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Friday, January 20, 2017

California Gourmet: Finishing Salts

Finishing salts can be made with California native plant flavors.

Professional chefs know a secret or two about using flavors.   Often it’s the finishing touches – the sauces, the toppings or the seasonings sprinkled atop a dish – that give it that extra zing.  Creative finishing touches are making their way into home kitchens as well, where amateur chefs are doing amazing things with them.

We’ve discussed how to dry native fruits (http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2016/08/california-gourmet-preserving-summer.html) and aromatic leaves (http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2016/04/california-gourmet-making-flavored.html) in previous posts.  Dried herbs/fruits can be used for herbal tea or as flavoring agents.  In fact, some California gardeners use them routinely.

In January, some of our aromatic native shrubs begin to leaf out again.  With new resources on the way, January’s a good time to go through the spice cupboard and use up last year’s native bounty.     One possibility is to use them to create unique and tasty finishing salts.   These make great gifts, as well as staples for the spice cupboard.

Traditional finishing touches often feature the flavors of garden herbs, fruits and berries.  But California’s native flavors are gaining popularity.  Some of our more inventive chefs now feature California native flavors in their restaurants.   Finishing salts are just one way to use native plant flavors creatively.

Finishing salts are simply salts (NaCl) flavored with dried or fresh herbs/flowers, fruits, citrus zest – even wine or vinegar.   They can be used in many ways, including as rubs or a finishing touch for meats, seafood and vegetables; or as a topping on breads or in bread stuffings.  You can use them on popcorn, fried foods, eggs or cheese dishes.  The sweeter varieties are used sparingly  on deserts, candies and beverages.  You can likely find additional uses for these interesting and zesty salts.

Native mints can be dried and used to flavor finishing salts.
Any of the dried native herbs/fruits you use in cooking (or for native tea) can be used for flavoring finishing salts.  Here are a few ideas:

          Native sages (Salvias)

          Native mints (Mentha; Monardella; Pynanthemum)

          Native artemisias (Artemisia californica; A. douglasiana; A. dracunculus)

Dried or fresh native onions (edible Allium species like Allium hematochiton; A. praecox; A. unifolium)

Dried rose petals

Edible native berries (dried and ground; hard seeds removed by sieving)

You can combine native herbs with non-native (kitchen) herbs and spices, citrus zest, other dried fruits, dried onion, etc.   A spicier blend might include chili, sriracha or curry powder.  Other common kitchen herbs and spices can also work wonderfully – as long as the blend of the salt, native spice(s) and other seasonings tastes good.   We suggest making a small batch when trying new flavor combinations.  You’ll find you like many, while a few are best viewed as failed experiments.  

The final product also depends on the flavor of the salt.  Unrefined salts from different parts of the world have their own unique flavors.  Their textures range from coarse to flaky to fine grained.   You may already have a favorite gourmet salt that you use.  If not, unflavored sea salts or coarse kosher salts are readily available, relatively inexpensive and good place to start for the new salt-flavorer.

Making flavored finishing salts with dried flavoring is easy.
Basic Recipe Using Dried Flavorings

This is a basic, starter recipe.  You can combine favorite dried native/kitchen herbs in any combination that works for your palette.  We suggest starting with these amounts; you can always add more flavorings, if needed.

Yields 2 ounces


·         1 tablespoon dried leaf spice/flower petals/dried berry fruits/other kitchen spices or 1 teaspoon dried citrus peel (lemon, orange, lime, tangerine, etc.)

·         2 1/2 tablespoons unrefined sea salt, coarse kosher salt or flake salt


All flavoring agents (spices, herbs, fruits) must be completely dried and ground prior to using.  For most intense flavors, the dried flavoring agents should be ground just prior to preparing the seasoning salt.  

·         To prepare dried leaf herbs/flower petals, finely grind in a spice mill, blade coffee grinder (we like KitchenAid® Blade Coffee Grinder; used only for grinding spices) or mortar and pestle. You can grind each herb separately or grind them all together.   Remove large, unground stems, pieces.  Measure.

·         To prepare dried citrus peel, grate the peel (colored part only) using a fine grater.  Dry in a warm, dry place or on a cookie sheet in a warm oven (never more than 170° F - 75° C), watching closely. Cool and measure.

