Pineapple weed (Matricaria discoidea) is a common introduced small herb found in compacted soils of disturbed areas, such as the borders of dirt trails. The whole plant is edible raw. The foliage is bitter but the flowers are sweet. The flower looks and smells like chamomile (they’re related), and have similar properties (calming, soporific, pleasant tasting) as chamomile when brewed into tea.
Beach strawberry (Fragaria chiloensis) is common on dunes along California’s coast from Santa Barbara to Oregon. Its fruits look like miniature commercial strawberries and are delicious!
Sea Rocket: tasty beach greens
Sea rocket, Cakile maritima, is a tasty and juicy plant found all along California’s coast. The whole plant is edible. Like other plants in the mustard family (Brassicaceae), it has a strong spicy taste. It is invasive, so don’t feel bad about gathering your fill!
Slugs as food
I’ve been really sluggish to post this summer, so I’m posting about slugs!
Did you know there is (or at least was) an annual banana slug festival including a cookoff competition in California? It was held at Russian River.
The banana slug is the mascot of UC Santa Cruz! It is a quite large yellow slug, found in the redwood forest and surrounding coastal areas of California and Oregon. This was probably the species eaten by the below-mentioned California Indian tribes.
Lolangkok Sinkyone ate slugs. First, a slender stick was thrust through the head to hold the slug. Then, it’s belly was slit open lengthwise to remove the dark insides. It was then dried. Before it was eaten, it was roasted in hot ashes (Baumhoff 1958:195).
Slugs found in the woods were eaten by the Pomo, usually in the rainy season. They were pierced with a hazel twig, being strung on a row and spit-roasted over a fire (Gifford 1987:20).
The banana slug (Ariolimax) was eaten as a starvation food by the Yurok and Karok (Lightfoot and Parrish 2009).
The Yuki, neighbors to the above-mentioned tribes, and living in areas where the banana slug was common, did not eat slugs at all (Foster 1944:167).
Baumhoff, Martin A. 1958. California Athabascan groups. Anthropological Records 16 (5):162-230. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.
Foster, George M. 1944. A summary of Yuki culture. Anthropological Records 5 (3):155-244. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.
Gifford, E. W. 1967. Ethnographic notes on the Southwestern Pomo. Anthropological Records 25. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.
Lightfoot, K.G. and O. Parrish. 2009. California Indians and their environment: an introduction. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.
Blue Elderberry Ethnobotany
ADOXACEAE – Muskroot Family
Sambucus nigra ssp. caerulea (Raf.) R. Bolli
S. glauca Nutt., S. mexicana
Blue elderberry, pale elder, elderberry
Indian names (the vertical bars should be horizontal over the letter they follow, as should be the umlauts):
Ke|-we|’ ma:m—ke|-we|’ (+ma:m for the berry, Yuki), chin-so:k’ (Wailaki), no|-ko|m-he|-in’-e| (Concow), ba:-te|’ ka:-la|’ (Yokia), kit-ta|’ (+bu-ki|’ for the berry, Calpella, Potter Valley, Little Lake), ga-lu|’ bu-ki|’ (also the berry, Little Lake)
USE FOR FOOD
Berries – eaten by the Shasta (Dixon 1907). Eaten by Mendocino area Indians and Kashaya Pomo raw, dried for the winter, or sugar added and made into pies, canned, and jellied (Chesnut 1902, Goodrich et al. 1980).
USES FOR MEDICINE
Flowers – flower stalks are dried in the sun, then put in a bag and shaken til the flowers fall off (Goodrich et al. 1980). Dried flowers were kept in most Indian’s homes (Chesnut 1902). Made into a lotion used for fevers, sprains and bruises, or made into an antiseptic wash for itch and for open sores in domestic animals (Chesnut 1902). Taken internally by the Little Lake to stop lung bleeding in consumption (Chesnut 1902). An infusion was used to break a fever (Goodrich et al. 1980).
Inner bark – is a strong emetic, but was seldom used by Mendocino Co. Indians (Chesnut 1902).
Root – a decoction was used as a healing lotion on open sores and cuts (Goodrich et al. 1980).
USES FOR TOOLS
Wood – the very soft pith (innermost wood) was used as tinder for firestarting with flint and steel (Chesnut 1902). The soft wood was used as a spindle stick for friction firestarting (Chesnut 1902). Sticks with the pith removed were used for making syringes or squirt guns, whistles, flutes, and clapping sticks, the latter consisting of a split stick wrapped together at one end which was held and the other end struck against the palm or leg (Chesnut 1902, Goodrich et al. 1980).
Habitat: open woods and canyons or moist flats of hill country along streams, 0-3070 m (Goodrich et al. 1980, Calflora).
