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Nov 3rd, 2021 (Article in newsletter, November 2021)

Edible California Native Plant Gardening

Joe Parker

Joe Parker worked as a cultural historian at Pitzer College, where he began learning from Indigenous communities about native plants before retiring in 2020.  He gardens both native edible plants and non-natives in Altadena.

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California native plants provided abundant food for the Indigenous people of the region. This bounty grew out of a reciprocal relation California’s Indigenous communities cultivated with the plants, depending on the plants for nutrition while honoring native plants through daily practices and seasonal song and ceremony to show respect and help care for them. So the traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) of Indigenous Californians provides us with rich resources for edible California native plant gardening while also suggesting ways to develop respectful relations with our native plant relatives.  

Yet many are not accustomed to approaching native California plants as food sources. So gardening for food with these plants requires some creativity and a willingness to adapt and learn from Southern California Indigenous people who know the land so well. 

Barbara Drake, a Tongva (or Gabrieleño) elder, and Craig Torres, a Tongva cultural carrier, formed a collective with other Indigenous and non-Indigenous plant experts, the Chia Café Collective, to adapt native foodways to modern tastes.  They have taught many workshops on California native food plants along with non-Indigenous collective members Abe Sanchez and Daniel McCarthy, and have even published a cookbook with recipes and ingredient source suggestions.  Mark Acuña also gave workshops on food uses of California native plants at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Gardens (now California Botanic Garden) and the Claremont Colleges, and his workshops were where I began my edible native plant journey.   

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Black sage

A quick and easy start to gardening with edible California native plants might begin with black sage (Salvia mellifera) and prickly pear (Opuntia littoralis or Opuntia phaeacantha) if you have a sunny spot in mind.  Black sage is easy to grow and very fragrant, making for a wonderful addition to homemade pesto sauces or other pasta or chicken recipes where you might otherwise use a European sage. The fruits of the prickly pear make tasty popsicles or a summer drink when sweetened lightly with agave or stevia, while after removing the thorns the young pads can be lightly sautéed for a light, nutritious addition to breakfast eggs or tacos. Other major food plants that love full sun are the Chaparral Yucca (Hesperoyucca whipplei) or other yucca varieties and one of the varieties of native roses (e.g., Rosa californica), whose rose hips make for a nice tea. 

Shady places in your garden are inviting to miner’s lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata or Claytonia parviflora) or currants (Ribes aureum var. gracillimum or other varieties).  Miner’s lettuce  provides nice garden salad greens while currants can be eaten raw or made into jam. Other flavorful and nutritious plants to try in a shady or understory locale are stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) or the  aromatic California Bay Laurel (Umbellularia californica), while watercress (Nasturtium officinale) can be grown along a pond or other water feature.

One advantage to gardening with California natives is that many require little or no water after the first year when the plants have gotten established. Getting to know the varying water requirements for different plants is part of the learning curve as gardeners learn to care for different native species of edibles, ranging from no water needed even in summer heat (black sage, prickly pear, and yucca) to significant water needs in spring, summer and fall (watercress). A second adaptation to remember when gardeners begin growing California native plants is to avoid planting in soils where fertilizers and soil amendments have been used, since these plants do not require more nutrition than the natural soil provides. And gardeners will also need to plan for seasons when some California natives go dormant and appear to have died off. These characteristics of California native plants mean not only reduced gardening costs but also reduced maintenance for food production.  And the learning curve for edible native plants can also include developing ways to thank the plants when they give sustenance to humans, and to share the abundance of native habitats with those in need in the spirit of Kathleen Rose Smith’s record of Pomo and Miwok life, Enough for All

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Blue elderberry

Experienced gardeners may want to try some native food plants that are more difficult to propagate or maintain. One such plant is the vigorous-growing native elderberry (Sambucus nigra) that plays a central cultural role in Tongva and Chumash lifeways, and is an important attractor for many native birds and insects.  The berries can become part of jams and jellies, syrups and cordials, and even a wine like that familiar to those who have made dishes and beverages with European or other elderberry varieties.  A popular plant for making teas and cool beverages is the hummingbird sage (Salvia spathacea), which can be finicky in the garden and require extra attention. 

Moving beyond the berries, greens, and herbs stage in edible California native plant gardening requires some preparation. Finding ways to grow native plants that provide carbohydrates or proteins, for example, means learning about diet staples that provided the foundation for California Indigenous nutrition, much like the wheats of Europe and the rice varieties of Asia. 

The keystone oak is an important place to start for those familiar with California native plants who wish to expand their food preparation skills.  If your garden or community garden does not have room for a coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia), a valley oak (Quercus lobata), or a Pasadena oak (Quercus engelmanii) - species once grew all over the Los Angeles area - a scrub oak (e.g., Quercus beberidifolia) will also provide acorn meal for you and major resources for native species. Skills are required not only to gather the acorns at the right time, but also to dry them effectively and then to prepare the acorn meal that was such an important staple for many Southern California tribes. A full sense of the steps taken to prepare acorns for food can be found in Julia Parker’s influential book, It Will Love Forever: Traditional Yosemite Indian Acorn Preparation.  

