For this edition we will take a closer look at Anacardaciae, better known as the cashew family. Primarily a tropical family, we have a surprising diversity of local representatives ranging from viney creepers to large gnarly trees. Believe it or not every time you hike on a local trail or even drive up Highway 33 you are most likely running into cashew family members
Worldwide there are over 800 species in the family, including some important food sources. Cashew of course, but also pistachio, mango and the African fruit marula. Not surprisingly, many people have allergic reactions to the compounds in these foods. Why isn’t it surprising? Well the cashew family member you are most familiar with of course is:
Yup that’s right, good ole poison oak, the beautiful bane of the hiker’s existence. Teeming with urushiol which all but the luckiest are highly allergic to. Now don’t get this confused with a very close but non-toxic cousin.
I learned it as squawbush, but that doesn’t fly around these politically correct parts.. Basketbrush, three leafed sumac are the proper names. The fruits are red and sticky, you can find them on the bush right now in early summer. To me the key to telling this from poison oak is that third leaf sticking out at you. On poison oak it has a longer stem, and is separated from the other two. On Rhus trilobata it doesn’t really seem to have a stem, all 3 leaves are about the same. Both will provide some Summer/Fall foliage color as they drop their leaves.
The genus Rhus has a few other local members. If you enjoy hiking the river bottom as much as I do you have come across Rhus ovata, sugarbush:
I don’t know of these anywhere else in Ojai, the river must have brought seeds from elsewhere. The fruits of sugarbush, and of many in the cashew family are called drupes, where a fleshy outer covering hides a hard pit, or stone, which holds the seed inside, like peaches or cherries. For those of you closer to the coast you see sugarbush’s close cousin Lemonadeberry:
If you have ever hiked around Arroyo Verde park you have seen plenty of these. I generally tell these from sugarbush by the somewhat toothed leaves. It can get difficult as they will crossbreed if in close vicinity. You can collect the fruits and mix them with water for a tangy refreshing summer drink.
One last cousin you won’t find in the wild, but grows down in Baja and can occasionally be found in native plant nurseries:
The final native of the cashew family is one that I had already highlighted months ago as an “Everyday Flora“. Laurel sumac is a very common large shrub in our region, the summer heat interacting with the leaves and blooms gives a spicy aroma to the air. You will see their big creamy inflorescence with hundreds of tiny flowers blooming right now up and down our trails.
One last non-native, this one actually took me by surprise. Can’t walk too far up and down the streets of Ojai without encountering the bright almost pink berries and lush foliage of the Peruvian pepper tree.
Here’s a recipe for marula beer. Curious if anyone out there has tried this interesting fruit, or have any cashew family allergy stories to share.