berries, they perfected a recipe that worked as both food and medicine.
Healing and Nutritional Benefits
We all know sumac-ade as being purely, simply, and tartly delicious. But as the ancient First Nation peoples who crafted and enjoyed the beverage knew quite well too, there was much more to the cooling berry than that.
- High in vitamin C, and good for immunity
- Contains antioxidants for cellular protection
- Contains gallic acids, potent antimicrobial compounds
- Demonstrated blood sugar-regulating activity, good for diabetics
- Lowers bad cholesterol, while boosting good cholesterol
- Could prevent atherosclerosis, thus prevent heart disease (1)
- Regulates the gut and remedies diarrhea
Studies today support the above-mentioned health benefits, while in traditional folk herbalism, sumac was used for fevers, urinary complaints, and digestive imbalances because due to its perceived ability to cool the body down. Its antimicrobial content was also great for righting the wrongs of stomach infections.
Make and take a swig of sumac-ade for yourself, and you’ll agree – it quenches your thirst, while opening your pores to allow a cooling sweat to break even in the worst of heat.
By all means, making yourself a pitcher of sumac-ade won’t exactly replace diabetes medication, combat kidney disease, make your cholesterol plummet, or work exactly like an antibiotic for the stomach flu overnight!
On the other hand, it can be perceived as a nutritious and gut healing drink. At its very core, a glass of this rosy-red summer tonic is essentially quite healthy – you could even say healing.
Research has shown that the acids and tannins found in sumac help destroy harmful bacteria and fungi in the body, including Candida albicans, the dreaded yeast that may emerge after excessive antibiotic use and which can contribute to gut dysbiosis: an unhealthy digestive system.(2)
The bigger point to be made: this could be an excellent healthy beverage to boost your vitamin C, give your gut a bit of help, or to just make you feel guilt-free about enjoying this wild drink (though if you really want it to be healthy – skimp on that sugar!)
Make Your Own Sumac-Ade
Sumac is also a well-known culinary spice, somehow managing to have a flavor both earthy and sour that pairs well with white meats and white wines.
Both chefs and herbalists might compare it to hibiscus: it tastes tart, cooling, and dry, with a very notable rosy astringency. Similar to hibiscus, sumac is a cool, drying, tonifying, and astringent herb.
The only thing that really sets it apart is an undertone of bitterness that somehow grounds sumac more than any other floral or berry astringent out there. For that reason, as a delicious sumac-ade drink, its flavor is unparalleled – and you know you’re not just drinking something tart and delicious, you’re also drinking a medicine!
- 5-10 sumac berry bunches, clusters, or “drupes” (twigs and all)
- 1-2 gallons water
Note: the general ratio of water-to-berries should be about 1 parts berries to 2 parts sumac, when all is said and done, for the most flavorful and potent infusion.
-Harvest your sumac berry drupes by gently snapping them off by the stem from a mature shrub (of course, make sure the berries are red – leave any sumac with white berries well alone, these are poison sumac, caustic and harmful to the skin like poison ivy.)
-In a glass or stainless steel bowl or pan, pull off the berries with the tips of your fingers, they should be easy to remove. If you get a few twigs into the mix, no problem – they are good for their astringency, though a few too many may impact the flavor.
-Mash your berries around in the bottom of the container with a wooden spoon, muddler, or other utensil for a bit to make them more yielding to impart their flavors to the water. Something I like to do: throw the berries and a few twigs into a food processor or grinder, chop them to a powder, then add them in – this guarantees some unlocked flavor.
You can also wait until the steeping stage to mash your berries directly in the water, too.
-Pour your water over the berries, cover your container, and let it sit for about 24 hours for the best extraction (though Ava Chin from the New York Times suggests that 4 hours at least should be enough). Mash them a bit here and there with your utensil if you like to unlock yet more flavor and properties.
-After cold steeping for the allotted time, pour both berries and water through a strainer into a new clean container or pitcher. Put on ice and flavor to taste with lemon, lime, sugar, herbs like mint or lemon balm – whatever you like.
-Serve in a chilled glass and enjoy.
Foster, Duke;Eastern/Central Medicinal Plants and Herbs, p. 281.