Protein-rich and flavorful mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa torreyana) pods, a Sonoran desert plant, were so important to the desert Cahuilla that they organized their yearly calendar around this edible plant.  Low-water tepary beans were also grown in drier and hotter areas of the Southern California region. No edible native plant discussion would be complete without a recipe, so here is a recipe based on the PBS series, Tending the Wild, that the Chia Café Collective developed.  TEK resources also tell us that corms (like the acorn) were another important carbohydrate source for California Indigenous communities. Wild Hyacinth (Dipterostemon capitatus; also known as Blue Dicks) provided important carbohydrate food sources in Southern California, and other corms like California brodiaea (Brodiaea californica) were important in regions farther north. 

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Bladderpod

Southern California Indigenous communities highly prize a member of the caper family that is easy to grow, California cleome (Peritoma arborea; also known as Bladderpod) as a food source (particularly in tacos). However, if not prepared correctly it may seem bitter and unappealing. Because the native cherries differ from the European varieties frequently found in grocery stores, gardeners who have room for a few of these plants (Holly leaf cherry Prunus ilicifolia ssp. Ilicifolia or Catalina cherry (Prunus illicifolia ssp. lyonii) will need to learn how they were prepared, what were the health risks, and why the pits became an important food source.  Information about preparing these edible native plants may be found in some of the resources listed at the end of this article. 

The grandmother of Southern California TEK resources is a book titled Temalpakh (a Cahuilla phrase for “From the earth”), which drew on the plant knowledge of Katherine Siva Saubel, a Cahuilla elder. Since it was the first full-length publication to lay out the oral knowledge on food sources of a Southern California tribe, it has been the place where many gardeners interested in food and other native California plant uses have begun their learning process. It is also an important resource for food gardening with low water and hot summer temperatures, since Cahuilla heritage territory extended into the Colorado or Sonora Desert of the Palm Springs area.  Other important native plant food resources (and cookbooks) for low water and high temperatures drawing not only on Cahuilla knowledge but also on the TEK oral tradition of the Tohono O’Odam tribe of the Tucson area include Eat Mesquite and More by Desert Harvesters and Wendy Hodson’s Food Plants of the Sonoran Desert

Other resources for learning about California native edible plants for coastal and inland California can be found in Michael Wilken-Roberton’s Kumeyaay Ethnobotany and Jan Timbrook’s Chumash Ethnobotany.  Helpful gardening resources for those new to native California gardening are also available: CNPS has a useful website, while Carol Bornstein, David Fross, and Bart O’Brien’s California Native Plants for the Garden and M. Nevin Smith’s Native Treasures: Gardening with the Plants of California are both good starting points.  The San Gabriel Mountains chapter of CNPS also has put together some resources for gardening. 

As with other gardening, make sure to select species or varieties that can adapt to the soil types and microclimates in your garden. Many like sandier soils, yet there are many that tolerate heavier clay soils. Planting California natives requires specific practices, which are explained here in this helpful website.  The websites at the Theodore Payne Foundation Nursery and Las Pilitas Nursery have detailed information on soil preferences, sun tolerances, watering needs, and companion plants that are very useful when gardening edible native California plants. 

The Chia Café Collective members encourage us to grow our own California native plants, rather than foraging for them, and to find ways to honor the plants that provide for us.  Beginning gradually by planting a couple of new plants each year and tasting a few before eating large quantities will help us broaden our horizons and find new forms of sustenance for ourselves and for the plants and the habitats of our region. Whether gardening at home or planting on apartment balconies or in community gardens, we can all eat well even in hot summers and drought years by learning from the Indigenous people of Southern California. 

 

RESOURCES

Print: 

Chia Café Collective, Cooking the Native Way, Heyday Books, 2010.

Katherine Siva Saubel and Lowell John Bean, Temalpakh: Cahuilla Indian Knowledge and Usage of Plants. Malki Museum Press, 1972

Michael Wilken-Roberton, Kumeyaay Ethnobotany: Shared Heritage of the Californias. Sunbelt Publications, Inc., 2018. 

Jan Timbrook, Chumash Ethnobotany: Plant Knowledge Among the Chumash People of Southern California.  Heyday Books and Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, 2007.

Online: 

https://www.pbssocal.org/shows/tending-wild   

https://theodorepayne.org/nativeplantdatabase/index.php?title=Main_Page 

https://www.laspilitas.com/plants/plants.htm

https://www.cnps.org/gardening

https://www.cnps-sgm.org/garden/plant_references.php

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