Sunday, February 24, 2013

A Few More Native Plants

I'm a few weeks into my Ethnobotany class, working hard to learn all of the plants native to my area. At least some of these grow all over the place so this should be helpful to you even if you don't live in SoCal.

Stinging Nettles
Someone on a listserv I'm on wrote that her yard was covered in stinging nettles and anyone who wanted some should come get them. So I did. I brought them home and put them in the bathtub to rinse them. I collected so many that they covered the entire tub.

Stinging nettles are edible and medicinal. After you dry them or cook them, they lose their sting. The trick is harvesting them and dealing with them until they are dried or cooked without getting stung too much. I've tried plenty of different methods, including oven mitts. Right now, my strategy involves tongs.

I tend to use them like spinach but I think their flavor is best in Italian tomato sauce dishes, like pizza or pasta. As a medicinal plant, they are diuretic and could lower blood pressure. They are also super nutritious. So toss some dried nettles into your favorite blend of herbal tea or into a soup!

Nettles develop a toxic compound when they grow large, so if you plan to eat them fresh, harvest them when they are 4"-8" tall. If you cut the plant off near the base instead of uprooting it, it will survive and you can get a few more harvests from it. Once the plant gets bigger, you need to dry it in order to use it, because that gets rid of the toxins in it.

After rinsing off my big haul of nettles, I lifted them out of the tub one by one with tongs and sorted them into piles by size. I hung the big ones upside down to dry, and set the little ones aside to eat later.

Just a note if you're eating nettles - cut the leaves and tops off the stems and eat those. The stems will be fantastic for your compost pile. Nettles have historically been used as a source of fiber to make clothes. If you've ever tried to cook and eat a large thick nettle stem, you'll understand why!

Some of my nettles, hung in upside down bundles to dry on either side of my window. I've got more hanging outside, and I got about 3 or 4 meals out of the ones I ate fresh.

California Black Walnut

The California black walnut's flowers, shown in the top photo, are catkins. Another plant with catkins that you are no doubt familiar with is the willow. Those things you called "pussywillows" when you were a kid? Those are catkins.

Historically, California Indians near LA made extensive use of the black walnut, but they used the shells more than they used the nuts. (And no, they didn't eat the shells - they put them to other uses.)

Miner's Lettuce

Immature leaf

Mature leaf with flower in the center

Miner's lettuce is edible. Eat it before it flowers. After that it gets bitter.

The species shown here is Claytonia perforliata, and it was brought from near Malibu. In San Diego county, you can find C. parviflora, which has a slightly different shaped leaf.


Top side of leaf

Underside of leaf

If you go to the store and buy mugwort, you'll get Artemisia vulgaris. The local species, shown here, is A. douglasiana. It's about five times as strong as what you get in the store. You can find it growing in riparian areas near water, often in thick stands that grow several feet tall. The top of the leaves are green, the undersides are silver.

Often, mugwort grows near poison oak. If you touch poison oak, then wipe your body with mugwort to get the poison oak off. But I would still go straight home and scrub your entire body with soap and put your clothes in a plastic bag and not touch them til they've been washed several times just in case

Indians also used this as a bronchial and sinus decongestant, and an eyewash. They used it to get rid of intestinal parasites, used it during sweats, and used it ceremonially. I don't have details on those latter uses BUT I do know that it's popularly used now to stimulate vivid dreams. You can eat it, drink it (as a tea), smell it, or smoke it, and you'll have extremely vivid dreams. However, I've read some stuff that made me feel cautious about eating it or drinking it, and I doubt smoking it is healthy either. So I'd go the aromatherapy route. I gave this stuff a good sniff as we passed it around for class. I don't know if the mugwort's to blame, but I've had the most incredibly vivid dreams all week ever since then.

Fuschia Flowered Gooseberry

These aren't the best pictures. My hunch is that this one's edible, although I don't know how good it would taste. I've been doing a no-no when it comes to currants and gooseberries. I've been recognizing them by their leaf-shape. The most accurate way to recognize an unfamiliar plant is by the flower. Unrelated plants can have similar looking leaves because they live in the same environment and they are adapted to the same conditions - but the reproductive structures of a flower are what truly give a plant's identity away. And I've been a bad girl because I took one look at the shape of these leaves and said "Currant?" Gooseberries are related, so it was a really good guess.

