Walking along the Pit River (Shasta County CA) we noticed on the trail many piles of coyote scat filled with red berries. The berries were from the squaw bush (Rhus trilobata), also know as skunkbrush, skunkbrush sumac, lemonade sumac and too many other variations to list. Obviously from the quantity of berries in the scat (some scat had nothing but berries) the coyotes were gorging on the squawbush berries.
Squawbush belongs to the sumac genus (Rhus) which also includes poison oak and ivy. The squawbush resembles poison oak in having three-lobed leaves that turn scarlet in the fall and red berries. However, unlike poison oak it is not noxious and does not possess the allergy-producing properties of its relative. When crushed the leaves of the squawbush emit a strong odor, hence the names involving the word “skunk”.
The squawbush was extensively used by Native Americans. Baskets were woven from the fibrous bark of the stems. The berries can be eaten raw, mixed into porridges or dried and ground into a meal. Letting the berries steep in water results in a “lemonade-tasting” tea. The tea is very high in Vitamin C. Gastrointestinal disturbances and smallpox were two of many ailments treated with squawbush concoctions.
Squawbush often forms heavy, almost impenetrable thickets. Small mammals and birds utilize these thickets for cover and nesting, in addition to eating the berries too. The coyote is not the only wild creature that enjoys the berries.
All my life I have been interested in the uses of plants and take every opportunity to taste or eat anything edible. As someone who is extremely allergic to poison oak/ivy (I joke that I break out by simply thinking of the plant.), I was a little hesitant to ingest a relative of plants that cause me such grief – particularly since squawbush looks so similar to poison oak and ivy. Curiosity won out and I did eventually eat a few berries. No adverse reactions! So now I will eat squawberries. The berries themselves are tart and a little dry, but totally palatable. The tea is quite pleasant, although I do not know that I would exactly compare it to lemonade. I suppose with sweetener it would be tart/sweet like lemonade. Mr. Coyote does not need to worry about me competing with him for squawberries.
Squawbush is a beautiful plant useful to both man and animals.