Sugarbush for “lemonade”


Summer’s approach has teased the “sugar” out of our Sugarbush fruits, which are ready for harvesting from June until August. The red “berries” of our native Sugarbush (Rhus ovata) are oozing with an acidic, sugary sap that imparts a tart flavor to the fruits, technically called drupes (berry-like fruits with one seed enclosed in a hardened shell or “stone”). The sticky berries have a velvety pubescence, and become reddish when ripe.

Native Americans dried the berries to preserve them, soaked them in water, then heated them to make a sort of hot pink lemonade. The tart strings of white sap were used as an acidic flavoring or sweetener for other foods. The dried fruits were also ground into a flour for mush.

This attractive evergreen shrub has lush foliage of leathery leaves that are folded along the midrib, making them look like deep green taco shells. Sugarbush is a favorite landscape plant for southwest gardens, tolerant of drought, heat, wind, and frost. See our Plant of the Month treatment of Sugarbush as a valuable landscape plant.

We have planted sugarbush along the perimeter of our property as a privacy screen, so we have plenty of berries to harvest for beverages. The berries are sticky, so you may want to occasionally wash your hands or wear latex or rubber gloves while harvesting. We love making “wild lemonade” by soaking the berries in hot water. Here is our recipe:

Sugarbush Lemonade ~ Pour 1 quart of boiling water over 2 cups of dried or fresh berries. Do not wash the berries before using, or you will wash the flavoring off the berries. Let steep for about 20 minutes (or use cool water and let stand for 24 hours). Strain through a fine sieve to remove berries. Sweeten to taste with honey, agave nectar, or stevia. Serve chilled for a refreshing drink in summer, or hot as a warming winter brew.