Foraging is one of those activities that brings us back to our hunter-gatherer roots, and it's just plain fun--maybe because it feels a little too good to be true. Conventional gardening is hard work; you cultivate, mulch, sow, weed, water, protect, and then harvest. To boot, all of these steps are predicated on the ownership, or at least occupancy of, land. Even a city slicker can forage, and, regardless of whether you live in a condo or a cottage, you can skip right to the best part.
Where I live, sumac grows like a weed. I see it on roadsides everywhere as it thrives in sunny spots along the edges of wild land. While, according to grandpa's old copy of Stalking the Wild Asparagus, staghorn sumac peaks in the heat of August, I thought I'd seize a late opportunity to pick some while it is still abundant. One man's roadside weed is another man's pink lemonade. Consider me a pink lemonade man.
There are old mushroom hunters and there are bold mushroom hunters; but there are no old, bold mushroom hunters.
While I don't know who originally uttered this phrase (I'd bet she was old), it is something I keep in mind when foraging for wild plants. If you're not sure, ask someone with experience. In the end, trust your judgement and intuition, especially if it says "don't eat that." When it comes to mushrooms, be extra careful (see Angel of Death).
Rhus Typhina, or staghorn sumac, is an edible wild plant common in the northeastern US. You may be familiar with Poison Sumac, at least by name. Fortunately, these two plants are not the same thing and would be hard to confuse when harvesting fruit.
The sumac has been teasing me on my drive to and from work the last few weeks so I finally struck out on foot this weekend. I made it all of one tenth of a mile before I found some ripe (or maybe slightly beyond ripe) sumac for the picking.
Prepare the harvest
This is a wild plant you just plucked directly from nature. Warning: may contain nature.
Submerge in water
Add the sumac clusters to clean water. I used a glass wide-mouth pitcher because it is hard to spill and easy to pour.
Mash and strain
This part is either fun or tedious, depending on how thirsty you are. Each sumac berry is a drupe (a tiny stone-fruit, like a plum or cherry) with a small amount of fruit pulp and powder surrounding a seed. Mash the fruit pulp into the water--go ahead and enjoy playing with your food.
The water should be pink when your berries are sufficiently roughed-up (As it's a little late in the season, my juice is a bit less pink than it might be otherwise). When done mashing, strain the liquid through a sieve or cheesecloth.
This step is entirely optional. If you want to sweeten your tonic, I suggest raw honey because it is delicious, nutritious, and more wild than most other options.
I think this stuff tastes fantastic--lemonade is the most common comparison. You can import your superfood from the Amazonian rainforest or pick it on the side of the road. Something about the second option feels a little more holistic to me. If Rhus Typhina doesn't grow where you live, there's probably something else to pick instead.
Foraging is another way to get some healing food into your diet and it's also good fun. Get out there, watch out for poison ivy, and enjoy the fruits of your labor!
In good health,
I'm Ethan, a guy whose life used to be controlled by ulcerative colitis. As I systematically tested diets, treatments, and all types of health advice to heal my colon, I learned a lot about my own biology and also how to cook without compromise. I'm here to share the best (and sometimes worst) of that journey with you.