Harvesting Sugarbush

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Part of my appreciation of our native desert plants comes from the indispensable gifts that these plants have provided for millennia to humans, wildlife, birds, insects, soils, and the whole ecosystem. Indigenous peoples have long valued and used native desert plants for food, medicine, healing, shelter, clothing, utensils, and ceremony

Sugarbush (Rhus ovata) is a sumac relative that has been used for making a sweet-tart beverage, as well as being a valuable, drought-tolerant, evergreen landscape plant.

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Part of my appreciation of our native desert plants comes from the indispensable gifts that these plants have provided for millennia to humans, wildlife, birds, insects, soils, and the whole ecosystem. Indigenous peoples have long valued and used native desert plants for food, medicine, healing, shelter, clothing, utensils, and ceremony. I would like to share some of these uses that we can incorporate into our lives today, but this comes with a responsibility to reciprocate thoughtful care and stewardship for these tenacious but fragile desert dwellers. I always encourage respectful harvesting and mindful use of our native plants (join one of our workshops to find out how! We prepare these native plants for you to taste, drink, smell, touch, and experience). I also strongly encourage the purchase and planting of native plants in our own yards, especially if we want to harvest their gifts regularly (see our section, Native Plant Nurseries, for southwest nurseries that sell California native plants). By incorporating plants into our yards that are native to our own region, we also help sustain native butterflies, native bees, birds, wildlife, and migration corridors for all of them, as well as reducing our dependence on added water, fertilizers, and pesticides in our yards. Growing plants that thrive in our climate also reduces our time and cost to maintain our yard). It is truly a win-win scenario.

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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 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. Early to mid-summer is the time to harvest tart “berries.” We encourage you to invite this valuable native plant into your own yard for both drought-tolerant and edible landscaping, as well as valuable wildlife habitat. 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.

Clockwise photos from upper left:

  1. Sugarbush plant
  2. Sugarbush flowers
  3. Sugarbush ripe fruit with sugar strings
  4. Sugarbush “sugar” collecting on leaf
  5. Sugarbush “berries” steeping for tea
  6. Sugarbush “lemonade”

Sugarbush plant parts traditionally used:
  • Fruits – Ripe “berries” (actually drupes) eaten raw, dried, or ground into mush.
  • Flowers – The Cahuilla have been reported to boil the flower clusters and consume them.
  • Leaves – Used by Cahuilla to treat colds and coughs by making a tea with the leaves.