By Linda Jones.
The Sumac family, Anacardiaceae, contains a rather odd variety of plants: the yummy, familiar mango, pistachio and cashew but also poison oak. It also includes two easy-to-grow workhorses for the southern California native garden: the lemonade berry, Rhus integrifolia, and sugar bush, R. ovata. Although they do not produce the oil found in poison oak, both have oils that can cause a rash so you want to handle them cautiously. And If you have allergies to mango or cashew, don’t ingest their berries.
If you live close to the coast, then lemonade berry is your choice. It is found in coastal areas, both coastal sage scrub and chaparral communities.
Lemonade berry plants, Rhus integrifolia, growing on the slope. Phott: Linda Jones.
Sugar bush is found only in the chaparral, usually inland or at slightly higher elevations than lemonade berry.
Their range is Santa Barbara county to northwestern Baja California. Sugar bush is more heat tolerant and ranges further inland than lemonade berry, to the western edge of the Colorado Desert.
These are large, evergreen shrubs and can grow up to 25 ft in height and width. They are a good replacement for evergreen, non-native shrubs in drought-tolerant gardens. They take well to pruning and can be used as hedges, or even espaliered. In the wild, they are naturally pruned by nibbling deer, rabbits and other animals. It is best not to heavy prune in the fall as you will lose the berries.
Leaves are different in the two species. Lemonade berry has thick green leaves, 1-2 inches long, with a waxy surface. New growth may have a red leaf margin and vein. Leaves are flat, round to elliptical in shape and usually serrated. The leaves of the sugar bush are glossy dark green, 1-3 inches long. The leaves are folded up on the sides and pointed. In hot conditions leaves of both species will point vertically to reduce water loss.
The flowers form as short clusters as at the ends of branches. The blossoms are five- petaled, pink/white, appearing in early spring to May. In warm, dry years they can appear as early as December. The flowers have a slight fragrance and provide nectar and pollen birds, butterflies and moths.
The flowers are followed by fuzzy fruit. Bright orange red flattened berries cover my lemonade berry in May and stay on the plant all summer. My favorite thing about lemonade berries is their tangy taste. Just tap your finger on one of the fruits and taste the lemon tartness! Native Americans (and non-Natives) make a lovely lemonade with the berries. Many animals depend on the berries so you may find scrub jays, quail, red-shafted flickers, wrens, mocking birds as well as some mammals enjoying them in your garden.
Both lemonade berry and sugar bush are very adaptable in gardens, growing well from full sun to deep shade. They are good on slopes for erosion control and are fire resistant, especially if you provide some summer water.
These species have few pests or disease problems and can be long-lived (over 70 years recorded at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden).
In Chula Vista, CA there is a lemonade berry listed as a California Big Tree. It is 16 ft high, spreads 51 ft with a trunk 55 inches in diameter.
Linda Jones is a long-term gardener learning about our native plants and their interactions with wildlife.She is a member of San Diego Master Gardeners.