By Adam Benfer
Squawberry was a common part of the desert dweller’s diet in the American Southwest (Niethammer 1974: 79). Squawberry, like other sumacs, is part of the Cashew Family and is thus closely related to poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac. However, squawberry looks very different from its poisonous cousins, but if one is allergic to any member of the Cashew Family (including mangos) s/he should avoid this plant. Squawberry is also known as pubescent squawbush, squawbush sumac, skunkbush sumac, ill-scented sumac, lemonade sumac, lemonade-berry, saladito, sidra, agrillo, lemita, and lambrisco (Hodgson 2001: 82; Kindscher 1987: 191).
Squawberry is a diffusely branched shrub that can grow 8 to 14 dm (around 6 ft) tall. When crushed squawberry gives off a distinctive but not unpleasant scent. The dark green compound leaves have 3 to 5 leaflets and are about 1 to 3 cm wide, somewhat resembling the leaves of poison oak. The plants yellowish flowers bloom in clustered spikes in March and April. Ripe red squawberry fruits are 4 to 5 mm in diameter and look slightly flattened, are covered with white hairs and are sticky to the touch (Clarke 1977: 85-87;Niethammer 1974: 79).
Squawberry bushes grow from Washington state to Mexico in slopes, washes, and canyons, or were they can receive sufficient moisture, at altitudes between 2,500 and 7,500 ft (Clarke 1977: 87; Niethammer 1974: 79).
Squawberry fruits are the main part of the plant that has been consumed by Native American tribes. It tastes delicious raw, dried, or preserved in jam. Squawberries were commonly ground up in meal, which was sometimes mixed with cornmeal or added to other foods to make soups, porridges, sauces, cakes, and other recipes when a lemon-like flavor was desired. Try using the berries to make sumac-ade or squawberry tea.
As a medicine, parts of the squawberry bush have been used to treat smallpox, colds, tuberculosis sore gums, stomach troubles, grippe, poison ivy dermatitis, and bowel troubles. It can also be used as a deodorant or perfume. Squawberry branches and pliable stems are used in basketry and furniture making. The berries, bark, roots and leaves can be used to make a mordant or dyes of various colors. Squawberry leaves can also be mixed with tobacco and smoked (Moerman 1998: 473-475).
Clarke, Charlotte Bringle 1977 Edible and useful plants of California, California natural history guides. Berkeley: University of California Press. Hodgson, Wendy C. 2001 Food plants of the Sonoran Desert. Tucson: University of Arizona Press. Kindscher, Kelly 1987 Edible wild plants of the prairie : an ethnobotanical guide. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas. Moerman, Daniel E. 1998 Native American ethnobotany. Portland, Or.: Timber Press. Niethammer, Carolyn J. 1974 American Indian food and lore. New York: Collier Books.