Monday, February 10, 2014

Kumeyaay Indians' Home in the Desert

My camping trip over the weekend took us to the Anza Borrego Desert State Park. It accounts for one-fifth of the land in San Diego county and it's the largest park in the Lower 48. Anza Borrego includes part of the Pacific Crest trail. The name comes from an explorer (Anza) who came overland to visit the region, and the Spanish word for bighorn sheep (Borrego). But good luck actually seeing a borrego inside the park - they are very shy.

I've found that my knowledge of plants helps in a few unexpected ways. First, I can use plants as landmarks to keep from getting lost. And second, I can instinctively find water if there's any to be found. You know, in case I am forced to be a tribute in the Hunger Games. Besides, I've always got a pharmacy at my fingertips - not to mention a food source.

When we arrived at our campground, I immediately hopped out of the car and went straight over to a strange-looking plant. As I got close to it, I saw it was the very familiar Sugar Bush (Rhus ovata). But what the heck was it doing in the desert? There had to be water nearby.

Sugar Bush, Rhus ovata

Then our trip leader called our attention over to Dos Cabeza Spring, a few feet away.

Where's the spring? It's at the base of the cattails.

Dos Cabeza Spring
Teeny tiny little spring, with cattails growing out of it and lots of bees buzzing around, since they need water too

The presence of water was exciting, considering the rest of the terrain:

A View of the Desert

Cattails are edible, and Sugar Bush is both edible and medicinal. In fact, most of the common plants in the area were useful in one way or another. I did not snap a photo of the creosote bush, but we saw plenty of those, and they have incredible medicinal properties. If you use herbal medicine, they are marketed under the name "Chaparral leaf" and they taste bad.

An ocotillo towering above the other desert plants

Ocotillo close up

Ocotillo Flowers
Mostly dried up ocotillo flower with a new one growing

Ocotillo is edible or medicinal in some way but I've always written it off as too difficult to bother with because it's prickly. As soon as there's a bit of rain, ocotillo grows leaves. It also has lovely red flowers on top that remind me of flames on candles.

Cat's Claw Acacia
Cat's claw acacia

Cat's claw acacia is very valuable as a medicinal plant - but for our purposes it was more of a plant to avoid since it is so effective at snagging your clothes or scratching up your legs.


Brittlebush is a plant in the sunflower family, and when it blooms it has yellow flowers. It's medicinal.

Ephedra (Mormon Tea)
Ephedra, a.k.a. Mormon Tea

Ephedra (Mormon Tea)
Ephedra close-up

Related to conifers, ephedra is another medicinal plant found in the desert.

Mohave Yucca
Mohave yucca, Yucca schidigera

The Mohave Yucca is amazingly cool for its relationship with the wasp that pollinates it. But for the Indians, it was valuable for soap (its roots), cordage (leaves), and food (stalk and flowers).

Desert Agave
Desert Agave

Desert agave is another important useful plant. The Kumeyaay made cordage from its leaves and they ate the heart of the plant. When the plant begins to put up a stalk, they harvest it and roast it for two days in a pit before eating it. The pits used for roasting a four feet deep and a large number of agave hearts were roasted at once time. What wasn't eaten immediate was dried and eaten later.



Cholla, almost glowing in the late afternoon sun

Also known as the "jumping cactus," the cholla was the most common cactus found in this region of the desert. I've heard that "cholla buds" are edible and the plant's sap is useful on sunburns, but I have not tried either.

White Sage
White sage, Salvia apiana

White sage, one of the most important plants to the Kumeyaay. In addition to its ceremonial uses, it has a host of medicinal uses. I like to drink the tea when I have a sore throat - or whenever I want a tasty cup of tea. One thing to note about this plant: it causes women to stop lactating, so don't consume it if you're breastfeeding.

With so many useful plants around, it's hardly surprising that the Kumeyaay Indians made their home here. Odds are they lived in this cozy little rock cave:

Rock Cave

If you go in the cave and look out, this is what you see:

Kumeyaay Morteros
Kumeyaay morteros

The depressions in the rock were used by the Kumeyaay to grind food as well as clay for pottery. Near where I took the photo, I saw plenty of mesquite, a legume with a sweet tasting edible seedpod. The Kumeyaay would have ground the seedpods in these morteros. (They used the mesquite root to make bows and baby cradles too.) They would have also eaten the fruit of the California fan palm. In fact, they might have planted the nearby fan palm oasis.

After hiking along with a view like this:

Ocotillo and Yucca

and this:

A View of the Desert

All of a sudden you see this:

California Fan Palm

You can guess why they call it a fan palm:

California Fan Palm

Keep walking and you are utterly surrounded by an enormous cluster of these massive trees - each of which produces edible fruit.

Fan Palm Oasis
Fan palm oasis

Jim Among the Palms

They provide wonderful shade, and there is absolutely water below the ground here. Perhaps it was once above the ground too - prior to the massive drought we're having. In fact, another artifact you find around here isn't from the Indians at all:

Cattle Trough
Cattle trough

So there was definitely water here at some point. The mesquite is another indication of water below the ground, although mesquite can send down its roots 100 feet to find the water, so it's not as valuable an indication as the palms or - better yet - the cattails.

Wildflower season is not here yet, but it's coming. I spotted a lupine, one of my favorite flowers, that is not yet blooming:

Lupine (Not Blooming Yet)

Fortunately, we were treated to a spectacular display of chuparosa and desert lavender:



Desert Lavender
Desert lavender

Desert Lavender
Desert lavender

The desert lavender is a bushy shrub, and it smells nothing like lavender at all. It's scent is more lemony. One look at its flowers tells you it's in the mint family, and with a scent like that, it's almost certainly medicinal.

As for wildlife, the bighorn sheep eluded us. We mostly saw poop - coyote poop, rabbit poop, mouse poop. Even human poop, which we should not have seen, since the responsible party should have dug a hole and buried it.

We spotted a cool spider web, likely from a Desert Grass Spider:

Spider Web

And, in addition to some ravens and phainopeplas, this was about as good as it got in terms of wildlife viewing:

Desert Wildlife

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