·         To prepare dried berries/fruits, first be sure that they are well-dried.  Grind dry fruits in a spice mill, blade coffee grinder or mortar and pestle.  Sieve dried mixture to remove hard, unground seeds (if any).  Discard seeds, then measure.

Combine salt and prepared seasonings in spice mill or blade coffee grinder.  Blend with 4-6 quick pulses (or grind coarsely).  That’s it!    Store seasoning salt in a labeled, airtight jar (glass is best) in the spice cupboard.   Best flavor if used within 2-4 months.


Fresh herbs can also be used for finishing salts.

Basic Recipe Using Fresh Flavorings

When using fresh herbs, heat is utilized to infuse the salt with additional flavor.  We like the microwave method because it’s easy and produces good flavors.  The oven method (using a conventional oven) is more traditional.  You might try both, to see which method produces the best result with your favorite herbs. 

Yields about 6 ounces

·         2 Tablespoons fresh herbs, washed and diced finely before measuring  or 2 Tablespoons fresh citrus peel (lemon, orange, lime, tangerine, etc.)

·         ½ cup (8 Tablespoons) unrefined sea salt, coarse kosher salt or flake salt

·         Optional: other dried kitchen herbs/spices – to taste

Directions (microwave method)

Place all ingredients in a microwave-proof container (Pyrex is good) with a lid.   Stir to blend.  Cover and microwave on High for 30 seconds.   Stir.  Cover and microwave on High for an additional 30-45 seconds (depending on microwave).  Check quickly; flavoring agents should be soft. 

Replace cover, remove from microwave and cool to room temperature.  This step steeps the flavors of the herbs into the salt.

Stir cooled salt mixture and place on a large plate.  Air dry in a warm place until dry.   Or spread on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and dry in a conventional oven at 300° F (150° C) for about 15 minutes.  You can also oven dry in a warm oven (never more than 170° F - 75° C) for an hour or so.  Check and stir salt every 15 minutes.

Cool to room temperature.  Place in spice mill, blade coffee grinder or mortar and pestle.  Pulse quickly 4-6 times (or grind coarsely) to blend.  Remove any large pieces of unground herbs. Store in a labeled, airtight jar (glass is best) in the spice cupboard.   Best flavor if used within 2-4 months.

Directions (conventional oven method)

Place all ingredients in a bowl; stir to mix. Spread mixture on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and dry in a conventional oven at 300° F (150° C) for about 15 minutes.  Watch closely.  Remove from oven when dry.

Cool to room temperature.  Place in spice mill, blade coffee grinder or mortar and pestle.  Pulse quickly 4-6 times (or grind coarsely) to blend.  Remove any large pieces of unground herbs. Store in a labeled, airtight jar (glass is best) in the spice cupboard.   Best flavor if used within 2-4 months.

Wine and vinegar can be combined with native flavors to
 create tangy flavored finishing salts.
Basic Recipe for Reduction Method (Fresh or Dried Flavorings in Wine or Vinegar)

If you like the taste of wine or vinegar, you might try using these, with or without other flavorings, to produce flavored finishing salts.  Many native plant flavorings combine nicely with vinegars. We suggest reading our post on flavored vinegars (http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2014/01/california-gourmet-making-flavored.html) for ideas.  In fact, you can even use flavored vinegars to make the finishing salts.

Homemade flavored vinegars produce the mildest flavored finishing salts.  Dried herbs, simmered with the wine or vinegar in this recipe, make a slightly stronger flavored salt.  Fresh herbs, which are also simmered in this method, make the strongest, most tangy salts.

As always, you’ll need to play around a bit to get the flavors right.  In these salts, the herbs/spices/fruits, the type of vinegar/wine and the salt each impart their own flavor to the mix.  Our posting on flavored vinegars gives some pointers on matching vinegar type to flavoring agents.  Remember that some wines and vinegars are strong flavors on their own.  You’ll need robust herbs to stand up to such strong flavors.

Traditional recipes for the reduction method use 3 cups of wine for every cup of salt [see reference 3].  We’ve modified the proportions and methods a bit in the recipe below.


