Sugar Bush is blooming all over the high country, decorating the chaparral and grasslands with its fresh white to pinkish flower clusters nestled in dark green, leafy branches.
Rhus ovata, commonly called Sugar Bush, is an 8- to 12-foot tall evergreen native Southern California and Arizona shrub. It is known for its large white flower clusters that spring forth in March and May. Sugar Bush has large, rich green, leathery leaves, and the flowers give way to reddish berries.
Sugar Bush prefers dry inland slopes with plenty of sun and little or no water after it has become well-established. In some areas, the plant grows in very soft chaparral; in others, such as east of Hemet and Perris, a few of the pretty shrubs are all that remain along the bare ground. It prefers south-facing slopes near 3,500 feet in elevation.
The Sugar Bush shrub has a rounded appearance. The twigs are thick and strong and reddish in color. The leaves are dark green on top, dull on the bottom, leathery and creased down the center. Flower clusters at the ends of branches are small, about two to 3 inches in length. Each delicate flower has five white to pink petals with red sepals.
The berries are small and reddish, with sticky, fleshy fruit surrounding a pit that botanists call a drupe.
Sugar Bush is very fire-resistant and can re-sprout from its unburned root crown. It also grows from seeds in the soil, which are only stimulated to germinate by heat from the fire. This adaptation increases the likelihood that the shrubs survive fires and ensures that there is a major seed bank encased in the ground.
Native peoples used Sugar Bush as a sweetener and pounded the flesh into porridge to use as a remedy for colds.
Sugar Bush fruits can be pressed to make a tart drink, similar to lemonade. This beverage kept early southern Californians cool on hot, dry summer days in the chaparral.
The Cahuilla people of the Mojave Desert collected the berries and ate them raw. These berries were also dried to preserve them for later use.
The Cahuilla also used Sugar Bush as medicine. They prepared an infusion of leaves and drank it as a remedy for colds, chest pains and coughs.
The Kumeyaay people of the San Diego area prepared a tea of Sugar Bush leaves and drank the concoction before childbirth to ensure an easy delivery.
Diane Sieker can be reached by email at email@example.com.