By NORA BODRIAN
Spiny Redberry (Rhamnus crocea) is a species of buckthorn (Rhamnaceae) common in the chaparral of Mission Trails Regional Park. It is native to California, Arizona, and Northern Baja California.
The evergreen shrub can grow up to six feet high, although it is normally two to three feet high. The leaves are small, about three quarters of an inch long, with a glossy surface and little teeth along the edges. The new growth of branches is red and develops stiff pointed ends that look like thorns. Inconspicuous cream color flowers bloom in early spring, followed by small, bright red berries in early summer. You will see these translucent berries well into summer, if you get there before the birds devour them.
The berries are edible and reportedly have a cinnamon-cherry flavor. The plant supports many forms of wildlife such as birds, bees, moths, and butterflies. The Hermes copper butterfly is dependent on the spiny redberry and is a rare butterfly endemic to San Diego.
An interesting tale can be found in the book “Kumeyaay Ethnobotany” by Michael Wilken-Robertson. People will not eat the berries, use it for medicine, or walk close to it, as it is believed that Spiny Redberry will cause a woman to get pregnant. The tale is that a young woman did not want to reveal the identity of her baby’s father, so she said that the pregnancy was the result of eating too many of those “jtut” (redberries).
The berries were also once fed to pet mockingbirds, which were kept as caged pets for their singing voices in the 18th and 19th century. Did you know that the pet trade almost drove mockingbirds to extinction? Of course, it is now illegal to own or capture mockingbirds in the United States. Now birds are free to eat the berries with no danger of being captured and caged.
It is such a pleasure to see these little red berries, somewhat like traditional Christmas holly with red berries, in summer!
— Nora Bodrian is a trail guide at Mission Trails Regional Park.