I'll leave you with these for now. I'll have more for you soon. And I'm now planning a camping trip to Joshua Tree this spring, which means I'll be able to see plants from other nearby ecosystems - Juniper-Pinyon Pine woodland, black oaks, Mojave desert plants, creosote bush, and more!!!!

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Native American Cooking: Pinole

This week in my Kumeyaay cooking class, we made a dish called Pinole. The good things about Pinole: It's tasty, healthy, easy to make at home, great for kids, vegetarian, and can be made vegan.

As I understand it, you can make pinole with many different kinds of seeds. Strangely enough, when we made pinole in class, we made it with 3 non-native foods: wheat, milk, and honey. (Prior to European colonization, North America lacked honeybees, cows, and wheat. In fact, the only domesticated animals on the continent were turkeys and Muscovy ducks.) Our teacher explained that pinole should be made with a native plant but it's so rare nowadays, they just buy wheat instead. When I find the name of the native plant, I'll update this post with it.

As sad as it is that the native plant is so rare that we used wheat, it's nice to have a recipe that uses easy-to-obtain ingredients. In fact, yesterday, I made it at home with elementary school kids.

To make pinole with wheat, use whole wheat berries. Start by heating the wheat berries on the stove or - as we did it in class - over a campfire. Stir constantly to avoid burning the wheat. You'll begin to see and hear the wheat pop and then you'll smell a nutty aroma. The nutty aroma is what you're aiming for. You can keep cooking it for a bit after you smell the nutty aroma, but be sure to remove it from the heat before it starts to burn.

Next, grind the wheat. You might want to let it cool first. The traditional way to grind it is with stones, but having spent several classes grinding various foods with stones by now, I don't recommend going that route. When I made it at home with the kids, I let the kids grind a bit of it with a mortar and pestle for fun - but I used a coffee grinder for most of it. The older kid (age 10) loved the mortar and pestle. The little one (age 6) found it boring. A Vita-Mix or a grain mill would likely work too. Grind it so it's the consistency of coarse flour.

When I made pinole at home with the kids, I ground some flax seeds and added them to the ground, toasted wheat. I didn't heat or cook the flax seeds first - I just ground them up raw.

Once the wheat - or whatever you're using - is ground, you're done! Now you've got 2 options:

1. Mix it with honey and roll it into a ball.
2. Add milk and sugar or honey.

Then eat it!

I've only had it with milk and a bit of honey, because I fear that a ball of honey and toasted wheat would be too sweet. With milk and honey or sugar, it tastes an awful lot like Frosted Mini Wheats. The kids loved it. I didn't spoil their fun by telling them that it's healthy. Neither of them like eating whole wheat bread, and here they were, gobbling up toasted whole wheat. My picky eater ate 2 bowlfuls!

For next week's class, we're planning to shoot a rabbit with a bow and arrow, skin it, and fry it with an elderberry sauce. I'm feeling very queasy about this activity and I kind of hope that our appointed bunny-killer is a bad shot (although I fear he isn't). Stay tuned for the blog post...

Friday, February 8, 2013

Foraging in Coastal Sage Scrub and a Riparian Zone

If there's one thing I've learned in my travels, it's that much of the world sees nature as one big grocery store. In fact, it's more like a Walmart Supercenter, only the stuff isn't cheap and crappy and made in some country where they pay the workers nothing. Walking along a trail in many parts of the world means finding food, medicine, and materials needed to make tools, jewelry, toys, games, buildings, musical instruments, and more.

Then of course I would come home and walk along our trails and wonder: What do our plants do? Our plants that I've walked past a million times and never thought about. Surely, many are edible and many are medicinal, and I don't even know what their names are.

I'm only just beginning to learn about my local plants. See a few photos from a recent hike with plant names and uses below. If you can identify the names of the plants where you live, you can find out how they are used here.

A facet of foraging that might frustrate some people is the degree to which people utterly aren't in charge. That means that even though I pass numerous blackberry bushes on my hike, there aren't any blackberries to eat right now because it's the wrong time of year. The photos therefore show the plants as they are now. It's winter and there's not much in the way of food available.

Thankfully, wildflower season is just getting started.

Encelia californica, I think. All I know about it right now: it's pretty.

