Squawbush grows in the dry, braided creek beds that run between Sisar and Verner Farm Road. These are the reserve channels that await their call while the main stream runs sluggishly to the west. After only a couple of brief winter rains we are at about 20% of normal rainfall. It's the middle of February and we are in the Big Dry. The flanks of Santa Paula mountain, usually masquarading as the Emerald Isle at this time of the year, are a scruffy sage green/brown reminiscent of the sub-saharan bushveld. It looks as though the Squawbush will remain high and dry for the winter's duration.

I am re-aquainting myself with plants I first got to know three or four years ago and now I am singing them back to life again by remembering their names or, if not, returning from runs and walks with specimens to match against Uncle Milts photographs and drawings (Wildflowers of the Santa Monica Mountains, Milt McAuley, Canoga Park, 1996) or, giving the merest hint of a description to Margot and have her zero in on the genus, species and particular local characteristics.

So it was with the Squawbush - its defining characteristic, at this time of the year, catkins of a reddish hue, a sufficient hint. It's a close relative of poison oak, but there's no confusing the two. Both have three-lobed leaves, but basket bush (Rhus trilobata), commonly known by the aforementioned, but politically incorrect moniker is less deceptive than poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum). Although both plants originally belonged to the Rhus family, poison oak is now exiled under the genus Toxicodendron. P.O. is capable of chameleon-like changes in character that keep you guessing; but I like to believe that I can now see through most of its ruses (insert pun here), bright green, dull green, red, in leaf or not, climber or bush - I can usually nail it.

Both plants were of great use to the Chumash. As its name implies, Squawbush was harvested by women. They employed it in the manufacture of baskets, a long process (sometimes many years) but vital to the domestic economy in the chaparral, for the Chumash did not make pots and thus relied on baskets for storage, gathering, winnowing and cooking. They did possess carved steatite (soapstone) ollas and these cooking vessels were some of the first objects from the culture that were treasured and collected by Anglo-Californians in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Freshly cut poison oak stems exude a sticky, terpene oleoresin that oxidizes and polymerizes into a shiny black lacquer. This sap is also produced, although less copiously, in roots, leaves and flowers. Pomo Indians are known to have used the natural lacquer of poison oak to dye their baskets and this may also have been a Chumash practice. The resin contains urushiol, an allergen that causes dermatitis. The Japanese lacquer tree is a close relative, Toxicodendron vernicifluum and the name urushiol is derived from that tree's indigenous name, urushi ki.

I am currently reasonably immune to the allergen and thus it was that I cleared a truck load of poison oak bushes from beneath an oak on our west meadow, leaving Alex free to remove the ceonothus, chamise and sages that crowded its canopy (Sharawaggi). I did wake in the middle of the night a couple of days later with two painful lesions on my left arm, but the combined blister trail was barely a quarter inch long. Nevertheless, I treat it with respect and have only once, early on in my tenure in the urban wildland, attempted to clear it with a chain saw - atomizing urishiol over much of my exposed skin!

The Chumash were apparently completely immune to its toxin and, Harrington tells us, via Jan Timbrook's Chumash Ethnobotany, Santa Barbara, 2007 that they used the leaves as a poultice to heal wounds. DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME. The juice from freshly cut spring stems was used as a cure for warts, skin cancers and sores and a concoction of boiled P.O. root was ingested by those suffering from severe dysentery. She points out that those who claimed Chumash descent in the 1950's "no longer made any medicinal use of poison oak but eagerly sought remedies for its effects". Mugwort (available from any year-round creek near you) is now generally regarded as a specific for the skin lesions.

Timbrook writes, "Most Indian people today prefer the English names sumac, sourberry, or basket bush instead of the once-popular term squawbush". I would point out that most Indian people today prefer to be called Native American. (It is difficult to be always politically correct all of the time). Squawbush has a charming Spanish name, chiquihuite, and Harrington's informants used that word to describe various baskets, whisks and seed-beaters made from its woody stems. Tightly woven and tarred, the plant could be used for water bottles. It could also be woven into hats, toasting trays, buckets and served as the armature in ceremonial headdresses (Timbrook). Like the prized chia (the seeds of which were collected with chiquihuite seed beaters) squawbush was a burn-managed crop. I have not seen chiquihuite on our property but it may grow closer to Bear Creek, certainly poison-oak thrives on the east facing bank and generally both plants like a little moisture in the soil and are, in fact, a useful indicator of damp conditions.

The Big Dry as I am provisionally calling the 2011-2012 wet season, has impacted the deerweed population and I just carted two truck loads of dead specimens to our west-meadow dump/compost pile. Undaunted by the lack of rain, soap plant (Chlorogalum pomeridianum) is pushing out of the trail that leads there and the plants low crinkly lily leaves seem to survive the occasional crushing they receive from the fat tires of our 1977 Chevy S-10. Their roots were used by the Chumash for a soap and a fish poison - toxic enough to stun trout but not enough to impact its healthful consumption.

Other field notes: the Marah macrocarpus is gamely entwining whatever is within its reach, but the hillsides are not draped with it as they are in a wet year. The elderberry is flowering, their creamy, frothy flower clusters a reminder of my promise to make elderflower wine (but not this year) (Mining Gravel) but the lack of rain will not be to their liking. The white ceonothus is blooming but not quite profusely enough (yet) to perfume the day and the sycamores are re-leafing. We have identified a number of scrub oaks along the banks of the seasonal stream in addition to the two we found when clearing last spring. They are in various stages of generating tiny yellowish catkins. I had a bit of a wobble when first I saw them, but by a process of elimination I was fairly certain of the species, then cross-checked with the two confirmed trees.

The Chaparral doesn't need for me to know the names scientists have given its various plants or for me to be reminded of the uses that the native people of the area found for this unique biotic community - I, however, need to know. It is a small gesture of solidarity, of acknowledgment, of confirmation that as an observer, I matter. My memory of those names, characteristics and uses, bolstered by my local knowledge, is necessary for any slight possibility of true communion with this mostly silent, brooding and now thirsty plant world that is my home.