Yields about 6 ounces


·         1/3 cup fresh herbs, washed and bruised/coarsely chopped   or 1 Tablespoon fresh citrus zest (zest from one lemon, orange, lime, etc.)   or 1-2 Tablespoons dried, crushed or ground herbs/petals/berries/kitchen spices

·         1 cup wine or vinegar of choice

·         1/3 to ½ cup (8 Tablespoons) unrefined sea salt, coarse kosher salt or flake salt

·         Optional: other dried kitchen herbs/spices – to taste

·         Optional: additional dried


In a non-reactive/non-aluminum saucepan, combine vinegar/wine and flavorings (or flavored vinegar).  Heat to a simmer.  Simmer on medium heat for 5 minutes.  If using fresh herbs or citrus zest, strain these out and discard on compost heap.  If using dried herbs/spices, strain these out at 10 minutes.  Return saucepan to stove and simmer on low heat until volume is reduced by about one-half.   Stir often and be sure it doesn’t stick or burn.

Remove from heat and cool to room temperature.  Add salt and mix well.  Spread on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and air dry (will take several days). Stir every few hours to speed drying.  Or oven dry in a warm oven (never more than 170° F - 75° C) for an hour or so until dry.  Check and stir salt every 15 minutes.  Break up clumps as salt dries. 


Dried, ground herbs (optional) can be added at this point for interest and additional flavor.  If adding dried herbs, place dried salt and ground herbs in spice mill, blade coffee grinder or mortar and pestle.  Pulse quickly 4-6 times (or grind coarsely) to blend.

Store in a labeled, airtight jar (glass is best) in the spice cupboard.   Best flavor if used within 2-4 months.

Enjoy your unique, California Gourmet flavored finishing salt.



We encourage you to send us your questions, comments and recipes (either comment below or e-mail to us at : mothernaturesbackyard10@gmail.com

Monday, January 9, 2017

Plant of the Month (January) : Catalina perfume / Evergreen currant – Ribes viburnifolium

Catalina Perfume (Evergreen currant; Ribes viburnifolium): Mother Nature's Backyard

January is the dead of winter. While most S. California gardens aren’t covered in snow, this is still the coldest and wettest time of the year.  So we treasure any plant that dares bloom in January.  One of our early bloomers, Ribes viburnifolium (pronounced RIE-bees (or REE-bees) vi-bur-ni-FO-lee-um), is flowering right now in Mother Nature’s Backyard.  We urge you to come and see it!

Ribes viburnifolium is also known commonly as the Evergreen currant, Island currant, Catalina currant, Island gooseberry and Santa catalina island currant.    It’s a surprising member of the Gooseberry family (Grossulariaceae), which contains many of our common edible berry bushes.  Catalina perfume looks and behaves differently from other native currants/gooseberries; but it’s a wonderful plant in its own right.

Catalina perfume is endemic to only two places: Santa Catalina Island (one of the S. California Channel Islands) and near the border of San Diego County and Baja California, Mexico.  Island species – and those separated from main populations in other ways – often differ from their nearest relatives.  Isolation can be a powerful force in the development of new species.   So we shouldn’t be surprised that Ribes viburnifolium differs from other local Ribes.   The cultivar Ribes viburnifolium  ‘Spooner’s Mesa’, which has slightly larger leaves, is derived from the San Diego population.

Catalina Perfume (Evergreen currant; Ribes viburnifolium):
 Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, Claremont CA
In the wilds, Catalina perfume is a fairly uncommon plant, growing in shady canyons and slopes, often quite near the ocean. Ribes viburnifolium is a member of the chaparral community.  It rarely occurs above about 1000 ft. (300 m.) elevation,    making it suitable for lowland Los Angeles County gardens.  In nature, it often grows in the shade of Lemonadeberry, Sugar bush and other shrubs.  This hints at its most effective uses in the garden.

Catalina Perfume (Evergreen currant; Ribes viburnifolium):
 young plant
Evergreen currant is an evergreen sub-shrub (part-woody) that grows 1-2 feet (30-60 cm) tall and up to 8 or 12 feet (2 ½ to 3 ½ m.) wide.  In sunnier locations it may be slightly taller and more upright; in shady locations it’s more of a woody groundcover.  The slender stems are arching or sprawling; where they touch bare ground they may root.  These characteristics make Ribes viburnifolium a popular native shady groundcover.  But the plant is versatile and can also be pruned as an upright shrub if that’s desired.
Catalina Perfume (Evergreen currant; Ribes viburnifolium): leaves
The leaves of Catalina perfume are simple, rounded, medium green and one to one and a half inches (2-4 cm) in diameter.  In sunnier locations, leaves often have a thick waxy coating, giving the upper surface a shiny appearance.  In shady spots, the leaf surface will often appear less shiny. 

