Reverie Nature Podcast

A Bushcrafter's Guide to Staghorn Sumac

June 01, 2024 Chadwick Howard Clifford Season 2 Episode 7
A Bushcrafter's Guide to Staghorn Sumac
Reverie Nature Podcast
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Reverie Nature Podcast
A Bushcrafter's Guide to Staghorn Sumac
Jun 01, 2024 Season 2 Episode 7
Chadwick Howard Clifford

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  • From providing wood for friction fires and a delicious wild edible drink to serving as natural pipe stems and taps for maple tree tapping, this plant even boasts impressive medicinal properties. 
  • As we unravel the secrets of the Staghorn Sumac, celebrate its beauty, utility, and the ways it enhances our connection to nature. 
  • Remember this is bushcraft, a skill set that invites a deeper knowledge of the woods—-which in turn,  helps you feel more at home in the wilds... .

Support the Show.

Thank you for tuning in to the Reverie Nature Podcast! Your support keeps our adventures alive. Be certain to subscribe for more captivating episodes exploring the wonders of the natural world. Join us on this journey to embrace nature's song and preserve the beauty of our planet. Together, we can make a difference.

Chad Clifford

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Send us a Text Message.

  • From providing wood for friction fires and a delicious wild edible drink to serving as natural pipe stems and taps for maple tree tapping, this plant even boasts impressive medicinal properties. 
  • As we unravel the secrets of the Staghorn Sumac, celebrate its beauty, utility, and the ways it enhances our connection to nature. 
  • Remember this is bushcraft, a skill set that invites a deeper knowledge of the woods—-which in turn,  helps you feel more at home in the wilds... .

Support the Show.

Thank you for tuning in to the Reverie Nature Podcast! Your support keeps our adventures alive. Be certain to subscribe for more captivating episodes exploring the wonders of the natural world. Join us on this journey to embrace nature's song and preserve the beauty of our planet. Together, we can make a difference.

Chad Clifford

Please support the podcast through a donation or subscription at:
Buy me a coffee

A Bushcrafter's Guide to Staghorn Sumac

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We're exploring a remarkable plant that offers so much more than meets the eye. From providing wood for friction fires, making a delicious wild edible drink, creating spigots for tapping maple trees for syrup, this plant even offers a host of medicinal properties.

In the Reverie Nature Podcast, you can expect to find a wide variety of topics on the nature experience. From bushcraft, survival skills, nature lore, animal tracks and sign, storytelling, nature soundscapes and much more. These are the lessons and skills I've been teaching for decades.

So as we unravel the secrets of the Staghorn Sumac, celebrating its beauty, utility and ways it helps enhance our nature experience, remember this is bushcraft, a skill set that invites a deeper knowledge of the woods, which in turn helps you to feel more at home in the wilds. This is contrary, isn't it, to some of the television series we see where there's drama and ads and commercials.

These sort of skills help you relax there and appreciate nature. The Staghorn Sumac is a member of the Cashew family. It's known for its versatility and its abundance in fields and roadsides, particularly in southeastern Canada, but a large portion of the eastern United States as well.

It gets its name from its velvety antler-like branches and its vibrant red fruit. So Staghorn Sumac, so think of stag, deer and the antler. So Staghorn, when antlers on deer grow, there's a skin and a hair that grows over the antlers, providing nutrients to help that antler grow.

A lot of people call this a velvet because it feels like a velvet, just these short hairs and a skin over it. The young branches of the Staghorn Sumac have very hairy stems and it does just feel like velvet. Yeah, it's quite interesting.

It has clusters of red berries all over these branching limbs. The tree typically grows up to two stories high. It can grow a little higher, often shorter.

Road sides and ditches is where you tend to find it. It does not do well in shade. So yeah, the deeper forest is not where you find it unless there's open areas where it can thrive.

And before we dig into the uses of this plant, remember this podcast is for entertainment purposes. So if you need survival skills training or further information, go out and get it. So with that, just a reminder, it is part of the cashew family.