Lemonade berry, Rhus integrifolia. This has berries that you can use to make lemonade-like beverage. Either that or the person who named it was an idiot.

Here, you can see the flowers of the lemonade berry.

Mulefat or Seepwillow. In Latin, Baccharis glutinosa, also known as Baccharis salicifolia because the leaves look like willow (Salix) leaves. "Infusion of leaves used as a wash or poultice of leaves applied to bruises, wounds or insect stings."

Willow. No idea what kind. Shown here are the flowers, called catkins. The Kumeyaay distinguished between willows with leaves that were light and dark on both sides and leaves that were the same color on both sides. They use willow to make baskets to hold acorn because the willow repels pests. No doubt there were and are other uses, such as pain relief (willow bark has the chemical aspirin is based on), and likely use in making some tools or other items.

Nearby I found California blackberry, Rubus ursinus, which is of course edible. As I continued on, I found lots of California wild rose, Rosa californica. The Kumeyaay made a rose petal tea to give to babies with fevers. And, of course, the fruits are edible.

Spiny Rush, Juncus acutus, one species of Juncas that the Kumeyaay use in basketmaking. This species looks very similar to the other species, Basket Rush, Juncus textilis. The two ways to tell them apart are 1. This one grows in clumps like the one you see here and the other doesn't, and 2. The other one has an area of darker color on the bottom that basketmakers value as it adds color to their baskets. Although the two species are closely related, they are used for different purposes by basketmakers.

I didn't know this when I saw it - which is why I took a picture - but I think it's Dudleya. And if it is, the leaves can be eaten and used to get rid of calluses, and the roots can be made into a decoction for asthma.

Hmm, that's pretty. Still need to identify what it is.

Wild cucumber vine. NOT a cucumber, DON'T eat it. It is in the cucumber family, however. The fruits are the craziest looking plants I've ever seen. There are two local uses that I've heard of. One, tossing it into the rivers to stun the fish so you can catch them, and two, crushing the seeds to use the oil for paint.

Toyon, the plant for which Hollywood was named. Sometimes called Christmas berry because it ripens around Christmas. Edible.

Pure evil. Stay away. Toxicodendron diversilobum, or poison oak. I'm told that it often grows near mugwort (Artemisia douglasii) and you can rub mugwort on yourself if you touch poison oak. The Kumeyaay also drink white sage tea if they get poison oak. A non-Indian remedy I read online is tea tree and lavender essential oils. And if you can do so quickly, wash it off with soap - not just water.

These are most likely cattails, because that's what the old, dead material you see there was. Cattails are edible but don't eat them unless you know the water they are growing in isn't polluted.

Also, not pictured, are coast live oak, black sage (Salvia mellifera), white sage (S. apiana), and California sagebrush (Artemisia californica). These are all extremely common plants and I've posted their photos in previous blog posts. White sage is more potent than black sage medicinally, but both are used. The seeds of both plants are edible as well. Coast live oaks, together with black oaks in the mountains, provide the acorns that were the staple of the native diet in this region. California sagebrush is less important as food or medicine - but you can make a sun tea out of it and then use it as a hair wash. Your hair will smell great and it also makes it extra shiny.

I'm still a novice, but these are all of the useful plants I found by walking just a mile or two after only a few weeks of ethnobotany classes. Imagine how many useful plants I could find if I was better educated or hiked farther! I went back to the same place a few days later and spotted some Ribes indecorum, a variety of wild currant with edible berries. Finding out that you can eat the plants you've walked past without noticing for years is so exciting!

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Native American Cooking: Acorns

The indigenous people in San Diego (the Kumeyaay) and in much of California historically based their diets largely on wild game and acorns. I'm taking a class on Kumeyaay traditional foods. Naturally, our first two classes were devoted to acorns.

The Kumeyaay use four different kinds of acorns: Sinyaw Kumiulk, Sinyaw, Kupaally, and Sentai. Sinyaw Kumiulk is the only acorn that can be eaten directly. It is tiny and long. The others all must be leached before they are eaten.

Sinyaw is more common. It comes from a Coast Live Oak, and it is a yellowish color. In the mountains, you will find Kupaally, with a creamy/pink color. This comes from a black oak, and I hear that it tastes sweeter than Sinyaw. Last is Sentai, which is the biggest acorn.