Catalina Perfume (Evergreen currant; Ribes viburnifolium):
 leaf glands
The leaves are covered with small, bumpy yellow glands. These glands (glandular trichomes) secrete the aromatic resins for which the plant is named.  After a rain – or when the leaves are rubbed – they release a fragrance that is pleasant, but difficult to describe.  It has hints of pine, some apple or grape, and perhaps a touch of vinegar.  Anyway, impossible to describe, but a wonderfully refreshing scent.

Catalina Perfume (Evergreen currant; Ribes viburnifolium):
The young bark of Ribes viburnifolium is red to red-brown and contrasts beautifully with the green foliage.  The foliage attributes – and the ability to tolerate shade – have made this plant a popular ground cover for shady slopes and under trees.  It is widely available throughout S. California, from nurseries offering native plants.

Catalina Perfume (Evergreen currant; Ribes viburnifolium):
Catalina perfume’s flowers are pleasing in a sweet, old-fashioned way.  Unfortunately, they are so small (less than ½ inch) that you may miss them amongst the foliage.  But hummingbirds will let you know that something good is blooming!   Ribes viburnifolium is a winter or early spring bloomer.  It may bloom as early as January/February or as late as April in western Los Angeles County.  The flowers are evenly spaced on short (1-3 inch) flowering stalks (see above). 

Catalina Perfume (Evergreen currant; Ribes viburnifolium):
 close-up of flowers
The flowers are worth a closer look.  Their overall color is reddish-brown or reddish purple.  The color is mostly provided by the prominent sepals, which are much larger and showier than the petals (see above).  The anthers (male sex organs) and pollen are white and showy – extending out beyond the sepals.  This is a hummingbird flower: red color, sweet scent and distinctive floral architecture.  But the flowers also attract bees and butterflies.  In fact, this plant can be an important food source for all these pollinators in winter.

Like other Ribes species, Ribes viburnifolium produces edible fruits.  They are small, red, currant-type fruits – quite pretty, though uncommon on our bushes.  We’ll try to get some pictures this year.  The fruits are not the tastiest of our native Ribes, and most gardeners just leave them for the birds.
Catalina Perfume (Evergreen currant; Ribes viburnifolium):
 under Live oak, Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, Claremont CA
Catalina perfume is not picky about soil texture; we’ve had good success in very sandy and clay soils.  If your pH is above 8.0 (alkali soil) you may want to consider another species, but this plant is pretty adaptable otherwise.  It does need some shade and probably looks best in bright shade under trees.  At any rate, be sure it gets at least afternoon shade in S. California; it will grow fine in quite shady locations, though flowering will likely be less.

Catalina perfume does not tolerate extreme heat, so it’s a better choice for western S. California than for hot, inland areas.   Once established, Ribes viburnifolium is fairly drought tolerant; you can even grow it under summer-dry native oaks (see above).  It looks best with moderate to occasional water – 1 to 2 times a month in most S. California summer gardens.  It is fine in areas that get a little overspray from lawns or other regularly watered areas.  And it won’t need any added fertilizer unless you grow it in a container (if so, give a single dose of half-strength fertilizer in early spring).

Catalina Perfume (Evergreen currant; Ribes viburnifolium)
So why consider Ribes viburnifolium for your own garden?  If you have a shady slope – or need a groundcover for a shady spot under trees or in the side yard – Catalina perfume is an easy care, native alternative to invasive ivy, star jasmine or non-native honeysuckles. It’s a great plant for erosion control.  Just water occasionally, trim back as needed, and that’s about it.  This plant is more than acceptable for front yards; your most persnickety neighbors won’t even guess it’s a native!

If you need a small shrub for a shady spot, start shaping Ribes viburnifolium the first year.  It can be kept to a quite serviceable size with routine pruning.  We haven’t yet grown it in a container, but are considering trying it on a shady porch. We love the idea of being able to reach over and rub the scented leaves.  We’ll update with pictures in a year or so.

Catalina Perfume (Evergreen currant; Ribes viburnifolium):
 shady garden
And if you worry about having winter flowers for hummingbirds and other pollinators, this is a superior choice to many of the non-native groundcovers.  You’ll also be helping to maintain a plant that’s rare – even threatened – in the wild.   And that may be reason enough to plant this wonderful island native!

Catalina Perfume (Evergreen currant; Ribes viburnifolium):
 Mother Nature's Backyard, Gardena CA

For plant information sheets on other native plants see: http://nativeplantscsudh.blogspot.com/p/gallery-of-native-plants_17.html


We welcome your comments (below).  You can also send your questions to: mothernaturesbackyard10@gmail.com


Sunday, January 1, 2017

New Year, New Hours

Happy New Year to all our readers.  To celebrate 2017, the Gardena Willows Wetland Preserve will be open one additional afternoon each month (4th Sat. of each month – 1:00-4:00 p.m.).   The new hours for Mother Nature’s Backyard will be as follows:
                First Wednesday 11:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. (November-April)
                                      3:00-6:00 p.m.               (May-October)
          Second Saturday          9:00 a.m. to noon
          Second Sunday   1:00 to 4:00 p.m.
          Third Sunday      1:00 to 4:00 p.m.
          Fourth Saturday 1:00 to 4:00 p.m.
Please plan to visit our garden in 2017.  It’s pretty and interesting in every season. We can also arrange tours and presentations for interested groups.
We welcome your comments (below).  You can also send your questions to: mothernaturesbackyard10@gmail.com

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Plant of the Month (December) : Sourberry – Rhus trilobata/ Rhus aromatica

Sourberry (Rhus trilobata/Rhus aromatica) - Mother Nature's Backyard

Seeds are germinating, bulbs are emerging, but very few flowers can be found in early December.   So we were pleasantly surprised to see our Sourberry (Rhus trilobata/Rhus aromatica) coming into bloom, just in time to be our Plant of the Month.   The scientific name is pronounced roos  try-lo-BAY-tuh (roos  air-oh-MAT-ih-cuh).

Sourberry is known by a number of common names including Three-lobe sumac, Three-leaved sumac, Basket bush sumac, Oak-leaf sumac, Skunk bush and Lemita. It belongs to the same genus as our common Lemonadeberry (Rhus integrifolia) and Sugar bush (Rhus ovata).  It’s a ‘cousin’ to the local Laurel sumac (Malosma laurina) and Poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum).  All are members of the Sumac family (for more on the Anacardiaceae see: http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2014/12/plant-of-month-december-lemonadeberry.html. 
Sourberry (Rhus trilobata/Rhus aromatica)
Like many other plants, the taxonomy of this species is currently being revised.  Previously, Rhus trilobata was considered a western N. American species; Rhus aromatica was viewed as a related eastern species.  It now appears that both may be the same species (Rhus aromatica), though much of the western literature – and the nursery trade – still refers to R. trilobata.  For clarity we’ll use both names, but focus on the natural history of this plant in the West (which is most relevant to California gardeners).

Rhus trilobata (aromatica) is native to western North America, from Alberta and Saskatchewan south to Texas and California – even into Mexico.  It grows in prairies and shrub lands, on a variety of sites including sandhills, seasonal stream beds, canyons and dry, rocky slopes.  In S. California, it can be found in the canyons and washes of interior valleys, in coastal sage scrub, chaparral and southern oak woodland, mostly below 3500 ft. elevation.   It grows in the Santa Monica Mountains and in the foothills of the San Gabriel Range.

Sourberry (Rhus trilobata/Rhus aromatica) - low-growing form
Sourberry is a winter-deciduous shrub that varies in growth habit across its Western range.  In some situations it’s a low (2-3 ft. tall) mounding groundcover (above).  In other places, it grows as a rounded, upright shrub which may reach heights of 6-8 ft. and similar spread (see photo below).  In moist conditions, plants spread by rhizomes, sometimes forming a thicket.  In drier S. California, plants will often remain as solitary shrubs for many years.   Plants have a lifespan of perhaps 30-40 years; they grow most rapidly during their first five years.

