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The Lemonade berry plant is a stout bush that averages three meters tall. It has rounded leathery green leaves that curve under at the margin. The pinkish red berries are covered in small hairs with a sticky outer skin giving them a tacky yet velvety texture. They have a flattened shape like that of a corn kernel and are roughly two centimeters in diameter. They grow together on the plant in small clusters and are easily plucked off when fully ripe. They have a tart lemony flavor that comes from the high amount of citric acid in the berry; it's this flavor that gives the Lemonade berries their name.
Lemonade berries are found growing in the wild during the summer months.
The Lemonade berry is known botanically as Rhus integrifo and is categorized as an evergreen shrub. It is in the same family as poison sumac and similarly, prolonged exposure can cause skin irritation. It grows wild among the chaparral in Southern California and is not cultivated commercially. The use of Lemonade berries dates back before European settlers came to the area.
Lemonade berries contain vitamin C.
The little hairs on the Lemonade berry can be irritants, so only the juice is consumed. The juice can be sucked from the berry and the pulp and skin discarded. Steeping one cup of berries in two cups of hot water can produce a strong beverage that tastes like lemonade. The berries can be dried and ground to a powder and used as a thickener for soups. A tincture for sore throats and cold sores is made from Lemonade berries, bark or leaves steeped in cold water.
The Cahuilla Indians and native people of Southern California, having inhabited regions from Riverside to Borrego, ate the berries of the Lemonade sumac, or Lemonade berry bush raw. They soaked berries in water to make a beverage and ground dried berries into powder to create a mush. The Cahuilla Indians also had medicinal uses for Rhus integrifo.
Lemonade berries are native to Southern California and can sometimes be found growing just over the Arizona border. The plant grows well in both the dry and coastal environments; the larger bushes grow inland and the smaller plants grow closer to the coast.