Saturday, January 30. Fieldtrip with Rose Ramirez, Joe Moreno, Minnie Tafayo, and Ray Tafayo to gather the long, straight shoots of Rhus trilobata, aka sumac or basketbush, one of the four major plants used in southern California basketry. The others are deergrass, yucca, and juncus. Rhus is a plant that must be tended by burning, pruning, or coppicing. Otherwise, the plant grows with many short lateral side branches which are useless for weaving.
In the area where we’re gathering, the Rhus trilobata was coppiced, or cut to the ground level, when the land was cleared as part of a fire prevention program. The new shoots growing from the coppiced plants are long, pliant, perfect. The shoots will be split into three threads used for coiling, the inner pith will be removed, and then the outer layer of bark will be peeled away when the coils are dry. Once the Rhus trilobata is split, cored, and peeled, the weaving strands will be an almost white color. It’s important to split the shoots right away, in a day or two after harvesting. Otherwise, the shoots stiffen and become difficult to split.
Basketweaver Abe Sanchez uses Rhus trilobata in his baskets. “If you look at most of the old baskets, you’ll notice that the predominant material is sumac, highlighted with juncus for design. Sumac is a beautiful material.” Abe wove his basketry hat, in the photo above, using sumac/Rhus trilobata as the predominant background material over a deergrass foundation. The rattlesnake designs on the rim, the lizards around the brim, and the horny toad and ants on the top of the hat are woven with juncus and dyed juncus.