Sourberry (Rhus trilobata/Rhus aromatica) - taller form
Sourberry (Rhus trilobata/Rhus aromatica) - foliage
The foliage of Rhus trilobata (aromatica) is medium-green to blue-green most of the year, turning yellow to orange in fall - if temperatures are cold enough.  In the western L.A. Basin, fall leaf color is variable from year to year. Plants lose their leaves in fall (usually November in our area) and leaf out again in spring (often as early as February in milder climates).  The plants leaf out quickly, from pre-formed leaf buds.   Plants often don’t leaf out until after flowering.

Sourberry (Rhus trilobata/Rhus aromatica) - leaves, young bark
Sourberry leaves are three-lobed, glossy, leathery, 1 to 1 ½ inches across.  They look somewhat like those of Western poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum), though not as shiny and a smaller size. For good pictures comparing the two species see reference 1 (below).  

The young bark of Rhus trilobata (aromatica) is often a medium red-brown, but may be as light as a pale gray-brown, with pale hairs.  Older bark is gray-brown, mostly smooth and fissuring with age.  When branches are broken (or leaves are crushed), they release an aroma that is skunky-smelling to some (hence the common names ‘Skunk brush’ and ‘Stink-bush’).

The roots of Rhus trilobata (aromatica) are well-adapted for climates of the  American Southwest, including California.  Plants have both a deep taproot and a network of fibrous, shallower roots.  This combination allows them to make optimal use of intermittent rains, as well as tap into deep groundwater reserves during dry periods. Because of the deep taproot, plants resent being moved once established in the ground.

Sourberry (Rhus trilobata/Rhus aromatica) - flower
 buds, flowers
Sourberry (Rhus trilobata/Rhus aromatica) - close-up
 of flowers
Sourberry blooms in early spring (February-April) in much of S. California, though flowers may appear in winter at lower elevations.  Plants may be dioecious (separate male and female plants).  More commonly, plants contain both unisexual and bisexual flowers on the same plant.   Male and female flowers are both small (~ ¼ inch across), with yellow petals. Male flowers cluster along yellow catkins (like a willow) and are slightly paler in color, while female flowers occur in dense, brighter clusters at the ends of short branches. Flowers are primarily bee-pollinated.  We’ll try to update our close-up pictures of flowers – hopefully with pollinators - soon.
Sourberry (Rhus trilobata/Rhus aromatica) - green fruits
Sourberry (Rhus trilobata/Rhus aromatica) - ripe fruits
Those familiar with the fruits of Lemonadeberry and Sugar bush will immediately recognize similarities between the three species.  The fruits are small (about ¼ inch; 5-7 mm), sticky drupes that contain a single seed with a hard seed coat (a nutlet).  Fruits are initially green, becoming a dark red when ripe (see above).  Fruits ripen in late spring/early summer (June/July) at lower elevations in S. California; they may ripen as late as early fall in colder climates.  The fruits are loved by birds and animals – including humans!

Like Lemonadeberry, the fruits are covered with a sticky, sweet-sour secretion that tastes like lemon or lime.  In fact, the most common edible use for the fruits is to make ‘Rhus-ade’, a lemonade-like drink. Some Native Americans still grind dried Sourberry fruits and use them as flavoring for puddings, mush or bread.  In fact, the fruits can be used as a flavoring or seasoning in more ways than you might think.  For additional ideas for using the fruits see: http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2015/05/california-gourmet-cooking-with.html  
Sourberry (Rhus trilobata/Rhus aromatica) - in garden.
 Mother Nature's Backyard

Sourberry is an undemanding plant.  It tolerates pH from 6.0 to at least 8.0, and grows fine in soils ranging from very sandy to clay.  If your soils drain very slowly, consider planting Rhus trilobata (aromatica) on a slope or atop a small berm (it’s intolerant of standing water).  While it can be found growing in full sun, it seems to do better in our area in part-shade.  If you have a hot, inland garden, plant it where it gets some afternoon shade.

Rhus trilobata (aromatica) is very drought tolerant.  However, it looks (and produces) best with occasional summer water.  Let the soils dry out between watering, then give the shrub a deep, slow soaking.  In many areas of the West, this plant experiences occasional summer rains. 