So if there's allergies to tree nuts and whatnot, it might be a plant you might want to stay away from. There is a poisonous sort of lookalike called the Poison Sumac. However, it has white berries, not red berries.

So that's a giveaway. As far as southeastern Canada, I've only seen maybe two plants. I just don't see the Poison Sumac where I'm from.

It's all staghorn where I am for the most part, and it's very obvious these clusters of red berries. If you do come across the Poison Sumac with white berries, yeah, stay away from that. It causes dermatitis, much like Poison Ivy.

I understand. I haven't contracted the skin rash myself. But yeah, certainly a plant you want to stay away from.

If you check out the Wild Edible books, at least the ones in my library, Staghorn Sumac, the ones with the red berries, have a whole host of uses. But particularly with the berries, the berries make a pleasant drink. I've heard it described as a pink lemonade.

Well, I've made this drink a few times. Ah, pink lemonade. Yeah, there is a citrusy bite to it.

You probably want to add a bit of sugar or a bit of mint and do not make it too strong. But anyway, the way I make this drink is I will take the red berries and I will put them in a container of water. And I might take maybe two or three clusters of berries to make a picture of this drink.

So maybe for two liters. I'll take three clusters of berries. What I do is I put the berries in water.

I kind of swirl them around a little bit and I just leave it for a few hours. And what happens is the little hairs on these berries, they have like acidic juices on them and that washes off into the water. The hairs kind of come off in the water too.

So when the drink is ready, what you should probably do is strain this liquid through a handkerchief or something to get rid of those hairs that kind of come off the berries. At that point, yeah, it's pretty much ready to go. I like it as a chilled drink.

It's pleasant. Certainly adding some mint or a little bit of sugar wouldn't hurt. And it's very important when you collect the berries too.

These berries come out late spring, early summer. They start out green and they slowly turn red. And towards the end of the summer, you know, late July, they tend to get a very deep red in color.

And when it turns to this deep reddish color, that's when the berries are starting to get their flavor. And what happens is if it rains, these berries and the acidic hairs kind of get washed off. So it loses its flavor.

So a good idea would be too low. Not collect these berries for a few days after a rain. Let those sticky hairs kind of recharge, so to speak, before you go and collect it.

So there are so many uses for Sumac as well. There's remedies for sore throats. There can be a remedy or a poultice for skin.

There's a lot of things that it can be used for. And I haven't experimented with all the uses and tried all these things out. Just know that there's a lot out there if you want to research the Staghorn Sumac more and experiment with these uses under the helpful guide of someone who's in the know.

Yeah, go and do that. Yeah, it's an amazing plant. I'm going to switch gears now and talk about something that I've never heard anyone else mention before.

And that's the use of the Staghorn Sumac for friction fires. I've really jumped into friction fires and I've tried a lot of different woods to figure out what works. And I'll certainly have an episode on different types of friction fires in the future.

But one thing, when we do dig into friction fires, is to know that there's a lot of good woods we have in eastern Canada for friction fires. The problem is, a lot of these woods do not have available cured wood ready to roll in the woods when you need it. Yes, you can cut some of this wood, take it home, let it dry, and you'll have great spindles and whatnot for friction fires.

However, when you need it, it has to be accessible. You can't take it and dry it. So there's only a few trees, really, that I have found that are great for friction fires.

And the reason to me that they're great is they're the right hardness, and you can find dead, dry branches easily. In other words, dead branches on living trees, that tends to be a good source. So, you know, otherwise, if a tree dies, it quickly rots and that's that.

You can't use it as it starts getting wet and whatnot. But the Staghorn Sumac, for those of you who know it, there's a lot of dead branches on the living tree. And the tree's perfectly healthy, but just different branches and limbs die off, and they are above the ground, the sun's drying them out.

And because the Sumac loves these open areas where it can get a lot of sunlight, there's often a bit of a breeze in open areas, and the sunlight dries this wood out, and it keeps it nice and dry, the dead, dry wood, ready to use. So for a friction fire, I first tried it, and the hard part was, not finding the dead, dry pieces, was trying to find an eight-inch long spindle. So if you can picture the bow and drill fire where there's a bow that you have in one hand and there's a spindle in the other hand and you're rubbing the spindle with the help of the bow, you need a long spindle there to make that work.

