The Sumac Harvest

The sumac berries ripened in mid August of 2019. This year they waited until September 7th to turn shiny and bright red. Unfortunately i didn’t notice them until minutes before sundown so they would have to be harvested on September 8th, when i had light to see the berry clusters i would be cutting. Knowing how quickly the berries went from ripe to spent, i knew it would have to be done in the morning, but i had a job interview scheduled and i didn’t get to the berries until around noon. They were just red by then, not bright red, but still salvageable and i managed to take them all. It involved standing on a chair beneath the tree and bending the branches downward so that i could reach up and cut the berry clusters off with scissors. I dropped the clusters into my metal bath tub which i had positioned not far away. The weather was the worst it could be for sumac harvesting. It was important to dry the berries thoroughly before processing them so that it would result in a powder rather than a gummy substance. If left wet, the substance would mold, both in berry and powder form. The moisture had to be done away with. So, of course, it was raining. That is why the first photographs look fuzzy. I had to seel my iphone in a ziploc sandwich bag to take pictures because it was raining so steadily as i harvested.

They ripened so late this year i was worried that i had missed the window for harvest. If i had noticed them earlier on september 7 i would have been able to harvest bright red berries with maximum sour taste but the just red berries were still pretty sour. As i handled the berries i noticed the sticky sour substance coating my fingers. When i was done cutting the last cluster i licked them and they were unbelievably sour. This was a good batch. It would be a good harvest.

On a homestead, the bathtub has many uses.

The full harvest, ready to go into the shed to dry out.

Well, then i injured my foot and got a job that required me to jog over 7 miles a day and left me exhausted upon returning home. Processing sumac was a several-hour painstaking activity that required a lot of sitting on the floor while picking each individual berry from the branch gently, handling it as little as possible, in order to keep the little sour granules in the berry and not on one’s fingers. I put the activity off for over a month. By then the berries had been given ample time to dry in the shed. Somebody had recommended comfrey cream for my ankle. I had been applying it twice daily and i finally felt up to the task of sitting on the floor for four or five hours. So i opened the shed up and carried the bathtub full of dried berries to the house. I set a stool on the floor near the tub and sat down to pick the berries from the twigs that held them. I picked for four hours straight. Like i did during many tedious chores on the homestead, i listened to an audio book while i worked, ensuring that i was getting the maximum amount of things done during my day off…processing a resource and taking in knowledge at the same time. The audiobook was a memoir of sorts about a man living with and rehabilitating a herd of wild elephants that had become distrustful of humans through past trauma. My stamina was not what it once was and on several occasions i wanted to stop and finish processing the sumac on another day but i forced myself to keep going until every last berry was separated from the twigs. I was motivated by one thing. I had wanted to give a little jar of the sumac to my dear friend one town over last year but i didn’t dry the berries long enough and they were too gummy to process for very long in the coffee grinder. They didn’t get ground fine enough and the moisture content could have caused the batch to mold, so i was forced to keep the batch in the refrigerator/freezer all year. I knew she’d never tasted sumac before and i knew better than to give her sub-par sumac in order to decide if she liked the flavor her first time around. So, i promised her i’d do better with the next year’s harvest and she could have a jar of that batch. I was so close to getting it done right. This year i would give my friend the sumac.

Each twig and leaf must be picked out from amongst the loose berries before going into the coffee grinder. Ground wood pulp, while it wont kill you, will dilute the flavor. The more twigs you leave in, the less sour the powder will taste. I used my fingers to gently move the berries around and picked out the twigs with a plastic spoon in my other hand. When only berries and their recently shed brown dirt-like sour granules remained, i began moving them along the grooves in the bottom of the tub. I used my fingers to push the granules along the circular track until they formed a pile. I scooped up granules with the plastic spoon with each handful of berries i put into the coffee grinder. I would then grind the batch until it was a fine powder. The finest powder stuck to the lid of the coffee bean grinder. I scooped that powder into a jar for my friend. I saved the larger pieces for my own supply. I didn’t mind chewing around them. I knew to be careful but i wanted her to have the good stuff. When her jar was full i put the lid on and breathed a sigh of relief. I had done it. I had made up a jar of finely ground sumac powder with maximum sour flavor and minimum moisture content. I would fulfill my promise and my dear friend would finally have a chance to try fresh sumac. I stopped and licked my fingers to test the batch and see if it was any good. It was good. My face puckered with the sour flavor. Sumac is kind of like if lemon was made into a spice.

I was quite pleased with her little jar of perfect sumac. Now it was time to process the rest of it. I was eager to know how much powder the tree would yield compared to last year when i was out of town when half of the berries ripened and didn’t get to pick the whole harvest.

I soon had my answer. By sundown i had filled two thirds of a jar with the burnt-red colored powder. This was my sumac supply for the year. It would last me until the following august or september when i would harvest the berries again and repeat the painstakingly ginger process of handling the berries without extracting all the sour bits prematurely. It was a really important thing for me to do; process the sumac. Now i had it in the jar and it was done. It went into the refrigerator to be used as a spice throughout the next year. I had spent 7 weeks with covid symptoms 3 separate times this year and now had an injured ligament and some broken toes. It was important for my mental health and self esteem to finish something that i had started. Upon completing the processing of the sumac berries i felt a weight lift off of my shoulders. There were so many things on the homestead that depended on timing. Let something go unaddressed or unfinished too long and you will suffer the consequences. I missed the opportunity to plant the orange, pecan, and avocado trees in the ground. It’s too late to put them in now because their roots wouldn’t have time to establish themselves before it begins to frost overnight. The fate is sealed. They will have to winter inside, bringing with them whatever ground hornets, scorpions, and centipedes have made their home in the pots (still battling the ground hornets in a desperate attempt to separate them from the potted orange tree in time to take it in during the first frost). But, this one thing; i finished. The sumac, i managed to harvest, process, and jar. This is one thing in 2020 that got done.

Join the Conversation

1 Comment

  1. Awesome post!

    I never knew sumac was good for anything. As a kid, I’d take the dye and make war paint playing Indians and stuff lol..

    I’ve been watching a series on YouTube from Dave Canterbury and the Pathfinder School called Materia Medica about medicinal trees and plants. I’m learning!

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: