Tag Archives: ethnobotany

words are important

One night a week and a half ago, when much of the world was watching the final “American Idol” showdown between Adam Lambert and Kris Allen or viewing the finale of “Dancing with the Stars,” almost a hundred of us were at the local native plant society meeting to hear Kristie Orosco. Environmental Director for the San Pasqual Band of Kumeyaay Indians, ethnobotanist, and member of the Native American Environmental Protection Coalition, our speaker gave us a quick introduction to how some of the local Native Americans traditionally used plants in their environment as food.


She was one of those rare communicators, a person who with a very few words can take you into a different way of thinking and seeing the world. One thing she said, in particular, has stuck with me. Instead of stating that a plant blooms, she used the phrase that a plant “gives it flowers.” What a gorgeous way to phrase it: Instead of a plant being an inert blooming machine that you pick up for a few bucks at the nursery and toss when it turns ugly, it was a living entity that gives of itself by producing flowers.

How you say something is as important as what you say, and her words opened up a world to me where everything in nature is a gift. Although I’ve developed a cynical side to my personality, I’ve tried to counter it by keeping alive a part of me that continues to stay amazed at the things of the natural world and almost willfully naive about many of the ways of humankind. It’s that second side of me that’s certain that the earth would be a lot better off than it is if we all spoke and viewed the landscape the way Kristie Orosco did.

You often read that the plants you encounter in the wilds have traditional uses, but it’s not until you’ve had direct experience with the uses that the connection really clicks. To cement that connection, our speaker brought foods for all of us to try, enough to cover several large tables.

On the menu:

  • Shaawii, or acorn pudding (pink, looks like spam but it’s actually edible–and subtly tasty)
  • Pit-roasted agave root (something like a chewy, smoky vegan beef jerky–my favorite of the night)
  • Limeade with seeds of chia (Salvia columbariae)
  • “Medicine tea” (steeped dried flowers from Mexican elderberry, Sambucus mexicanus, very delicately flavored, used for a number of purposes, including breaking a fever)
  • Yucca root (starchy, but different from potatoes in flavor)
  • Yucca flowers, boiled (the blooms of Hesperoyucca whipplei, which is finishing up giving its flowers in many of our hillsides around town; very delicate flavor with a tiny nip of bitterness, brussels sprouts for people who don’t like brussels sprouts, or a new food for people who love artichoke hearts)
  • Yucca flowers, raw (as above, only crunchier, a little more bitter)


I’ve always admired plants of Hesperoyucca whipplei from a distance–The ends of its leaves end in sharp points that you have to show immense respect. Now that I’ve tasted its root and sampled its flowers and heard Kristie Orozco speak about the plant, my aesthetic appreciation of it has deepened into something else much richer.

interpreting history through plants


The native plant garden at San Diego’s Old Town State Historic Park occupies a gentle rise in the land on the north end of the park. The garden sits on the grounds of the Silvas-McCoy house, a modern reconstruction by the park service based on foundations excavated in 1995.

The house replicates an 1869 structure by Irish immigrant James McCoy. Previous to McCoy’s arrival the site was previously in the hands of Maria Eugenia Silvas, and the grounds also contain the foundations of two adobe structures that predate the McCoy house.

The park service, charged with interpreting the history of San Diego’s founding, decided between rebuilding the McCoy house or recreating the earlier adobes. Would they opt to tell the story of early Spanish settlement? Or that of later settlers? Or instead could they do something to interpret the area’s original inhabitants, the Kumeyaay, whose village of Koss’ai occupied the site, and whose tenure went back thousands of years? Choices like that are never without controversy, and you could make good arguments on all sides of the debate.

This was during a flurry of historic reconstruction in Old Town which turned this corner of the park into a construction zone. During the project I spotted one of the more amusing informational signs I’ve encountered, one that proclaimed a nearby patch of earth to be the “Future site of San Diego’s first city jail.” (Do you ever regret not having a camera along?)


The native plant garden, like the Silvas-McCoy house, also participates in the park’s mission to provide historic context. The selection of plants reinforces the story the garden tells.

In the days of Silvas and McCoy the San Diego River flowed in front of this site. The plants that would have been found here would have been primarily riparian species. To tell that story, you’ll see stands of mugwort, sycamore, mulefat, coast live oak and willow featured on the grounds.

In the past, the river would sometimes empty into Mission Bay to the north, or into San Diego Bay to the south. The geographical indecisiveness of a meandering river works fine for the natural world, but poorly for a culture tied to private ownership of property. The current San Diego River has been forced into an engineered channel a quarter mile to the north and is no longer able to decide on its own where it would like to go. So, in addition to telling a story about the location of the river 150 years ago, the garden–a riparian plant community stranded hundreds of feet from the river that would have originally sustained it–to me speaks to notions of ownership of space and ideas about the control of nature. It’s not just another pretty garden.


Of course, when you say “garden,” people do want to see pretty flowers. Above is chaparral mallow (Malacothamnus fasciculatus), and here’s the perky red monkey (Mimulus aurantiacus)…


…and the ever-popular California state flower (Escholzia californica) in its most recognizable color form, with wands of white sage (Salvia apaiana) in front.


And here’s a bouquet of some of what was blooming.

The garden in its current state goes back only a little more than a year, when a group of local California Native Plant Society volunteers weeded the site and planted many of the plants. The garden hosted an open house on Saturday, and visitors got a chance to tour the site and get insights from ethnobotanist Richard Bugbee about traditional Kumeyaay uses of many of the plants in the garden.

For example did you know that young flowering stems of white sage were peeled and eaten raw? This is one of the most assertively aromatic of sages, but peeling the stems purportedly takes away the oil-producing glands and gives the stems a flavor something like celery. (Maybe “tastes like celery” is the botanical equivalent of the catch-all “tastes like chicken,” but I intend to find out the next time my plants need a haircut…) Future plans for the garden include signage on traditional Kumayaay uses of the plants growing there.


That’s ethnobotanist Richard Bugbee, second from the right in this photo, along with landscape architect Kay Stewart, far right, who was heavily involved in designing the garden. Next to Richard is Peter St. Clair who, along with the original donor to the native garden project, had the vision and persistence to have the garden in the first place. Peter also organizes the volunteer work crews that help maintain and shape the garden.

At not much over a year old, this is still a young garden. There are still areas to be cleared and plantings to be finalized, but the garden has good bones and occupies a fascinating location. It’s definitely a place to watch as it matures, and they’re always on the lookout for volunteers to help the process along. Sign me up!

mostly words

My winter pile of plant and seed catalogs contains one that doesn’t fit the usual model. Instead of page after page of gorgeous soft-core pornographic photos and drawings of plants in brawny full leaf and buxom full bloom, the J.L. Hudson Seedsman catalog takes the form of a tight 95 pages of black-on-white text and only twenty-five small line drawings for illustrations.


This is a catalog all about words. It could well change your expectations of what a seed catalog should be. It’s listed as an “ethnobotanical catalog of seeds,” and you can sit down with it and read it like a novel. Most of the seeds descriptions come with a sentence or two of cultural trivia about the plant, mostly about how one of the world’s societies uses that plant. I’ve been finding that this is the catalog that I’ve been spending the most time with this year.


In addition to the interesting catalog copy, you start to notice that the text itself is gorgeous in the way it sits on the page. I was trying to place the special quality it has when I finally noticed on the last page an interesting statement: “This publication was typeset entirely without the use of computers.”

No computers? In 2009? So retro it’s avant-garde, like albums released on vinyl. But worry not. They also have an online presence.

This is definitely a catalog with attitude. It’s also a catalog with a purpose, a purpose that’s well documented in a statement on their website, a purpose that’s in line with their self-description as a “public access seed bank.” You can also start to understand the purpose when you look at the titles of the brief selection of books offered in the back of the catalog.

One of the works, Invasion Biology: Critique of a Pseudoscience, has a writeup that includes the statement, “We have all heard the breathless tales of the dangers of ‘invasive alien species,’ but what does science say about them? …In all cases… introduced species have increased biological diversity.”

Another title, Ecofascism: Lessons from the German Experience, gets a long writeup that includes the impassioned lines, “Most U.S. environmentalists are completely opposed to the aims of fascism, but reactionary forces have begun to bend ecological themes towards these very ends. Only through knowledge may we prevent this perversion of environmentalism.”

Once you understand where the catalog is coming from, you’ll start to understand the almost willful attitude that would drive them to offer seed of black mustard, one of the plants that has taken over much of the local ecosystem and has few friends among the plant people I know. And one of the recent online catalog supplements had seed for Arundo donax, a plant that has taken over some important local riparian habitats. Why don’t you just dump plutonium in your garden? Hmmmm…Does that make me an ecofascist?

You don’t have to agree with everything you see in the catalog, and you don’t have to buy anything out of it. But this is one publication that’s a must read if you’d like to get yourself thinking instead of all hot and bothered over the usual pretty pictures!


In the local canyons, this time of year brings about the spectacular flowers of the sacred datura, Datura wrightii. The low, mounding bushes grow two to three feet tall and easily twice as wide, and are covered from dusk to mid-morning with immense white trumpets, easily eight inches across, often flushed with pale lavender.

Photo by Dlarsen, via Wikimedia Commons [ source ]

This is one of several species of the genus that has been called toloache in Mexico. It’s in the nightshade family, and like other members of the genus Datura, the plant is as toxic as it is spectacular.

Even though it’s highly poisonous, some Native Americans used the plant as part of a ceremony marking the passage of a child to an adult. From the Wikipedia: “Among the Chumash, when a boy was 8 years old, his mother gave him a preparation of momoy to drink. This was supposed to be a spiritual challenge to the boy to help him develop the spiritual wellbeing that is required to become a man. Not all of the boys survived [my emphasis].”

Datura budOn my recent pre-dusk hike through our local Los Peñasquitos Canyon Preserve all the buds on the numerous toloache plants were tightly furled when I arrived.

Datura unfurlingBut by the time I left, less a half hour before sunset, the flowers buds were loosening. Had I stayed an hour longer I would have been able to view the fresh flowers in the last glow of daylight like an intoxicating evil welcoming the night.

Datura with hand for scaleHere you can get a sense for how large these flowers will be.

Despite its bad press this is one of our local plants that I’ve been eying to add to the garden. The only thing the cat shows any interest in are plants that look like grasses or catnip, and there are parts of the yard no small child could get to. Besides, I’ve already got a number of toxic plants in the garden–oleanders, tomatoes and other nightshade cousins.

In addition to having amazing flowers, this datura requires no added water during the long dry summer. Nothing this spectacular can make that claim.

Speaking of poisonous plants, last week’s New York Times had an article on the Duchess of Northumberland. She’s in the process of building a modern annex to grounds that were designed by Capability Brown, the landmark British landscape designer from the eighteenth century. Traditionalists are not happy. “They said I am to gardens what Imelda Marcos is to shoes,” the Duchess is quoted. In her project one of the features is the Poison Garden, which the article describes as “a spooky fenced-off area with about 100 varieties of toxic plants, as well as cannabis and opium poppies.”

I bet this duchess’s garden parties will be pretty interesting affairs…

my newest sage

The number of examples that I have in the garden of the sage genus, Salvia, is growing. The latest addition is a tiny little plant of white sage, Salvia apiana, that I put into a hole in the front yard where a few other plants have failed. The plant is native to this area and doesn’t require additional water so I’m confident that it should have no problem with with the dry soil and the hot sun exposure. Time will tell whether it can compete with the roots of nearby established plantings.

Local examples of the white sage show it to be fairly low, mounding plant of strongly-scented greenish white leaves. Robin Middleton’s amazing salvia site says that “people find the fragrance of the foliage unpleasant…I don’t particularly like it,” and the description at Las Pilitas Nursery calls the perfume a mixture of “sage, pine needles, burning rubber, skunk.” To my nose, that mixture of sage and pine needles and burning rubber and skunk smells like the local chaparral and long hikes on a sunny afternoon, so I actually enjoy it. In the late spring the low plant puts up informal head-high spires of white flowers, sometimes with a lavender tint, but for me the plant is most valuable for its attractive foliage.

Photo from the Wikimedia Commons, contributed by Eugene van der Pijll [ source ]

In addition to having a number of uses for the local Native Americans as a food, flavoring and medicine, the white sage was considered sacred, figured in sweat lodge ceremonies and was used remove evil spirits.

After the conclusion of 1996 Republican National Convention in San Diego one of the more creative post-convention protests involved an action to exorcise the evil that some thought the convention brought to town. In an act of purification, in an ceremony that involved drumming and chanting, protesters burned sticks of white sage to cleanse the Convention Center site of the residual evil.