Watoga Park Foundation
The Lemonade Tree aka Staghorn Sumac
The Watoga Trail Report delights in informing people about the many wild edible foods that abound in our Appalachian mountain home. One that too often gets overlooked is the Staghorn Sumac. * This native shrub, or small tree, has a festive look with its tropical-like leaves and velvety red clusters of fruits that sit upon the branches like old-time Christmas tree candles.
As a park ranger in the 1970s assigned to a large park in southwestern Ohio, I enjoyed helping out with the naturalist programs, particularly the demonstrations on preparing wild foods.
My job was mainly to go out and forage for whatever the topic was for that evening’s presentation and get it in the hands of the seasonal naturalist, Victoria, by show time.
To be honest, many of the wild foods were something you could only enjoy in the direst of situations, such as impending starvation. One program featured eating the blossoms of Queen Anne’s Lace. On this particular occasion, the flower head was dipped in a batter while still on the stalk.
The participants, mostly children staying in the campground, would stand around a pot of boiling peanut oil, and under careful supervision, they would plunge the flower head into the oil for 30 seconds or so. After removing the crispy umbel from the hot oil, the whole thing would be liberally sprinkled with powdered sugar.
Was this wild confection good? You bet it was, and a pine cone would be if prepared in the same manner.
One August day, I was called upon to gather a half-dozen staghorn sumac clusters. This was an easy task to carry out in one particular area of the park where the lake had been dredged and the resultant fill was used to create a relatively barren peninsula jutting into the lake. It was covered with staghorn sumac trees.
Staghorn sumac is considered a successional species and loves as much sunshine and as little canopy overhead as it can get. A successful mission was guaranteed.
On the way back to the ranger station with the sumac clusters, I decided to taste one of the drupes, the small red velvety berries. Imagine biting down on a Key lime and you can imagine the tartness of the drupe.
I had no idea what the naturalist planned to do with these lip-puckering fruits, but surely not deep frying them as she did the Queen Anne’s Lace.
I was soon to learn that Victoria had other plans for this wild food. The tipoff was when she introduced the staghorn sumac by holding up a cluster of berries and stating that, “This pretty red fruit comes from a lemonade tree.”
Victoria then went on to explain to those little wide-eyed campers the details: that the cluster actually came from a native shrub called Staghorn Sumac and proceeded to state the Latin genus and species, Rhus typhina.
The Latin was unpronounceable to most of us, let alone something we would remember five minutes later, yet most of the adults, and one certain young man about seven years old named Wallace, nodded their heads as though they planned to use the Latin name for sumac at the very next cocktail party they attended; the boy excluded, of course.
But like all good educators, Victoria enthusiastically led us through the taxonomy and biology of sumac. As she summed the science part up and moved into the culinary portion of the program, we licked our lips in anticipation of ice-cold lemonade on a hot summer day.
What she showed us next was something I would make at least once each and every summer afterward until this very day.
Victoria produced a large mason jar and stuffed four or five of the berry clusters into the jar, and while doing so, said, “Now we are going to learn the ancient Native American method of making sumac lemonade.”
The naturalist barely finished her sentence before Wallace, remarked, “Miss, I don’t think the early Native Americans had Mason jars.”
That threw Victoria off balance for a moment, but she quickly recovered saying that the early Native Americans would have used birch bark containers.
Without a moment’s hesitation, Wallace replied “That wouldn’t work, the lemonade would all leak out of the porous bark.”
Wallace’s mother rescued the befuddled naturalist by dragging the kid to the back of the group and in a loud voice admonishing him to “Stop asking so many questions.”
Wallace countered with, “But mom, it wasn’t a question, it was a declarative statement.”
Ignoring Wallace and clearly irritated, Victoria got back on track and proceeded to crush the berries with a wooden sauerkraut tamper. After the berries were pulverized to her satisfaction she slammed the tamper back onto the table.
Then she poured cold water over the berries until the jar was filled, telling the audience “Now we will wait a few minutes while the water turns to the color of pink lemonade.”
Wallace, fascinated by the whole process started to say, “If the berries stay in there too long won’t the increasing acidity overwhelm…” At this point Wallace’s mother put her hand over his mouth, effectively gagging him.
Now exasperated, Victoria grabbed the one-pound bag of sugar on the table and unceremoniously dumped the whole bag into the jar, put the lid on, shook it up and started pouring it in little plastic cups.
“For the final step I just added the sugar,” she said, “so now you can come up and get a cup of our Native American lemonade.”
As his mother drug him back to the campground, Wallace shouted back over his shoulder “The Native Americans didn’t have sugar until it was introduced by Europeans in 1619 so the Ancient…, cutting him off, his embarrassed mother gagged him again.
Victoria, now at wit’s end, ran after them shouting hysterically, “Maybe they used maple syrup to sweeten the damn stuff, did you ever think of that, Einstein?”
Well, needless to say, that was Victoria’s last season as a park naturalist. I heard that she changed her major from classes that would allow her to teach grade school to a full Forestry curriculum.
The last I heard about Victoria, she was working in the most remote fire tower that the U.S. Forest Service maintains; located somewhere deep in the Sawtooth Range of Idaho. It was as far from a grade school as she could get.
Wallace, on the other hand, went on to become a distinguished professor of theoretical physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I heard that he helped design the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland. But foraging was his first love, and he has written several books on the subject.
He has Victoria to thank for that, although I doubt she would appreciate it.
As for me, I still make a batch of sumac lemonade every summer, and I follow Victoria’s recipe – including the mason jar.
You can, too. We have our share of staghorn sumac growing along roadsides, fence rows and railroad rights-of-way throughout Pocahontas County.
It really does taste like lemonade and it “hits the spot” on a hot summer day.
In next week’s Watoga Trail Report, we will announce an exciting discovery made this summer at Watoga State Park. So, stay tuned to find out about another great thing that makes Watoga State Park and Pocahontas County a very special place to live and visit.
From the banks of the beautiful Greenbrier River,
*Poison sumac is in the same family, Anacardiaceae, as staghorn sumac and cashews. Poison sumac can cause a severe skin rash by handling it, much like poison ivy. Poison sumac has green berries and staghorn sumac has velvety red berries, so it is very easy to tell them apart.