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Monday, May 25, 2015

California Gourmet: Cooking with Lemonadeberry (Rhus integrifolia)

Lemonadeberry (Rhus integrifolia) - ripe ruits

It’s been quite a productive year for Lemonadeberries in our part of Southern California.  Plants bloomed early and fruits are now dark red and dripping with sticky, sour goodness.  It’s time for some suggestions on using these quintessential California fruits.  To learn more about the plant itself we suggest our December, 2014 posting: http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2014/12/plant-of-month-december-lemonadeberry.html

Lemonadeberry flavor is hard to describe.  Certainly it’s very tart/sour, with a hint of lemons (citric acid).  But the flavor is distinctive, perhaps because of the unique blend of citric acid, other acids (likely malic and ascorbic acids) and other plant compounds.  You just have to taste it to know it.  

Collecting the fruit


First a note on picking.  Fruits are ripe when they are  dark orange-red to dark red and dripping.  Put one in your mouth – ripe fruits have a strong sweet-tart taste. 
Picking Lemonadeberry fruits - CSU Dominguez Hills
The fruits are very sticky.  We suggest wearing old clothes and a pair of thin latex gloves; even so, you’re bound to get a little sticky.  The ripe fruits should come off  easily when you pull them; collect into a plastic bag (best because you can close it up) or non-metal bowl or container.   Some people cut off entire fruiting clusters,  removing the fruits in the comfort of their kitchen.  But these fruits are so easy to pick that we just pull them off in the garden.

If you plan to use your fruit to make jelly, syrup or any other recipe that requires heat, you may want to choose fruits that are more orange-red than red.  These fruits, which are slightly less ripe, are more tart and flavorful in cooked recipes.

Try to pick fruits that are relatively clean.  Harvest away from major roadways and choose fruits that are free of dust if possible.  As always, collecting fruit from your own bushes is safest; you know they haven’t been sprayed with something noxious.

Processing the fruit

Unlike most fruits, the flavored part of the Lemonadeberry fruit is the sticky coating.  Do not wash the fruits or you’ll wash away the flavoring.  Pick out any leaves or twigs – that’s all the processing that’s required.

Preparing the ‘juice’

Many Lemonadeberry recipes begin with Lemonadeberry ‘juice’ (really water flavored with the fruit secretions).  This is simplicity itself to prepare.   Place unwashed fruits into a non-reactive container (glass or pyrex is best). Be sure to leave a little extra room, as fruits will swell slightly.   Just cover the fruits with cool water and let the mixture sit for 2-4 hours (or overnight in the refrigerator).  Stir or swirl the mixture occasionally so the sticky secretions dissolve.

At the end of soaking, fruits should appear slightly swollen and pale.  Remove as many fruits as possible with a slotted spoon (use the fruits in the compost).  Pour the liquid through a sieve to remove the remaining fruits and other particles. We like to use a medium-mesh sieve to remove the larger stuff, then a fine meshed sieve for a final straining.  If there are lots of small particles, consider lining the fine sieve with several layers of cheesecloth before straining. 

You now have Lemonadeberry juice, which can be used in several ways (see recipes, below). The juice can also be stored in the refrigerator for up to three days or frozen for later use.

Drying Lemonadeberry fruits

The fruits of other Rhus species are dried and used as a seasoning in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern recipes.  You can easily dry Lemonadeberry fruits for use on salads or in yoghurt, marinades, dips, hummus or other traditional recipes featuring sumac.

You can air-dry Lemonadeberry fruits if the weather is hot and dry; or speed the process in a food dryer or warm oven.  Either way, the process will take several days to complete, so be patient.  We like to spread the fruits on a clean piece of screen on a baking rack to insure good air circulation (see photo above). If air-drying, cover with another piece if screen.  We dry our fruits in a warm oven over 3-4 days.  We heat the oven to ‘warm’ (less than 150°F or 65°C) several times a day, letting the fruits dry slowly.
Fruits are dry when they look slightly darker and are slightly decreased in size.  The differences between dry and fresh berries are subtle; cut one in half to check for dryness.    Store dry fruits whole in a glass jar with a tight lid; or grind them in a spice mill, then store the dried seasoning in an airtight glass jar. 


Recipes Using Lemonadeberry Juice

Lemonadeberry ‘Lemonade’ (Rhus-ade)

 Pour cool Lemonadeberry juice in a glass.  Add sugar or honey to taste.   Stir and enjoy!


Lemonadeberry Syrup
1 cup prepared juice
1-2 cups sugar (1 cup makes a thin syrup for flavored beverages; 1 ½ cups makes a medium syrup for ice cream topping, desserts; 2 cups makes a thick syrup for pancakes, etc.)
1 drop red food coloring (optional)

Place sugar, food coloring (optional) and juice in a heavy saucepan.  Simmer over medium heat until mixture almost boils.  Turn down heat and simmer 5 additional minutes.  Remove from heat.  Let cool.  Store in a closed jar or bottle in the refrigerator for up to 1 month. Or process with a boiling water bath (as for jelly) to store for several years at room temperature.  

You can make this syrup in any amount needed – just use 1 cup sugar (or other as desired) per cup of juice.    

This syrup makes a refreshing sweet-tart summer drink when used to flavor sparkling water.  You can also use it in punch, over ice cream, sliced fruits or cake, etc.  This is an adult flavor – young children may find it too ‘sour’. 


Lemonadeberry Jelly
3 cups prepared juice
1 package Sure-jell dry pectin
4-5 cups sugar (we use 4 ½); measure out ahead of time
1 drop red food coloring (optional)
Place the juice and pectin in a large, heavy pot (6 quart/liter or larger).  Bring to full rolling boil, stirring often.   Add the sugar all at once and stir in quickly; if using food coloring, add it now.   Bring again to full rolling boil.   Boil 1 minute.  Fill prepared canning jars.   Process in boiling water bath for 5 minutes if canning at less than 1000 feet elevation (*Add 1 additional minute for each additional 1000 feet of altitude).    Remove jars from water bath.  Let cool; check to be sure that lids have sealed.                 Makes about five to six   8-oz jars.     A sweet-tart favorite that’s great on toast and English muffins! 

*More on canning at high altitudes:

Lemonadeberry Jell Candy

 1 cup prepared juice, sweetened to taste

2 envelopes (1/4 oz Knox packets) unflavored gelatin

Heat juice to 150° F. (warm).  Place juice in a non-metal bowl.  Gradually whisk in the gelatin, making sure that it completely dissolves (no lumps).  Pour mixture into a lightly oiled 8x8 inch pan (or prepared candy molds).  Refrigerate for 1-2 hours (or until set).   Cut/un-mold and serve.



We welcome your comments, below.  If you have questions, please e- mail us at: mothernaturesbackyard10@gmail.com



  1. OOOOOOH - excellent article. I am not a cook - so up till now my edible lemonadeberry experiences have been just sucking on the berries right off the plant. Which is delightful to my palette.

    One can never tell what one might be allergic to, so people must be careful.

    Thank you so much for your posts!

  2. Thanks for the recipe. you are an excellent cook and also a very good writer. keep it up

  3. I want to try this out, I think with some honey it would be very tasty.