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Staghorn Sumac for a Kitchen Gardener

While my small kitchen garden sleeps for the winter, I’ve been catching up on posts that I would have written during the summer if I hadn’t been working on a book. Yes, You Can! And Freeze and Dry it, Too from Cool Springs Press should be in bookstores this spring—a fine time to start preserving fruits and vegetables as they come in season in your own kitchen garden.

Often one of the first trees to take root in a mature meadow, the Staghorn Sumac produces clusters of furry seeds you can boil to make tea or a fruity cold drink with a unique flavor that demands you add sugar.

A Remarkable Tree

To most who have seen it, Staghorn Sumac is a scrub tree; a weed. If you leave a rural garden to grow wild, Staghorn Sumac might be among the first trees to take root there. I’ve always loved these scrubs.

A sumac tree at a glance is unremarkable. However, if you forage for food, you learn that Sumacs can be food oases in fields of wild grasses and flowers. Being early colonizers of wild fields, Sumac trees provide roosts for birds whose feces hold berry seeds. Two or three seasons after a young sumac rises above the meadow grasses, black raspberry and blackberry canes may produce a fine crop.

Sumac wood isn’t particularly hard to begin with, but the center of a branch is very soft; you can scrape material out easily with your fingernail.

Then the Sumac itself delivers: trees produce red cones of furry berries that hold their color well into winter. Those berries have a distinctive and bitter flavor, but they are loaded with vitamins and make delicious drinks—both cold and hot.

Sumac Tea or Punch

You can gather five or six cones of Sumac seeds, rinse them, and then boil them in water for ten minutes to produce a deep pink liquid. Put it through a strainer and drink it hot or let it cool and put it on ice. I usually add a lot of sugar, but tea-drinkers may find the bitter tartness of this Sumac drink quite pleasant.

Sumac and Maple Syrup

Perhaps what I love most of all about the Staghorn Sumac tree is its utility in making maple syrup. As a child I learned that people once used Sumac branches to make spiles. Spiles? A spile is a spout or tube through which liquid can move. To collect sap from a maple tree, you drill a hole through the tree’s bark and then insert a spile into the hole. Sap collects in the hole and runs out the end of the spile where it drips into a bucket. You collect the sap each day and boil it to remove water and concentrate sugar.

You can use a saw to cut a sumac branch, but I scored the branch using a modest bowie knife. I cut about an eighth of an inch through the bark into the wood. Then, when I bent the branch, it snapped cleanly where I’d scored it. I used the same bowie knife to taper one end of the branch being careful not to cut all the way through the harder outer wood. Next, I heated a long steel rod till about an inch of it at one end was red hot. This easily slid through the core of the branch, creating a hollow tube.


To finish a spile, cut a small notch across it deep enough that a wire hung in the notch won’t slip out of it. If you’ll be hanging a bucket by its handle, you spile needs to be a little longer than the radius of the bucket. I prefer to punch a hole in the side of the collection bucket and slid that hole around the spile. This lets you use relatively short spiles.

Here’s something else I like about Staghorn Sumac trees: their leaves turn deep read in autumn and are among the last to fall before winter.

Many modern sugar bush operators use plastic spiles and attach hoses that deliver the sap to a central collection barrel. Those who don’t use hoses may still use metal spiles that include hooks to hold bucket handles. But if you have a few sugar maples you want to tap, and you’re on a tight budget, consider making spiles out of Sumac boughs. With a sharp knife, a hot fire, and a long, iron or steel spike, you can make a spile in about three minutes.

I made a video to demonstrate how to make a spile from a staghorn sumac branch. The video is just under 7 minutes. I hope you find it useful:

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6 Responses to “Staghorn Sumac for a Kitchen Gardener”

  • I have always loved these trees but who knew they were so much more…I cannot wait for the book and look forward to reading more as I grow in my somewhat limited garden…here’s to a great growing 2011

  • Daniel Gasteiger:

    Thank you for dropping by. I hope you have an awesome garden in 2011!

  • fer:

    Very useful trees, I would love to have one in my garden.

  • GennyL:

    do not BOIL water…steep it like a tea or you will get to much Tannic Acid

  • Daniel Gasteiger:

    GennyL: Neat! I’ve always boiled it and marveled at how bitter it is. Steeping makes sense, and sumac tea or “aide” could certainly use less Tannic acid. Thanks for the tip.

  • Leone Evrenos:

    I use lots of dried sumac, it’s wonderful mixed with olive oil, lemon juice and crushed garlic then poured over a Lebanese Fattoush salad. Also rubbed onto meats before cooking.
    I would love to grow a tree but was wondering at what age do they start producing the berries? I live in the U.K.

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