Laurel Sumac

Plant of the Month

Cliff Hutson
RSABG Volunteer, Nature Interpreter

One of my fondest memories as a teenager is running through the interior of Los Angeles’ Griffith Park right after a rain or on a cool foggy morning and smelling the fragrances of the plants of the chaparral and scrub-covered hills. One of the main contributors to that aroma was Laurel Sumac, then classified as Rhus laurina, but now known as Malosma laurina.

This 10 to 20 foot tall shrub is the only species in the genus Malosma. It is native only to Southern California and the Baja California Peninsula; and found in both the chaparral and coastal sage scrub communities between sea level and 3300 feet in elevation. The shiny red-green leaves are four to ten inches long and have a somewhat taco shell fold. When flattened, they have the shape of laurel leaves, which gives us the common name laurel, with sumac in recognition that it is in the sumac family—Anacardiaceae. (Just in passing, this family also includes cashews, mangos and poison oak!)

There is a specimen of laurel sumac at the Garden along the east side of the east mesa path between the restrooms and the entrance that leads to the Butterfly Pavilion area. It grows naturally in the hills fronting Thompson Creek in Claremont. This is fitting for its historic geographical and economic context for our region.

Malosma is not tolerant of hard frost, something it has in common with two important commercial crops in California. Anywhere it grows naturally turns out to be ideal for avocado and citrus as well. Growers became aware of this and began to use it as a sentinel plant when looking for land for their ranches.

While I began this essay by noting that I am fond of the fragrance, I would be hard pressed to describe it. I am not alone in this. The Jepson Manual says Malosma is Latin for “from odor which resembles that of an apple.” However, Nuttall's description says the aromatic odor is “something like that of the Bitter Almond." I suggest you check it out for yourself.