An Experiment in Farming Wild Sumac

March 5, 2014 Updated: October 8, 2018

Tama Matsuoka Wong has a wild idea. Rather than choose a crop and pump it with water, fertilizers, and pesticides to make it grow, why not take what nature already has in place and make that a farm?

Wong, a professional forager, is no stranger to nature’s bounty. Based in Hunterdon County, N.J., she supplies chefs such as Mads Refslund and Daniel Boulud.

Staghorn sumac (rhus typhina) is native to North America. It bears clusters of bright red fruit in August–September, has a tart, lemon flavor, and is loaded with antioxidants.

It has also achieved culinary recognition, featuring heavily, for example, in Yotam Ottolenghi’s cookbooks.

At Gramercy Tavern, it has been used with fish, “almost like a crust,” said Wong; at Bar Pleiades, it makes its way into a gin and tonic-like cocktail. It is widely used in the cuisine of the Middle East, particularly in za’atar, a mixture of sumac, sesame seeds, and dried herbs. Native Americans would make a sumac-ade with it. In the absence of citrus, sumac was a good source of vitamin C.

A Wild Farm

In a proposed Kickstarter project, Wong envisions a “wild farm” model. She will grow 500 sumac trees on 1 acre of preserved farmland, which her farmer neighbor finds unusable.

Not only is local, native sumac highly sought after by Wong’s clientele, it is also utterly unfussy, thriving on poor soils.

Deer, who seem to know a good thing when they see it, are fond of it. “They will jump over things to get to it, when the young leaves are coming out,” Wong said.

Sumac found in stores is generally imported from Europe or Turkey, and seems to be a different species, Wong said.

Wong sent samples of native and imported sumac to flavorists and chefs, and all agreed the native sumac was superior in color, freshness, and flavor. The flavorists detected flavors of vinegar and rancidness in the imported sumac.

Conservation Role

Much is still unknown about sumac, including how long it takes to grow to maturation, though she guesses about three years. “We don’t really know. That’s part of the problem,” said Wong. “We’re studying how to make GMO corn more drought-resistant or something. There’s tons of money going into that but there seems to be very little money or grants going into something like this.”

Unlike a crop that needs to be replanted every year, sumac is a perennial, so it will produce fruit and continue to spread year after year, without any sort of human tampering.

At the same time, sumac can play a significant conservation role by providing a home and food for pollinators and controlling eroding soil, according to the New Jersey Audubon Society.

The plot of land where Wong plans to work is flanked by woodland on either side, and a “wild farm” of sumac would provide a continuous corridor for wildlife.

Ironically, though, to be able to grow it on preserved farmland, an exception had to be filed with the state—sumac doesn’t figure on the list of commodity crops.

The Wild Farm project has until March 15 to raise $33,000 on Kickstarter. So far, Wong has raised more than $28,000.

Recipe: Sumac Ade

From “Foraged Flavor” (Clarkson Potter, 2012), Courtesy of Tama Matsuoka Wong

8 sumac berry clusters
Sugar, maple syrup, honey, or other sweetener

Immerse the sumac in 2 quarts cold water for a few hours. The water should turn a jewel-like red. Strain through a fine jelly cloth or several layers of cheesecloth to remove any twigs or fine hairs. Sweeten to taste. Serve chilled.