Cascara (Rhamnus purshiana), a small tree in the buckthorn family, is now in full bloom in western Washington—although you wouldn’t notice if you didn’t look very closely. The small nondescript flowers, growing in the leaf axils, are only about 3-5 mm across with five greenish-yellow petals.
These trees grow in moist, acidic soils and tolerate shade well. They prefer the shady side of clearings or mottled forest edges, and they often grow in the company of red alder and vine maple. The species is native from British Columbia south through Washington, Oregon, and into central California and as far east as western Montana.
The bark of cascara was once used as a laxative and trees were decimated when they were stripped of their bark and left to die. Today, synthetic products have taken their place and the trees are no longer in danger.
If you can’t identify a cascara by sight, at this time of the year you can identify it by sound. Honey bees—as well as wild bees—love the tiny green blossoms which provide both nectar and pollen. Later, the flowers are replaced with red berries that quickly turn a very deep purple, almost black. Although the berries are edible, they don’t taste like anything, so they’re best left for the birds who seem to love them.
Cascara once produced large crops of honey, especially in California, although now you seldom hear of it. In Honey Plants of North America (1926), John Lovell wrote:
In Sonora, California, it is the principal honey plant. It blossoms about three weeks after fruit bloom is over and on an average lasts for about 25 days, although there are stray bushes near ditches or cultivated grounds which send out new shoots of bloom until September or October. The comb honey is so dark that it does not sell readily, but is well liked by those accustomed to it.
Lovell also mentions that the honey does not granulate, which occurs when honey has a high fructose to glucose ratio.
In Nectar and Pollen Plants of Oregon and the Pacific Northwest (1989), the authors write that bees collect both nectar and pollen from cascara. They go on to say:
Occasional surplus honey crops reported. Honey is light amber in color. Bloom may last up to six weeks.
Every year after the maple flow is over, I try to get a frame or two of Cascara honey. It is darker than many honeys and has a rich, woodsy flavor. The nectar flow lasts a good four or five weeks, so it’s an excellent forage for your bees.
And is it granulation-free, as Lovell says? I have no idea. It never lasts long enough to find out.