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Garden Mastery: Lemonadeberry shrub is just the ticket for the season | Leaf Probably

For San Diego gardeners, the Lemonadeberry shrub (Rhus lanceolata) is the perfect landscape plant for our time. With Southern California’s ongoing drought in mind, a water-poor, low-maintenance, deer-resistant evergreen enriching addition to the landscape, a boon to native wildlife is just what the doctor ordered. Beautiful to look at with edible fruit, it is a good substitute for some of the more tropical shrubs such as hibiscus that often dot the San Diego landscape.

Lemonadeberry can be used in a variety of ways by gardeners in San Diego. Because of its adult size (10 feet by 10 to 30 feet), density, and tolerance of heavy pruning, it is often trimmed into a hedge. It can be a striking central feature in a large garden and does well on slopes. It loves full sun and once established can thrive without additional watering and survive well with any rain it can get.

When in bloom, it’s a showy mound of white-pink flowers that attracts bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. The flowers grow into small clusters of small, red berries that are prized by native bird species and humans alike.

The lemonade berry fruit is clustered between the leaves at the end of the branches and is similar in size and color to pomegranate seeds. They taste tart and are full of vitamin C. Our area’s indigenous people, the Kumeyaay, harvested the berries of Rhus lanceolata and ate them fresh or ground them up to use them in a kind of tea. Modern hikers place Lemonadeberry seeds in their canteens to add flavor and nutrients to their water supply.

Lemonadeberry is commonly found in nurseries in 1-gallon containers and grows well in sandy, moderate, or even rocky soil. It adapts to soil that is not particularly nutrient-rich as long as drainage is good. Like many drought tolerant plants, it will not do well if left in a wet soil environment. Though considered by some to be an “indestructible” plant, it will succumb to root rot if placed in poorly draining clay soil.

As with all trees and large shrubs, Lemonadeberry should be planted in a hole twice the size of the pot in which it was purchased and with the crown of the root ball resting slightly above the ground to allow water to drain away from the main stem. Even a great low water plant like Lemonadeberry will need regular watering for its first year to establish itself well in its new home. Once this is done, watering can be reduced over time and eventually stopped altogether.

Lemonadeberry can be used to form hedges or privacy screens.

Lemonadeberry can be used to form hedges or privacy screens.

(Leah Taylor / UC Cooperative Extension)

Replacing a high-water-using plant with a more drought-tolerant variety like lemonadeberry does not in itself save water. Planting water-poor alternatives is a means to an end. Water saving in landscaping can only happen if the amount of water used is reduced. This requires both a change in watering schedules and a reduction in the amount of water being discharged from the system. Low water landscaping accommodates this process by giving homeowners a chance to include those plants that need less to thrive and survive. As previously mentioned, all plants require more water in the beginning to ensure their root systems grow to a size that allows them to be self-sustaining. Water-poor plants will eventually reach a point of sustainability where the frequency and amount of water they require can be reduced or restricted.

The UCCE Master Gardener Association of San Diego County and other local organizations, such as the San Diego Botanic Garden and the California Native Plant Society, have lists of drought-tolerant plants to choose from. The San Diego County Water Authority publishes a list of proposed low-water alternatives titled “Nifty 50: Plants for Water Smart Landscapes.” Both the San Diego Botanic Garden and the Water Conservation Garden in El Cajon have embraced low-water landscaping in their gardens and have on-site plants for visitors to see and decide for themselves what suits their garden’s color taste. Lemonadeberry and larger plants of their own kind, such as Grevillea (spider flower), Chaumelaucium (wax flower) and Ceanothus (California lilac), are planted along the paths. Water-poor plants that harmonize with large shrubs such as grapevines, succulents, ground covers, perennials, trees and grasses are also on display.

It’s been said that we can’t save ourselves from this drought, but we all need to find ways to use less water, and since irrigating the landscape can use a large chunk of a household’s water balance, this is a good place to start.

New Year’s Resolution from a San Diego Gardener: Be Part of the Solution. Try plants with low water levels.

Harrelson has been a master gardener in San Diego since 2012 and currently serves as the group’s vice president of communications. He practices low water landscaping at his home in Jamul.

For free gardening advice, call the Master Gardener Hotline, (858) 822-6910, or email Due to COVID-19, Master Gardener Hotline staff are working remotely to ensure they respond to your questions in a timely manner.

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