A Plant with Taste

Another Lens on Life blog from Chuck Kopczak, PhD

Several small clusters of reddish berries are nestled between oval-shaped, flat green leaves
Chuck Kopczak, PhD

Leaves and early-stage fruit of the lemonade berry bush (Rhus intergrifolia)

Today’s photo was taken at Stough Canyon Nature Center in the Verdugo Hills in Los Angeles County, California with a Canon EF100 mm f/2.8 Macro USM lens on a Canon EOS 5D Mk III. The exposure was set to 1/180 sec at f/4.0 and ISO 100.

Today’s photo subject is a star of the California Floristic Province, a region stretching along the Pacific Coast of North America extending from a portion of northern Baja California through most of California and into a portion of extreme southwest Oregon. The lemonade berry (Rhus intergrifolia) is a member of the chaparral plant community found on hillsides throughout Southern California. Being a “charter” member of the California Floristic Province means lemonade berry is an endemic species, found only here. It is known to occur from the coastal areas of Santa Barbara County south to western San Diego County, with its range extending into north-central Pacific coastal Baja California and some of the offshore islands. It occurs as a sprawling shrub or small tree. The leaves are leathery and evergreen with toothed edges and a waxy appearance.

The plant gets its common name from the fruit it produces. The fruit is dark red, squarish in shape, and sticky. The presence of tannins gives the fruit a sharp, tart taste, reminiscent of lemons. Native American peoples made a mush from the berries that was edible. Most likely the tannins were leached from the mush with water before it was eaten. The Cahuilla people made a lemonade-like beverage by soaking the berries in water. The Kumeyaay people used the leaves to stave off thirst on long journeys, while the Mahuna people ate the berries to quench their thirst.

I’ve tasted the berries myself and can attest that they are quite tart. I’ve also introduced my granddaughters to them. They love them.

Lemonade berry is a very common resident in the California Floristic Province that provided Native Americans with part of their diet and provided ways for them to meet their needs to flourish in the Mediterranean climate of Southern California.