Great, now you have planted your native plants, and maybe some vegetables. There are also some wonderful edibles that will come up as soon as it rains which you did not intentionally plant. Planting natives in your garden which you can use is ideal, but then there are also the weeds, which can also be very tasty and nutritious. There are many online and print resources available about eating non- native weeds. There are on-line forums and YouTube videos on how to prepare them.
Dirk Walters wrote about New Zealand spinach as a cooked vegetable used by early explorers. I have occasionally given it to my chickens as an addition to their boring store bought feed. Now I know that I should probably be cooking it first because of the oxalates. (They are happy to eat most weeds that I throw their way.) It can also be grown easily in our area as a planted vegetable. Every spring, my Mom would ask that I let her pick the Dandelion greens before I mowed the lawn at my house up north in the mountains. I also remember drinking Dandelion wine while visiting friends up in Alaska. Dandelions thrive in cold climates, but will also grow here in places that are watered. Dandelion greens are a great addition to any vegetable stir-fry. The flowers are wonderful in salads and both are packed full of vitamins and minerals.
Stellaria media © 2006 Dr. Amadej Trnkocz (CC
Stellaria media © 2006 Dr. Amadej Trnkocz (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0)
Purslane is another great vegetable, which can be sautéed alone or with others. I’ve always pulled it out of my gardens, and was surprised to see it being sold at a farmers market one day. Fennel flower buds are very pungent and can be added to many dishes, or just nibble on it for a quick breath freshener. Wild young mustard greens and flowers are also a nice cruciferous addition to savory vegetable dishes, used in place of kale. Chickweed (Stellaria) is great cooked or fresh in a salad and seems to be becoming more widespread. Eating the weeds is a great way to reduce those plants, which you do not want in your garden, without overforaging in wild areas. Always be sure however that your chosen weeds have not been sprayed with an herbicide previously.
What should I plant in my yard this fall before the rains begin? People are often asking me this. I like to consider what Doug Tallamy told us at the CNPS state conservation conference a couple of years ago about planting trees and shrubs that are foraging hubs for insects and birds. He mentioned several genera that fed lots of caterpillars, which in turn feed lots of birds.
One of these was the genus Prunus. You may recognize this as a fruit tree genus including cherries, apricots, plums, and peaches. It attracts butterflies, bees, and pollinating flies. One of my favorites is the Prunus lyonii, or Catalina cherry. It has beautiful green foliage, is drought tolerant, and according to Las Pilitas nursery, it tolerates clay soils well. It is closely related to the native shrub called Islay (Prunus ilicifolia). Islay was harvested for the kernels inside of the pit. Jan Timbrook notes in Chumash Ethnobotany that one hat of islay was worth two hats of acorns.
The kernel of the cherry needs to be removed from the pit (you may eat the thin skin of fruit in the process if it is ripe first). Then you must boil the kernels and rinse the water several times, then smash the kernels and then leach like acorns to remove the cyanide that naturally occurs in the kernels. Since the native Islay was not available at the time, I decided to try this with the Catalina cherry growing in my Mom’s yard. (Catalina cherry is used in the horticultural trade and can be bought and planted easily). I gathered the pits that had accumulated on the ground, cracked them open, boiled and leached the kernels, then made little balls out of them. They kind of tasted like cooked beans, bland but nutritious. My curiosity was satisfied. I’m not crazy about the kernels as food, but I love the shrub with its gorgeous bright green foliage. The pictures below are from Morro Bay State park where it was planted between the campsites.
As I am writing this, I am thinking about the fact that we have our annual native plant sale coming up on November 2. I have been planting the plants that I have written about over the last year in my own garden, and I hope that you find some that will be perfect for yours as well. I’ll see you there on November 2.
Mugwort, Artemisia douglasiana
This plant was used for a variety of uses throughout California. The Chumash made a tea to put on poison oak to relieve the symptoms. They also made a felt cone from the dried leaves to burn on a patients skin to cauterize a wound (Source: Jan Timbrook). Leaves were placed in food storage containers, such as acorn granaries, to keep pests away. It was used ceremonially by many tribes. I think it has a lovely aroma, which according to some tribes, will give you pleasant dreams when put it under your pillow.
One time, many years ago, I volunteered to cut down a very large bush of poison oak next to a building at work because I did not think that I was very allergic to it. In the process of chopping it, there was so much sap that it went right through my clothes to my sweaty skin with open pores. I caught a bad case of it. I was on my way that weekend to a camping trip with the California Indian Basket Weavers Association in the Sierra foothills. I forgot to pack the Caladryl and was so miserable in the heat with my rash. I thought I might have to give up and go home. Then I remembered what I had heard about the mugwort. I asked one of the local women where it might grow nearby and she told me to go to where the highway goes close to the river. I gathered a bunch, crunched it up in a bucket of water. It kind of looked like Mug root beer. I found that when I sloshed it on my skin, I got just enough relief that I could stay at the event and enjoy myself.
Mugwort grows easily from runners and likes soggy winter soil that dries up in summer. It will die back then but come back when the rains start again. It likes the shade of oak trees, and will grow in sun if it has more water. It tolerates heavy clay soil just fine. It is often found along the side of trails and streams. It doesn’t have much in the way of flowers, but smells great.