Sourberry (Rhus trilobata/Rhus aromatica) - young plant
Sourberry (Rhus trilobata/Rhus aromatica) - mature plant

While Rhus trilobata (aromatica) develops a nice natural shape over time, the best-shaped shrubs are given a yearly pruning to stimulate fullness.  Branches should be pruned back by ¼ to 1/3 of their length in fall (after leaves fall) or early winter.  This pruning simulates the animal browsing that shrubs experience in the wild.  Some individuals are mildly sensitive to chemicals produced by the foliage of plants in this genus.   We suggest wearing long sleeves and gloves when pruning (at least until you know you’re not affected).  Wash hands/arms after handling the foliage.

If you desire straight stems for basket-making or other crafts, you’ll need to cut some or all of the stems back to the ground in early winter (coppice).   While native traditions involve cutting or burning an entire stand every few years, we wonder if just cutting back 1/3 of the oldest stems might not work as well.  We’ll try this and report back.

Sourberry (Rhus trilobata/Rhus aromatica) - rest stop
 planting, Utah
Sourberry is often used as a large shrub, either shaped or natural, in garden plantings. It contributes to the woodsy, natural look that some gardeners prize.  It can also be used as a hedge plant, remembering that it is winter-deciduous.  It does well on slopes, often getting by with little supplemental summer water once established. It is widely used for erosion control on slopes and in riparian areas. And Rhus trilobata (aromatica) is becoming more common in commercial plantings, due to its drought tolerance and low maintenance.

Sourberry can be grown in a large container – even used as a bonsai plant.  The lower-growing forms are useful as a woody groundcover under trees.  The cultivars ‘Autumn Amber’ and ‘Gro-low’, which are available commercially, grows less than 2 ft. tall, and are popular as groundcovers.

Sourberry (Rhus trilobata/Rhus aromatica) - used as ground
cover. Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, Claremont, CA.

Of the many shrubs planted in S. California gardens, Rhus trilobata (aromatica) has some distinct advantages.  First, it is a great habitat plant.  Its size, many small flowers, dense foliage and edible fruits make this a good choice for bird and insect habitat.  If you don’t use the fruits yourself, don’t worry; plenty of fruit-eating birds will be glad to remedy the situation.

If you are a basket-maker, planting Rhus trilobata (aromatica) insures a ready source of the straight stems needed for your craft. [2]  This has always been an important basketry plant, wherever it grows.  If you need it for your craft, grow it.

Sourberry, along with the other local Rhus species, is also a useful plant for the natural dyer.  Leaves, prunings, ashes and fruits can all be used to mordant yarn or fabric prior to dyeing.  The plants are high in tannins, and tan-brown dyes can be obtained from leaves, bark and roots; pink-tan dyes are possible from the fruits. 
Sourberry (Rhus trilobata/Rhus aromatica) - green foliage
provides nice contrast in the summer/fall garden
Another good reason to grow this plant is its medicinal properties.  As always, medicinal plants should be used with caution – particularly those from families with known toxicities, like the Sumacs. For more on precautions see: http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2015/10/garden-of-health-making-tincture-for.html

Fruits of Rhus trilobata (aromatica) were traditionally sucked or chewed as a treatment for toothache, mouth sores or as a mouthwash.  Fruits ease the pain, in part due to their astringent chemicals.  A decoction of the fruits is also traditionally used for stomach problems, as well as a hair tonic.   

The leaves are astringent, diuretic, emetic and hemostatic; infusions made from leaves have several traditional uses, including to treat head colds and soothe skin itches. Dried, powdered leaves have been used to create soothing salves for mouth sores.  For more traditional uses of this plant see reference 3, below.

Sourberry (Rhus trilobata/Rhus aromatica)
In summary, Rhus trilobata (aromatica) is a shrub with much to recommend it.  We’re surprised is isn’t used more often in the garden setting.  So if you’ve got the space – even room for a large pot – you might want to consider this pretty and useful native.


For plant information sheets on other native plants see: http://nativeplantscsudh.blogspot.com/p/gallery-of-native-plants_17.html



  1. http://nathistoc.bio.uci.edu/plants/Anacardiaceae/Rhus%20aromatica.htm
  2. https://deborahsmall.wordpress.com/2009/01/31/joe-moreno-and-minnie-tafoya-gather-rhus-trilobata/
  3. Native American Ethnobotany Database: http://naeb.brit.org/uses/search/     



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