Typically, sinyaw and kupaally are used to make the Kumeyaay staple food, Shawii. Additionally, sinyaw can be used to make "acorn coffee." We used sinyaw to make both shawii and acorn coffee.

In the mountains, acorns are harvested in September. In lower altitudes, they are harvested in November. Some tribes will beat or shake the trees to make acorns fall so they can collect them. Others just gather them from the ground. I've read that acorns infested with bugs fall first, so one might want to skip the first acorns that drop and wait for ones that drop later.

Traditionally, Indians would burn the area under the oaks after gathering acorns each year. This would encourage grasses and wildflowers to grow, but it would also break the pest cycle that leads to wormy acorns. The worms pupate in the leaves below the oaks and the mature adults then lay eggs in the next year's acorns. This is one example of how the native Americans of California blur the lines between farming and hunting and gathering.

The short, fat one is from a Black Oak. The long thin one is from a Coast Live Oak.

Here's how to make Shawii:

Step 1: Gather acorns from an oak tree. Let them dry. If you shell the acorns immediately, then this takes 2-3 weeks. It takes much longer if you leave them in the shells (til February, assuming you gathered the acorns in October/November).

Any acorn with a hole in it has a bug. Acorns without holes might have bugs too, unfortunately. But our teacher, Martha, did a darn good job in bringing us mostly bug-free acorns.

Sinyaw: Acorns from the Coast Live Oak

Step 2: Get a rock with acorn-sized holes from the beach. Place an acorn in the hole and smack it with a rock. Hard. Then remove the shell. Repeat for each acorn.

Breaking the acorn shell

An acorn after being smacked hard with a rock

Step 3: Winnow the acorns to remove the dark, papery layer around each of them. We mostly did this manually but it should be done by putting the acorns in a basket and taking them outside. Grab a handful of acorns and let them drop into the basket. The wind will blow off the papery layer as they drop.

The Kumeyaay are skilled basket makers, so baskets used in many aspects of their culture. For example, acorn granary baskets are made from willow bark, because willow repels the pests.

Handmade Kumeyaay basket

A basket like the one above would be made from Juncas textilis:

Juncas textilis

Step 4: Grind the acorns. Modern Indians use a coffee grinder. We did it the old-fashioned way. If you don't grind it fine enough, your shawii will be bitter.

Step 5: Once the acorns are finely ground you must leach the tannins from them. This takes a long time. Traditionally, it might be done in a bed of sand or in a basket. We used an old flour sack suspended over an empty trash can. If I did it at home, I'd use a colander lined with a cloth in my sink.

Our leaching setup

We added the acorns, and then poured water through them and let it drip through the cloth for HOURS.

At a certain point, a Kumeyaay woman in our class decided to take charge. She grew up speaking Kumeyaay and making and eating shawii, so she was not as eager as the rest of us were to grind acorns for hours on end. But when she saw us slowly pouring water through our acorns, she grabbed a spatula and started stirring to speed the process along. Stirring will speed up the leaching. Of course, if you're doing this at home, you can just fill up the water in your colander every so often and let it leach for 8 hours until it's done. We've only got 3 hours in class so we were in a hurry.

Stirring to speed up the leaching of the tannins

Here's what the water looked like after it went through the acorns:

Step 6: Cook! Wring out all the water from your acorns, and put them in a saucepan. Add water. Stir constantly as it cooks.

Leached acorns

Our instructor added the water and began stirring as it cooked. She looked at it and remarked that we had not leached out all of the tannins.

Water added, shawii cooking.

Finished shawii

Step 7: Cool and eat. The consistency becomes jello-like once it cools, and you're supposed to let it cool before you eat it. But I didn't.


To make coffee, you remove the shells and winnow your acorns, but you don't immediately grind them. Instead you heat them in a pan until they are entirely black. If you break an acorn in half, it should be black throughout the whole thing.

Step 1: Roast the acorns.

Acorns in the pan

Getting darker

Once the acorns are roasted, you grind them.

With your roasted, ground acorns ready to go, it's time to make coffee. I don't think we used a very traditional method:

Once it's done, it looks like real coffee!

Acorn coffee

It was pretty good, and might have been better with milk and/or sugar. It doesn't taste identical to coffee, but it's similar. And it's non-caffeinated.