Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Native Californians' use of plants

My blog has been UC Davis arboretum heavy lately, so I was going to save this post for later, but it seems somewhat appropriate for Thanksgiving. Since most of our traditional foods on Thanksgiving were first eaten by the indigenous peoples of what is now the United States, it might be interesting to think about what the indigenous Californians ate and in some cases still do eat. Disclaimer - there were hundreds of groups/villages/tribes here in California and obviously this information will only apply to some of them. And more important disclaimer, don't eat things you can't identify with certainty as both the plant you are looking for and as something edible.

I went on a guided walk of the arboretum talking about Native California uses of plants. Pretty interesting. And in answer to the question what did they eat, well for many the staple was acorns. I've been curious to try them now for a while, but they seem fairly labor intensive to prepare.

Toyon berries - They're supposedly edible raw, but evidently branches were cut off the plant, the leaves stripped, and the berries roasted over an open fire. One of the guides said it was probably an aquired taste.

Manzanita berries were mashed, then water added to make a refreshing drink. Several on the walk said it was good. And the hips from the native rose were used to make tea. (pic of rosehip, a little dry)

Some of the most interesting uses of plants were not about food, but more on that after the jump.

One was that ceanothus flowers were used as soap. I had tried it once hiking and saw that it worked, but the guides had some dried flowers. They gave each of us a little scoop and some water and it makes a really nice lather that leaves your hands feeling very clean. And they said the berries made even better soap. I can't wait for my ceanothus in the front to bloom this year.

Another interesting thing was that buckeye fruits were slightly mashed and thrown into still spots of rivers. The buckeye has a chemical that interferes with fish breathing. The fish go belly up and you can scoop them off the top with supposedly no ill effects on those eating them.

And a mold on some oak galls was used as medicine. The oak galls are growths of the oaks of woody tissue to protect the tree from wasp eggs laid in their bark. There are 468 types of galls all caused by different wasps. One type I saw on a friends oak were little, red, hershey-kiss looking things on the underside of leaves. I learned that that too is a gall. And the wasps causing the big galls in the photos (called oak apples by the first anglos in CA) are actually very small.

Have a happy Thanksgiving everyone.


  1. So interesting! I just finished reading "The Oholone Way" and was struck by how the Native Americans were using special foods each season. It's so strange how we often don't even know where our food comes from...

  2. Nice Thanksgiving post. A good holiday to think about Native American foods, though I guess California doesn't have squash and corn to offer. I try manzanita berries periodically, but only like them occasionally. Haven't figured out if it's a question of manzanita variety or just ripeness. I want to try acorns, too, but not unless someone else does all the prep.

  3. I love the term 'acquired taste' - implies so much, doesn't it? Lovely post...I'm always so interested in how the native Californian's used our native plants. Have you tried the manzanita berry drink? I'd love to know a recipe for that....

  4. You're so lucky to live near the Davis Arboretum. I love to hear about the native plants. I can't grow many here, as I haven't the space or the sun. I love reading about your experiences with them.