You know, you can get away with four, six inches, but ideally, if you can start with eight inches, that would be great, depending on your body height too. And, you know, there's mechanical things and coordination and whatnot. But anyway, trying to find a straight piece, a straight dead piece is the hard part.

And that's despite the young branches and shoots that shoot up straight as an arrow for eight feet. No, that's not the part we want. Anyway, you can find sections of this dead wood, you know, five inches, six inches long.

Okay, that's fine. Now, what's interesting about this wood, when I, I'll get into how I realize whether wood is suitable or not with my knife and doing hardness checks and whatnot and moisture checks, but that's a topic for another time. But what's so interesting about the Sumac is the older branches, they slowly fill in.

And what I mean by filling in, the young branches have a soft, foamy core. It's almost like a bamboo in a sense, in that there's almost like a core that's not wood. There's a foam on the inside, and as the branch ages, that sometimes that foam remains.

And so we have this hardwood outer with the center core that's foam. Like, I call it a foam, but it's a very soft material. It actually feels quite a bit like foam or a cork, perhaps.

So with the friction fire, although the Sumac wood on its own might be a little on the hard side, in other words, too hard to make much dust to have a coal form in, that foam core is perfect. So you have the harder outer part of the wood for your spindle that creates a lot of heat. And what happens is the inside just kind of melts away, that foam core melts away right into a nice little dust bundle that the outside harder material super heats and turns into the coal.

And yeah, so it makes a pretty good bow and drill friction fire wood. So you can get the spindle from that. You can get the, for those of you who know about friction fires, you can get the baseboard, you can get the handhold part.

You can pretty much get everything you need almost from this tree for friction fires. I was quite surprised when I found this to work because I had not read that in any other source, and I've checked a lot of sources for friction fires and types of wood. Obviously with friction fires in your area, you want to experiment.

Of course, you know, trees, the same species of trees where I live, if I go a few hundred or even a couple hundred miles north or northwest, that same species have different characteristics in all kinds of ways. So, you know, every area is something different. So if you want to become a bushcraft expert, yeah, it's very situational and locational, isn't it? So, the Stagarn Sumac, we have the possible uses for a drink.

There's other medicinal uses you can dig into. It's good for friction fires. And now let's go on to something else which is quite interesting.

This hollow stem with the young branches, or this foam core, you can imagine it's easy to poke out, and it is. So, you know, pipe stems at one time. Well, you still can.

You can make pipe stems with these. You just have to take a younger sapling or branch and poke out the center. And it's so soft, you can pretty much, you don't really need to drill it, although I guess that'd be easier, but you can poke it out with a stick for the most part.

And this foam core, it can be quite a bit thicker than the diameter of like a pencil. So, you know, there's a significant amount of core in there with some of the branches. And like I said, a lot of time the older the branch gets, the more it slowly fills in and becomes hard in the center.

Not always, but sometimes. Anyway, yeah, so you can make pipe stems, I think. I don't know if I've made a pipe stem from this myself.

I don't think so, like an ornamental sort of pipe. I have done it with other types of plants, though. Anyway, but what I have done, literally thousands of, is making the spile, or a spigot, I guess you could call it, by tapping maple trees.

So, typically what people tap maple trees with nowadays are little plastic spouts. They drill a hole in the tree and they stick the plastic spout in, there's a little hook to hang your bucket on, and out comes the sap, and away you go. Well, one time, of course, these were made from wood.

You know, there's a whole history of how trees were tapped, from slashing the tree to, you know, having any kind of piece of wood stuck into the slash, and the liquid drips downwards with gravity into a pail on the ground, or some type of container. Or you just nip off a branch and, you know, capture the moisture coming from that in the springtime. But the staghorn sumacs were once used, and so were a few other plants with similar properties.

