Redshanks bloom around Anza

Redshank have tiny needle-like evergreen leaves on scraggly branches. Anza Valley Outlook/Diane Sieker photo

One of the most common sights in the Anza Valley are vast expenses of redshank forests covering the mountains and canyons, amid the boulders and sagebrush.

The redshank, or ribbonwood shrub, Adenostoma sparsifolium is actually a member of the scientific family Rosaceae – the rose family – which includes 4,828 known flowering species. However, redshank and chamise – A. fasciculatum – are the only two species in their genus within Rosaceae.

The plant is named ribbonwood for the delicate paper-like bark that sloughs off the trunk and branches of the plant, while the term redshank describes the color of both bark and interior wood.

Tiny redshank blossoms are visible in large clumps or clusters. Anza Valley Outlook/Diane Sieker photo

These common shrubs grow in southern California and Baja California Norte. The largest populations of redshank chaparral are in the San Jacinto and Santa Rosa mountains and in valleys of Riverside and San Diego counties. Anza is within the plant’s natural range.

Redshank is a dominant species in chamise, mixed, redshank and desert chaparral, coastal sage scrub and singleleaf pinyon/juniper habitats, with most stands found from 1,500 to 5,000 feet of elevation.

This shrub is an important food and shelter source for many animals and insects. Small mammals such as rabbits browse redshank sprouts. Domestic cattle, goats and sheep will devour tender new growth.

Redshank shrubs dot the Anza Valley, providing shelter and food for wildlife. Anza Valley Outlook/Diane Sieker photo

Flowering occurs in late August and continues through September. Tiny white flowers form huge clusters on virtually every branch on the plant. As flowering comes to an end, the flowers give way to reddish brown seeds. However, overall seed crops are usually sparse and seedlings from seed are rare, which may account for the redshank’s limited distribution.

Redshank primarily reproduces vegetatively. The roots and lignotuber – locally called the root ball – store carbohydrates and other nutrients used for sprout development. This sprouting continues throughout the life of the plant and following a wildfire.

According to the Fire Effects Information System, a prescribed fire in Chihuahua Valley, San Diego County, top-killed redshank but did little damage to redshank lignotubers and fine root hairs. Mean surface soil temperature reached 662 F during the blaze. Sprouts grew an average length of 4.8 inches per month in the first postfire growing season.

The redshank has also been valuable to early peoples in the area. Native Americans used an infusion of the bark and leaves to treat syphilis. The plant oils were used to relieve skin infections. Additionally, Spanish Californians used redshank as a remedy for colds, snakebite and tetanus. The seasoned root balls are a favorite wood to use for slow-cooking meat in large quantities and the wood is a long-burning firewood.

Diane Sieker can be reached by email at