It's Autumn in Michigan, however, it's looking more like winter! It isn't uncommon to receive an early snow cover here in Michigan and so a tree such as this crab-apple tree is a wonderful addition to your back yard to aid in biodiversity and a food source (both fruit and insects), for our feathered friends. It is a common site to see several partridge perched on this very same tree year after year. When planting trees in and around your yard or in your woodlot it is very important to plant native species. Native species are specific in what they offer our native insects and wildlife.
The Staghorn Sumac
We've all seen this kind of "tropical looking" multiple trunk tree that grows here in Michigan. There are actually 3 species in our state, this includes the Poison sumac (not actually a true sumac, it is rare, and grows only in open swamps and bogs. Most of us will never come in contact with it. Thankfully!). The other two are Smooth sumac and the most common, Staghorn sumac. Both are highly related and will hybridize where they grow together.
The staghorn sumac will grow in colonies or dense stands along forest edges. So if you have a timbered woodlot you may very well have a few of these along an outer perimeter as they are intolerant of shade and would, therefor, not be found in a mature forest. They are recognizable by the multiple, smooth, brown trunk, with compound alternately attached leaflets being dark green on top and red hairs below. The leaves attach directly to the central stalk which is hairy and reddish. The most distinguishable characteristic is the 4'' to 8'' long, fuzzy, cone-shaped berry-like fruit that ripens in the late summer to a maroon red. It is the fruit (the seeds) of this tree that we use to make a refreshing, tart "lemonade" or "sumacade"!
* Note: Sumac is related to cashews and mangoes, anyone allergic to these foods should avoid sumac.
Preparing this "lemonade" is simple.
Your first step will be to harvest the fruit berries... (really the seeds). Harvest when the clusters are fully red and mature, sometime between July and into August. (If you wait too long the rain will wash away the flavor and your lemonade may turn out bland). Snap off the clusters by bending where they meet at the stem or by using pruning shears.
Use 6 to 8 clusters per pitcher. Place the clusters into the pitcher and poor cold water over them. Crush the clusters and allow to sit for a while, until the water has become a pleasant pink color or a dark purple. Strain your "sumacade" through cheesecloth to remove the fine hairs that cover the fruit. Don't be surprised if you even sift out a grub or two (not always, but a possibility).
Now you can enjoy this refreshing, pleasantly tart drink, just the way it is or you can add a little sweetener.
I have heard that some have made a very good wine from sumac berries as well as a tart jelly from a high concentration of this same drink. Perhaps this is something to try this year!
Now For The Food Part
First year sumac shoots are edible, as well as the tips of new growth of older branches. You must first peel off the bitter outer bark and all leaves. These shoots are like a fruity snack so you can eat them as they are or try bits in a spring salad of kale arugula, walnuts, green apple, and sumac shoots or try sauteing with other vegetables.
And this is the good news! Sumac is full of Vitamin C and other phytochemcials which are strong antioxidants in nature! They help ward of free radicals in the body. It may be interesting to do some research and see just how good sumac is for us!
Winter Emergency Food For Wildlife
Staghorn sumac has a very high wildlife value. "Sumac serves primarily as a winter emergency food for wildlife. Ring-necked pheasant, bobwhite quail, wild turkey, and about 300 species of songbirds include sumac fruit in their diet. It is also know to be important only in the winter diets of ruffed grouse and the sharp-tailed grouse. Fox squirrels and cottontail rabbits eat sumac bark. White-tail deer like the fruit and stems." (USDA Plants Database, Plant Fact Sheet)
David and Valerie Zimmer, owners of Greater Michigan Timber Management, a forest, timber and woodlot management company in northern lower Michigan.
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