Thursday, September 22, 2011

Western Plants

And now...all those western plants I promised! I have had little personal experience with these plants as food or medicine, as I have just recently met them. However, I've done quite a bit of research upon my return home and so invite you to learn about these plants along with me! Also, please do contribute any further info you may have about these beauties...

Sierra Gooseberry (Ribes roezlii)
 I had never before seen such a fruit and so I thought surely by the looks of its spiky encasing it couldn't be edible. Well, I should have known better...just like the at first touch seemingly unappealing Wood Nettle or Cat-brier...upon later identification I realized I was looking at Gooseberry! Quite the edible plant. From what I understand, boiling these guys for a few minutes in a bit of water will help to soften their spines. Once softened, mash them, let sit overnight, then press through a sieve into another container and let this sit overnight so that the sediment will separate from the juice. The juice can be poured off and made into syrup or jelly, whereas the sediment can be thickened and used as a pie filling (info courtesy of This plant was growing in abundance trail-side in Sequoia National Forest.

Sierra Mint (Pycnanthemum californicum)
I found this cottony beauty along the trail in the Redwoods. It had the strong recognizable odor of mint upon first touch. It's other mint characteristics included a square stem, opposite leaves, and bilabiate (two-lipped) flowers. Special to this mint was its four-column arrangement of leaves- in other words, one pair oriented north/south, the pair above or below oriented east/west. Like our eastern mountain mints, it would make a pleasant tea.

Manzanita (Arctostaphylos spp.)
Most every dry rocky or sandy mountain I hiked in California supported these hardy shrubs/small trees. Their dried dead leaves, looking something like brown poker chips littered the edges of trail, shifting and shuffling in the sand with each hiker's step. Their branches twist and tangle similar to that of Rhododendron, creating red-barked thickets, impossible to penetrate. Though rather different looking in appearance, Manzanita actually shares the same genus as a common medicinal plant, Bearberry, also well known by its species name, Uva-ursi. I am uncertain as to what species this was, but most Manzanita berries are edible. Traditionally they were dried and ground into a meal or soaked along with branch tips producing a sort of cider.

Sequoia giganteum cone

Sequoiadendron giganteum needles
Believe it or not that little cone up there belongs to the largest trees (by volume) in the world. The Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) cones were even smaller, about the size of a Hemlock cone. These cones were strewn about and at times piled up on the trail throughout the old-growth grove in King's Canyon, and when my feet suddenly left the ground and I found myself gazing up at the tree-tops, I came to know their marble-like qualities. No easy task to walk across marbles in the forest. Sequoia needles very much resemble Red Cedar and Juniper, however in my observations, seem more loosely arranged. The needles of the Redwood's needles were similar, however the lower branches bore needles more broad and flat - this way they can catch more available light. The needles seen above have less evaporative surface, thus retaining moisture better in hot, dry, exposed environments.

Crimson Columbine (Aquilegia formosa)
Crimson Columbine was by far one of the most unique looking flowers I saw on my trip. This particular fellow I found growing streamside in the shady Sequoia woods. They are a member of the Ranuncluaceae (Buttercup family), suggested by their lobed 3-part leaves and conspicuous many stamen. This flower would be considered nodding and spurred. Now perhaps it is a good thing I didn't know their edibility when hiking or else this man might be missing his head. The raw flowers are reportedly sweet and flavorful and the leaves may be thoroughly boiled and eaten as well. Noting the toxicity of many members of this family I would heed caution in consuming it in quantity, particularly its leaves.

Seep Spring Monkey Flower (Mimulus guttatus)
Is this not the most fun plant name to recite aloud? Just try it- I'm telling you, you won't be able to stop. I found this flower encircling a small spring en route to the falls in Yosemite. I've come across many species of Monkey flower on this trip, understandably with as many as 150 species in this genus, a large number of them in North America. Monkey flowers have opposite leaves, this one bearing lobed leaves that become deeply lobed closer to the stem. According to Wiki, this plant concentrates sodium chloride and other salts from the soil in which it grows and so Native Americans used it as a salt substitute to flavor wild game; the whole plant is edible though very salty and bitter unless thoroughly cooked.

Wolf Lichen (Letharia vulpina)

This lichen, looking less neon here as it is beginning to dry out, grew in bright green, ecto-cooler patches on the sides of trees. Against dark brown or reddish bark, its color was vivid. It is considered a fructicose lichen meaning that it is many branched. Due to its vulpinic acid, toxic when consumed, Ranger Phaedra informed me it was once used as wolf poison, hence its name.

Rabbitbush (Chrysothamnus spp.)
Sagebrush (Artemisia spp.)
I feature Rabbitbush and Sagebrush because they were so prevalent in the in both the desert landscape of the canyons as well as the arid lands of California. As far as I know Rabbitbush does not have any edibility however the flowers were used as a yellow dye. The seeds of Sagebrush were used by Native peoples, eaten raw or dried and ground into a meal, although they are said to be very bitter. I will remember Sagebrush for the amazing fragrance it lent to the air during a hard rain.

Sunflower (Helianthus spp.)
This many branching sunflower I found growing beside a dried up riverbed in Horseshoe Canyon. If you remember, this is where my father and I hiked to see the petroglyphs. Perhaps ancestors of this very plant went to feed the ancients peoples who called this canyon home. The seeds are edible raw and also have a history of being dried and ground into a fine meal which was made into gruel or sometimes cakes (with the addition of grease) making them handy to take on longer journeys- kind of like an old school granola bar! I saw this plant not only in Utah and California but in great abundance through the prairie states often growing on the side of the road as a weed.

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