A few years ago, I became interested in lichens and bryophytes during the winter months when there were few flowers to look for. I took a class on lichen ID up at U.C. Berkeley’s Jepson herbarium, and then another at the Santa Barbara botanic garden. I highly recommend these classes for anyone wanting to learn more about lichens. Most lichens have algae as a photosynthesizing component, others use a cyanobacteria in addition to its fungal component. CNPS has helped protect rare lichens as ranked plants, so I’m including them this month in Ethnobotany Notes.
People around the world use lichens for food, medicine, dying wool, and a variety of other uses. I have read that Native American people in the Pacific Northwest had traditionally eaten a type of Bryoria lichen, which was boiled or pit roasted in a special way to reduce the toxicity from the secondary compounds. I’ve also heard of friends who made an antibiotic salve from our local Usnea. Usnic acid has long been a part of commercial herbal deodorants and skin creams. There are reports that it was used for baby diapers as well. It is estimated that 50% of all lichen species have antibiotic properties.
Some lichens were used for poison, especially those high in vulpinic acid which tends to make a very yellow lichen. Lichens were also used in ancient Egypt as part of the embalming process. Lichens are a common source of natural dyes. Indigenous people in North America made a yellow dye from the Wolf Lichen, Letharia vulpina of the Sierras by boiling it in water. Some dyes can be extracted with boiling water, but others require ammonia fermentation, which is steeping the lichen in ammonia (traditionally urine) for at least two to three weeks. In the Scottish highlands, various lichens yielded red, orange, brown, and yellow dyes. In Europe, a purple was extracted from Roccella and Ochrolechia. Litmus, the pH indicator is extracted from the Roccella lichen.
Ethnolichenology has quite a Wikipedia page. I was surprised. It is well worth looking up, if only for the 19th century Japanese painting of Umbilicaria lichen gathering. If this has whetted your appetite for lichens, you can find lichen walks and workshop information at the California Lichen Society (CALS) website: californialichens.org. Sylvia Sharnoff has also written about lichens and people.
by Cathy Chambers
Photo: Red Usnea rubicunda at Los Osos Oaks Reserve; photo David Chipping
ETHNOBOTANY NOTES: Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolium) Cathy Chambers
Toyon, Heteromeles arbutifolium is a wonderful, hardy, native California evergreen shrub. It can be a good screen in the yard, growing up to 6 feet fairly quickly. It tolerates soils from serpentine to clay, to sand. It is not as flammable as other chaparral shrubs. It is a great forage plant for bees, butterflies, and other insects, as well as birds. You will find it to be a foraging hub in your yard when it is flowering, and then the fruit will feed birds. The red berries were eaten by many native Californians as well. They also contain some cyanide compounds and must be roasted, wilted, or boiled before eaten. The hard wood was used to make many tools including bows. I remember my Mom, an east coast transplant, making wreaths for the door at Christmas. The berries are ripe in red clusters in November and December making it perfect for making holiday decorations.
Photo by Stan Shebs and shared under Creative Commons 3.0 license
ETHNOBOTANY NOTES: Blue Elderberry (Sambucus coerulea or mexicana) A delicious, wildlife attracting addition to your garden
This last year, I have become the Johnny Appleseed of elderberry plants. Although, I plant the elderberry plants and not the seeds. I have been making Elderberry jelly and tincture for my family for almost twenty years. We gathered them in Cambria just as we did blackberries. Then when I started landscaping seriously about two years ago to help out my mom, I realized that maybe I would not have to drive for miles to gather berries if I just planted the bushes in our yard and in the gardens to which I have access. Last year, I planted several at work, and several on my mom’s property. This year I planted three at my house, and two in my friends’ yards. However, I might have to wait a few years to see the fruits of my labors.
Native Californians also used the hollow branches to make flutes and clapper sticks. They used caution and respect and were aware that there are toxic compounds in the stems and leaves (such as hydrocyanic acid and sambucine.) These are also in the berries, but less so, and dissipate when cooked or dried. Research has found compounds in Sambucus that are anti-viral. They are also high in vitamin C. I’m sure that hundreds of years ago, when Europeans ate the jelly, and drank the wine all winter it helped them to fend off colds. When making jam or wine, the seeds should be strained out.
The flowers are also considered medicinal. They are picked when flowering then dried for tea that is used to break dry fevers and stimulate perspiration. The USDA Plant Database says that “The flowers contain flavonoids and rutin, which are known to improve immune function, particularly in combination with vitamin C. The flowers also contain tannins, which account for its traditional use to reduce bleeding, diarrhea, and congestion.” They can also be prepared as a delicious cordial. Ethnobotanist Michael Moore writes that “ The flowers and dried berries are useful as a diuretic and have been used for centuries as an aid to rheumatism and arthritis. The red elderberries are toxic and should not be used.
The elderberry grows throughout California and can be drought tolerant but will thrive better and grow much faster with some watering. It tolerates clay soils and seasonal flooding, but it also grows in sandy soil in my yard. It can grow to 10 feet tall. It has green foliage which is deciduous and has cream colored flower clusters. It is a great plant to bring birds into your garden. It also attracts hummingbirds and butterflies.
Elderberry Photos: David Chipping. Flute by SuncrowFlutes