Sunday, June 08, 2008

If you've got a squawbush, make lemonade

There! I've said it. In case you wondered, the term squawbush is currently not PC. You will not see the term in any modern botanical key, though when we first came to these parts, it was the common name and I have several wildflower handbooks that use the word. My complaint is that in expunging the word from the common vocabulary, a link to the past is deliberately obliterated and only the annointed are allowed to make a connection between great grandma's healing formula using the forbidden word and today's three-leaf sumac. Not good.

Of course, I never knew why the shrub sported that unfortunate moniker in the first place. The term lemonade bush certainly makes a lot more sense: put one of those berries on your tongue as soon as it ripens to red; you'll get a sour zap you'll long remember. In fact, the berries have been used for many years to make a lemonade-like beverage.

The plant is indeed a member of the sumac family, home also to our renowned poison trio -- ivy, oak, & sumac -- known by their three-leafed habit, but also their white berries. Apparently the red-berried lot are ok; if you want to make a sumac wine, you must use the staghorn sumac.

Here you can easily see the three-leaf groups, as well as the berries (above and below, in close-up). The berries are covered with fine hairs. In my experience, the berries quickly lose their flavor soon after they have ripened; much of the juice is on the outside of the fruit, amongst those hairs, which is understandable once you realize that the interior consists almost entirely of a big woody seed. The seed is flavored by tannin. Ugh.

Even if you're not inclined to make lemonade from the three-leaf sumac, there's another good reason to have a bush or two in your yard: this one of a small handful of Arizona native plants that turn a reliable red in the fall.

BTW, if I ruled the universe and found it necessary to drop a word from the vocabulary because it offended some groups, I would ease it out gently, so as not to loose continuity with a past in which people were not as delicate in their language. For example, the popular botanical keys might say, once called xxx, but now known as www or now preferably called www.

Linkages: It turned out that there was an antique/collectible auto show on the Square Saturday which was not announced in the paper, else I would have been there with my trusty Canon. Fortunately, Prescott eNews posted a slew of pictures from that event and the Folk Arts Fair at Sharlot Hall. (Sorry -- it was somewhat hot so I stayed home and produced a letter to my Alaska granddotter who has just clicked with her reading. All about the pelicans I saw in Louisiana.) Also: if you're into hummers (the bird kind), you should take a look at the Magnificant Hummingbird (yes, that's the critter's proper name), which sometimes makes it up to southernmost Arizona.


youknowwhereyouarewith said...

Wow, I never heard these called squawbush or lemonade bush--they're all over the ranch, and we called them skunk bush. The one right outside the back door that I purposefully left in the garden because of the fall foliage clued me in to why it was so skunky every time I cut it back. Had I known about the lemonade, I would have tried it!

Granny J said...

ykwyaw -- and I never heard the term skunk bush used. But if you're back there in, maybe early May, give it a try! I will put one of the berries on my tongue if I'm thirsty, tho I never got around to the lemonade thing. It seem to me that the woody taste started showing up too soon after the tartness was gone.

Anonymous said...

Not knowing much about plants, I find this interesting. Guess you have to have one growing by to appreciate it.

Granny J said...

steve -- it's not a particularly prepossessing shrub, but it does remain pleasantly green in the face of some pretty doggone dry weather. And it's very much a southwestern critter.

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