This article is part of our “trees for bees” series where we feature trees/shrubs that are excellent pollinator forage
Smooth Sumac and Staghorn Sumac are common “roadside” plants in North America. They are pioneer plants and quickly spread by rhizomes to colonize erosion prone areas. They are unique looking shrubs, grow without maintenance, tolerate drought and cold, are edible, and they are excellent bee forage. Phew! Pretty amazing stuff.
Both staghorn and smooth sumac are hardy northern plants. They both produce a lot of pollen and nectar for bees (blooming in June/July for northern climes) and are favored by honey bees.
For years, I favored the staghorn sumac. I loved it for only one reason – because the branches are “furry.” In Minnesota, it seems the staghorn sumac is shorter than the smooth sumac and also “less” drought tolerant. Both are hardy and able to survive without irrigation, but the smooth sumac survives better in our sandy soils.
Sumac will run out of it’s boundaries into your lawn, prairie, pasture….so plant it in an area where you can mow borders.
Wildlife use this shrub for cover and food. Birds eat the berries – and so can we! Some people dry the berries and grind them to use as a spice – this is incredibly common in the middle east. We have yet to try that, but we use the berries in another way.
Every August – before any substantial rains – we collect the berry clumps and make a really delicious lemonade. It couldn’t be easier to make! All you need to do is collect the berries and soak them in water for a few hours. You can break the berries up (as we have done here) or leave them whole. After the soaking, strain out the berries. The liquid will be pink and sour like lemonade. We prefer to make this in a really large french press because it makes straining really quick.
The berries contain malic acid and vitamin C. We sweeten our sumac-ade with raw honey from our bee hives or maple syrup collected from our trees. You can also use sugar. The thought of having something made 100% from plants on our property always appeals to me, but sweeten it however you like. We have no lemons in the north, so this is a very close approximation and was consumed by the native Americans for centuries.
Over time, we have come to prefer the smooth sumac for making sumac-ade. Though we have used both, the smooth sumac berries tend to have more visible acid (seen as a white goo on some of the berries – looks gross, totally tasty) and make a stronger lemonade with fewer berries. If there has been a bunch of rain, then the malic acid will have washed off, so collect your berries early. You can save the lemonade in the freezer for future use. We use these silicone ice trays and they make storing so simple.
Once we get done with the berry bunches, we dry them out and put them in our bee smoker. Bees react very well to the clean smoke from sumac berries. They are plentiful and get a second life when we have used them to smoke the bees.
If you have large open spaces, wild interfaces between forest and pasture, lawn or prairie, a roadside area, or a bluff/cliff with erodible soil – I can’t recommend sumac enough. Plant it with the knowledge that you will be improving wildlife and bee habitat along with keeping the soil intact and increasing biological diversity.
We grow both staghorn and smooth sumac on our farm, but we do not sell the seeds. It’s much easier to propagate sumac by root cuttings. We do sell many other plants that benefit wildlife, bees, and humans in our store. Check it out.
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