Everyday Flora

Looks like this weekend’s events are going to be washed out, so I thought it would be a good time to bust out some Sly & the Family Stone.

Welcome to a new column honoring the average Joes, the salt of the earth, the unsung heroes of the native plant world.  You pass by them on every single hike, maybe you notice them, usually you don’t.  The blooms won’t ever be featured in my “Best of the Month” column, but they nonetheless deserve recognition.

Laurel sumac, known as Malosma laurina to you science types, is our first unappreciated trail denizen.  It’s in the cashew or sumac (Anacardaceae) family, a close cousin of poison oak.  No worries, laurel sumac lacks urushiol, the nasty compound that gives poison oak it’s skin-clawing potency.  They are ubiquitous in all coastal areas from Santa Barbara county down into Baja.

First step in identifying this plant is general size.  This ain’t no wispy wildflower or stately sycamore.  Laurel sumac is a rounded shrub, and a damned big one, probably the largest you will find around here.

Dainty it is not

Easily attaining 15 feet high and over 20 feet wide on numerous thick branches, it is a fast grower with a well known sensitivity to frost.  As you look for these this year you will notice huge sections of it are brown and dead due to long frosty mornings.  When you look out to a distant hillside and see large patches of brown amidst the greens it is most likely laurel sumac.  Have no fear, laurel sumac is a hearty shrub which grows almost year round (pretty unique for a California native) and can sprout back seemingly indefinitely from a large underground burl.

Let’s have a closer look shall we.

Leaves are dark green and can be up 5 inches long.  Folded in like a taco, with dark maroon borders, middle vein and stems.  While the leaves of most evergreen shrubs in our area are small, leathery or tough to cope with long dry summers, the laurel sumac leaves are quite malleable and lush.  They have a somewhat spicy scent when crushed.

Flowers start to show early to mid summer.  Large bunches of tiny cream white flowers slowly fade to rust through the summer.  The tiny berries are popular with our state bird the California Quail.  The Chumash used the dried berries to ground into flower, and made tea from the root bark.

They do quite well in the Ojai garden, especially with a few hours of shade.  They can tolerate occasional water and don’t mind been shaped, trimmed or even coppiced to the ground for a fresh start.  Don’t forget it’s very frost tender so you might have frequent damage the further you get from the coast.

Hope all you newbies can officially add this one to your mental native plant database.  And all you experts stop whining, you got to strut your stuff with the mystery plant to mull this week.  Which by the way was solved by a number of intrepid readers.  Introducing Scrophularia californica, also know as Figwort:

California figwort

Have a great weekend, keep ramblin’

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3 Responses to Everyday Flora

  1. ocdreader says:

    Ah, the lovely laurel sumac, which seems to have no problem growing anywhere – except in our nursery! Figures…

  2. MMMM….Laurel sumac (Rhus laurina) does actually have a hard time growing just anywhere.
    Avocado farmers in the valley (Will Etchart told me this to be exact) often use it as an indicator species to see if avos will grow on a given site. Laurel sumac likes it warmer and you will often note that it’s higher up on hills (where it’s warmer) or in places where there’s less frost and air movement. Sometimes a real cold snap will hit them higher up and you can see their dead leaves. This plant though rebounds quickly. After a fire or USFS mastication the plant will grow back from its root mass to about four feet in one year! Because of that life force it’s a plant which quickly grows over on the trails.

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