Staghorn Sumac

Sumacs are found throughout the world in one species or another. In North America the genus Rhus is divided into two subgenera--the poisonous and the nonpoisonous.

The poisonous group contains poison oak (Rhus toxicodendron), Western poison oak (Rhus diversiloba), poison ivy (Rhus radicans), and poison sumac (Rhus vernix) -- all of which contain a virulent but selective contact poison called urushiol and produce poisonous white berries.

Staghorn Sumac

Among the nonpoisonous are the fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica), dwarf or winged sumac (Rhus copallina), smooth sumac (Rhus glabra), lemonade bush (Rhus integrifolia), southweatern sumac (Rhus microphylla), sugar bush (Rhus ovata), squaw berry (Rhus trilobata), and the staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) -- all of which contain red berries when ripe (and are sometimes inaccurately and collectively called red sumac). Any of these, but especially the staghorn sumac, may be used to make a fairly decent wine.

The staghorn sumac derives its name from the countless tiny hairs covering its branches and resembling the tines of a deer's antlers. Its fruit grow at the terminus of new growth in very large, upright bunches of small, red berries. These small fruit are covered with red hairs and filled with a sour juice rich in malic acid and tannin. Fruit should be gathered soon after turning red, as the longer the remain on the bush the more tasteless they become. Fully ripe staghorn sumac should taste sour. Do NOT extract juice with boiling or hot water, or else too much tannin will be extracted and will result in an astringent and bitter wine.


Wash to remove dust and insects. Put clusters in container, cover with water and mash or crush the berries with 4" x 4" piece of hardwood. Strain juice into primary through clean muslin to remove plant hairs and pulp. Add sugar, crushed Campden and yeast nutrient and stir well until all sugar is dissolved. (NOTE: Sugar could be dissolved in boiling water beforehand but must cool to room temperature before pouring over sumac fruit.) Cover primary and set aside 12 hours. Add activated yeast, recover and stir daily. After 14 days of fermentation, transfer to secondary, and fit airlock. You should have more than one gallon of wine, so use a one-gallon secondary and a 1.5-liter wine bottle fitted with a #2 bung and airlock. The wine in the smaller secondary is what you will use to top up the one-gallon secondary. Rack, top up, and refit airlock every 30 days wine is clear and drops no sediments during 30-day period. Stabilize, sweeten to taste if desired, refit airlock, and set aside for 10 days. Rack into bottles and age at least one year before sampling. [Recipe adapted from Steven A. Krause's Wines from the Wilds]

Last update was November 3rd, 2000.

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