But by hollowing out that center stem, because it's so easy to do, I can literally make a tap for a tree from the sumac. Well under a minute. In fact, I can make a crude one, probably in 20 seconds if I put my mind to it.

But all I do is I get these young shoots, these young branches, I nip it off, and I'll take a four or five inch piece, and, you know, with my knife, I'll just carefully score around the outer bark and break the branch nice and clean, do that in two spots, so I have that four or five inch piece. And then I turn that, with my knife, I'll cut about three quarters of that piece in half. So I kind of make it into a half pipe for three quarters of its length.

At that point, the foam core is clearly visible, and you can literally just poke that out with another stick, scrape it out with a knife or another stick, and then the one quarter of that piece of wood, or that will be your tap, that isn't half piped or cut in half lengthwise, you need to poke something through that to, you know, to make it hollow. And another hard stick will work. I tend to use a metal spike because I do thousands of these things.

Anyway, so there you have it. And at the one end, you just simply, the other end that's more together and not half piped, you simply put about a half inch long taper on that end with your knife, and that will be the end that goes into the hole that you make in the tree, in the maple tree. You can tap birch trees, too.

Out west, some people will do birch syrup instead of maple syrup. That's a whole other story. I'll talk about maple syrup production later.

Now, I mentioned I make thousands of these. I do heritage demos where I, maple sugar bushes in the spring, so I'm just making these things by a fire, and they're just giveaways for people. You know, the kids love it.

They see the staghorn, sumac, and they get to feel the velvet grow on the young stems, and how I find or gather my materials is, you know, staghorn, sumac is notorious for taking over yards if you let it. You know, it grows fast, and it spreads quickly, so what I do is I'll cut a couple of these trees down, and in, you know, give it a year and a half, and I have eight foot stalks all over the place. The root systems are shooting up all these stalks and coming up like crazy, and, you know, that would be a whole bunch of trees if I left it, but no, I harvest those, and what I'll do is I'll harvest maybe the top four feet of an eight foot shoot that's coming up, and after that happens, that shoot, it doesn't die.

It just throws up some more shoots, and I'll harvest them the next year. So, yeah, it's like an endless supply. You can obviously over harvest it, and then the roots just slowly lose their energy, and then that's that, but, you know, you got to stay on it for that to happen.

You almost have to really will that to happen, so it's easy to propagate these. They just take off on their own. That said, what's interesting about these shoots that come up, the diameter that has the nice foamy core in it just so happens to be the perfect diameter to tap a maple tree with, and why I say the perfect diameter, it's the same diameter that you can, you know, people who have tapped maple trees, they typically get the metal, or for a long time, for years anyway, they get the metal taps or spigots, you could call it, from their local hardware store, and that's what they use, and there'd be a certain size diameter drill bit that you drill a hole in the tree with, while the sumac branches, when they're shooting up these young branches, when you put that taper in the one end, you know, from large full diameter to a smaller diameter, that's the part that goes into the tree, just like the metal version, and it's the same size.

You can taper it a little more to make it fit, but, you know, it just happens to be about the same size, so I'm thinking the diameter is about, you know, the diameter of a ring, you know, my ring finger, so, you know, just to give you an idea what I'm talking about. So just to recap quickly, I will take a sapling, and I will probably get 10 or 15 spiles from this sapling. I'll score the branch and cleanly break off a piece that's four or five inches long.

I'll half pipe it. I'll take my knife and longitudinally shave half the top half off for three quarters of its length, leaving me about an inch or more at the other end. I scrape out that foam center.

I poke with a stick or a metal spike out the other end, the one quarter end that's still fully round or complete, and now I have this hollow tube with this half pipe section, and I taper that one end so it fits into the tree nicely, and there we go. Now, one thing I should mention is why half pipe it? Why were these traditional spiles or spigots we could call them? Why were they half piped? Why were they cut in half longitudinally? In a lot of the sugarbush camps that are around where I live, they often have a wall of all these old spigots that were used through the decades and eras, and any of the wood ones, and wood was used for a very long time, they were all shaved longitudinally in half like this, and I haven't talked to anyone who can really give me a definitive answer, but I'm assuming that these were half piped for a couple of reasons. One reason could be to help when they were using a sumac, for instance, to get that foam core out.

