The process of integration in Germany, much like the rest of Europe, can be a slow one. Today we briefly focus on a botanical immigrant to Berlin – the Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina). The plant was introduced to Europe in the early 17th century. After making its way to Germany, it remained for much of the next two centuries an exotica worthy only of botanical gardens and few other green spaces. (The widespread cultivation of the plant did not begin until the middle of the 20thcentury.) Staghorn Sumac is a deciduous small tree that is native to eastern North America. At home in the swampy regions of the Appalachians Mountains but also in Southeastern Canada, the plant is no stranger to colder climates. Coupled with an ability to sprout easily and grow rapidly even in poor soil, Staghorn Sumac seems to weather Berlin’s continental climate quite well. The fruit of the plant forms red clusters of drupes which are found at the end of branches. Native Americans soaked the fruit in water to make a refreshing type of lemonade , a tradition which is carried out today by adventurous outdoorsmen and curious foragers. The fruits’ sour properties are reflected in its German common name Essigbaum, which literally translates as “Vinegar Tree.”
A large number of Germans have been unknowingly enjoying the dried ground fruits of Tanner’s Sumac (Rhus coriaria) for a couple of decades via Middle Eastern and North African spice mixtures (called Za’atar). Next time you order a Döner Kebab, sumac will likely be part of your meal. From a culinary perspective, the integration of sumac is nothing short of a success story.
The deep-hued red fruits of the Sumac remain throughout the year and provide a welcome contrast to the colourless Berlin winters. The specimen identified in our photographs (Rhus typhina) can be found along Bornholmer Strasse between Bergener and Bjoernson Strasse. However, it is on private property so you’ll need to ask permission or find another one if you want to make sumac lemonade! The photographs of sumac lemonade featured below were taken a few summers ago in Virginia, where Staghorn Sumac is plentiful and grows freely.