The Sumac of Long Island Sound

I sit, smoking cherry-flavored tobacco, beneath the orange and red-leafed canopy of a sumac grove on the southwestern shore of Long Island Sound. This park (Pelham Bay) was the home of Joe Two Trees, the last free-living Algonquin in New York City. Here, the air is free of almost all of the disturbing sounds of civilization. The wind in the reeds and leaves, crickets, birds, the lapping of the waves on the shore–these are the things that fill my ears.

Though the smooth sumac (Rhus glabra) above me has been washed of some of its lemony favor by the rains brought by Frances and Charlie, there are enough up-reaching clusters to take home and make my favorite sumac-ade–“rhus juice”, as one of Euel Gibbons’s students once dubbed it. I hang the clusters of dark, rubyish berries in a pillow case to dry for a fortnight. Then I roll the clusters back and forth in my hands over a large bowl to free the tiny fruits from their stems. I vacuum seal the little, red berries in mason jars to keep them flavorful through out the winter. And when I get a hankering for a glass of rhus juice, I brew the special tea.

Unlike most teas, this one is best prepared by cold infusion. I fill a glass pitcher with a couple handfuls of the berries and cover them with water. The berries will float to the top, but I want to make sure that every berry is soaked so that its flavor will dissolve into the mix, so I stir the berries well to make sure that they are all soaked through. I cover the pitcher with cheesecloth or a towel–held in place by a string or rubber band, and I set the pitcher in a dark corner overnight to give the berries plenty of time to infuse their flavor into the water. By using cold water, not only are the sumac’s bitter tannins kept from tainting the flavor, but the vitamin C is also dissolved in tact and not broken down as much as would happen in hot water.

The next morning, I pour the infusion through a cheesecloth or coffee strainer and squeeze all the moisture from the berries. What remains is a beautiful, rosy pitcher of fresh, zesty sumac-ade.

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5 responses to this post.

  1. for a minute i thought you where saying sumacicide. like death by berry.

    what a way to go, eh?

    keep these nature-iffic blogs coming!

    Reply

  2. […] belonged over here, so I migrated them over with their original comments.  Feel free to check out The Sumac of Long Island Sound, Of Willows and Elders and When a Willow […]

    Reply

  3. Rhus Juice, the New Lemonade

    A while back I saw one of Rix’s blogs about making juice from sumac berries. I sort of forgot about it, but the flower cluster stuck in my head as an unusual looking thing. So when Penny and I rode our bikes around looking for herbs for her infu…

    Reply

  4. Shake your sumac

    I’ve done a lot of plant processing lately involving mason jars — what with my herbal infusion oils and tinctures.  So last weekend, when I took my sumac down from the ceiling where I had hung it to dry to make some rhus juice, an idea str…

    Reply

  5. […] while back I saw one of Rix’s blogs about making juice from sumac berries. I sort of forgot about it, but the flower cluster stuck in my head as an […]

    Reply

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