If you half pipe it, it's easier to clean out and turn in to, you know, a spigot or, you know, a hollow tube. Another reason is probably that if you just hollowed it out, like poke something through this four inch long stick and just tapered the one in, stick it in a tree, yeah, you'd have this long straw, but when the sap is dripping overnight, sorry, not overnight, but during the day, it tends to freeze at night, so you have this tube now that's full of liquid, and then it freezes at night, and for those who don't know, good maple syrup or sap weather, it'll run when the temperature goes below zero at night, low freezing, and above freezing in the daytime. So there's a cycling of freezing and unfreezing.

When it freezes, the sap expands, and if it's in a narrow wooden tube, that can break or crack that wooden tube. So that might be another reason why they're half piped like that. Quickly later in years as drills and other tools became more accessible, people started to use different types of wood and not using the sumac, but then they'd have to drill it out using drills, whereas the sumac, you know, I can grab one in the woods and I can make a tap in no time with the knife.

Ideally, I'd have a hardened stick to poke out the core after I half pipe it, but very quick, very easy to use, and make at 1.2 instead of like a four or five inch piece, you can actually make one that's, you know, maybe 14 or 15 inches long and turn the whole thing into a half pipe, like just shave it off longitudinally in half, except for the last inch or two at one end. And what you do with the long one like that is when you stick that into the tree, after you taper the one end, is it would drip down into a pail or bucket that's on the ground. So, you know, as trees at the base, how they kind of come out to, you know, accommodate the roots that are shooting out into the ground horizontally, you need that long length to reach a bucket past the widening of the stem of the tree, the maple tree.

With the short ones, of course, you put a little wire around that and you have a little hook and that's what your bucket fits on, so it drips right into your bucket. Now, I have mentioned pipe stems as well. Also flutes, you know, the traditional flutes, the older flutes that were made, sumac would be a nice candidate for that because you already have the hollow stem, you don't have to split the wood and, you know, kind of half pipe each side and then glue it back together or somehow get a long drill bit and drill it out, which wasn't available back in the day.

So there's many ways to make a flute that hollow chamber, but, you know, sumac's kind of ready to go, isn't it? It has that foam core. So, you know, I haven't tried that. I've made a lot of traditional wooden flutes, but not from sumac.

That's maybe on the bucket list when I get back into that. I have also heard about sumacs being used for blow darts and I'm not sure how that works exactly. Never having tried to make one, but I have had one or two people tell me that that was so and I have read it online.

I just haven't looked into it, having no reason to make a blow dart. So just in review, with our Staghorn Sumac, these berries come out in the spring, green berries, and they slowly turn red through the summer, getting to that deep red, which some people make into a drink. Remember, it's related to the cashew family, tree nut allergies, and, you know, you have to explore these things on your own.

You know, find a guide who can help you with wild edibles. I'm not here to teach that. I'm just here to talk about the uses I use for entertainment purposes.

I do also make, as I said, friction fires with this wood. I make the taps for tapping trees and many of them. It's a beautiful plant besides that.

It offers wonderful shade. If you're in a little field with sumac along the edges, it provides a nice, low canopy that you can easily set up a tent in between the trees. And, yeah, harvesting some of the sumac, it grows right back.

It's like a weed, so, you know, you can make use of sumac and not feel like you have to be really picky on which trees you get because it's coming right back and right after you cut it. Thank you for joining us on the Reverie Nature Podcast. Remember to subscribe for more captivating episodes exploring the wonders of the natural world.

Until next time, may you saunter forth, embracing nature's song, and may the whispers of the wilderness linger in your heart. May we go in the above forest where our canyons turn upside down where trembling as skin leaves are gone. May we make no sound.

Transcribed by 

About Staghorn Sumac
Friction Fire
Bushcraft Experts are Locational
Making Use of the Foam Core. Tap a tree for syrup.
Pipes and Flutes