Notes: previously in the honeysuckle family (Caprifoliaceae).
Flowers: early – mid-summer. Berries: late summer. Root: late summer – fall. Branches: fall. (Goodrich et al. 1980)
Methods to Gather Wasps and Bees to Eat
Apidae and Vespidae – bees and wasps
Larvae (and pupae) of wild bees (Andrena spp.), yellow jackets (Dolichovespula spp. And Vespula spp.), hornets, and other wasps (Polistes spp.) were eaten by many tribes, often raw, and considered delicacies (Powers 1877, Essig 1931, Heizer and Elsasser 1980). First, nests were smoked to stupify the adults (Essig 1931).
To locate a yellowjacket nest, the Sierra Miwok would set out (presumably in an open sunny place) a grasshopper leg with a (magenta-colored) dry seed pod of a grass (Holcus lanatus) or a white flower attached (Barrett and Gifford 1933, Lightfoot and Parrish). They waited for a yellowjacket to seize the bait, then followed it to the nest by keeping an eye on the easily-visible seed pod or flower (Barrett and Gifford 1933).
In one method for gathering ground-nesting yellowjackets, a nest was located, then early in the morning before the yellowjackets began flying, a fire was built close to the hole and smoke from pine needles forced down the hole with a fan (Heizer and Elsasser 1980, Lightfoot and Parrish 2009), which the Costanoans made with hawk feathers (Levy 1978). Once the yellowjackets were stupefied, the nest was dug out and carried to a prepared bed of coals (Heizer and Elsasser 1980). The nest was roasted, the dead larvae shaken out into a tray, mashed, then boiled with hot stones (Heizer and Elsasser 1980). This was served with manzanita (Arctostaphylos spp.) berries or acorn meal (Heizer and Elsasser 1980).
The northeastern Yavapai ate yellowjacket nests (i.e. probably the larvae and pupae along with nest material) (Gifford 1936). The Northern Maidu eagerly sought yellowjacket larvae (probably also the pupae, see Taylor 1975) to eat (Dixon 1905), as did many other tribes.
The European honeybee (Apis mellifera L.) was only introduced in the mid-1800’s (Essig 1934) and its honey was collected by the Wiyot and other tribes who also ate the larvae, sometimes smoking out the adult bees with a damp tule smudge (Lightfoot and Parrish 2009). The small quantities of honey which could be found only in the nests of bumblebees (Bombus spp.) and other native wild bees were eaten by the Foothill Yokuts and probably other tribes (Heizer and Elsasser 1980, Jacknis 2004).
Vespula lewisi larvae, pupae, and adults.
Japanese wasp collection method: kill a frog and leave in open, attach a small piece of its meat with a small piece of floss silk. When the wasp arrives and cuts a piece of meat from the frog, people replace this piece with the one having floss-silk attached. When it flies back to the nest the run after by following the floss-silk. The underground nest is smoked with firecrackers and the stunned wasps are collected (FIN 1988 1:2; 2) (FIN 8(3):2).
To find wasp nests, traditional wasp hunters in Japan tie a long silk thread to the waist of a captured adult wasp. Then they follow the silk thread and wasp as it flies back to its nest. Smoke is used to drive the wasp adults from their nests and the larvae are then gathered. (Gordon 1998)
In Java, wasp colonies are cut from branches, enclosed in bag and immersed in hot water to kill adults, larvae and pupae then removed and steamed or fried (Food Insect Newsletter 11(3):3).
Social ground nesting wasps in Japan are colected by placing a small charge of gunpowder into the nest entrance with a long stick and light the fuse. The explosion stuns the wasp and can be collected without stinging. Another method is removing all clothes, quietly approaching the nest, tear it up and remove the larvae. Beekeepers in Sudan are usually naked but for a loincloth and simply flick off bees that land on them. The presence of clothes is said to annoy the bees.
Loquats, Plums, and Urban Foraging
Here are a few pics of some of my daily hauls from neighborhood fruit trees in Berkeley. A huge bagful of loquats or plums each took about 10 minutes to collect. I had to stuff myself with fruit all day long to keep from letting them rot. These are both great fruits for canning, but I prefer them fresh. Especially loquats, they are so good. And I seem to be the only one to collect fruits around here. Most of the fruit falls to the ground and rots. I did a little climbing to collect efficiently, but anyone could clean up on fruits in the neighborhood in the late spring and early summer.
Here is a cool website that maps the location of fruit trees in urban areas across the world.:
It was invented in the SF Bay Area, so the data are especially rich here.
Elderberry (Sambucus sp.) is a fantastic tree to make pipes from. (It also has edible flowers, berries, and many other uses). It’s easy to make pipes from elderberry because it’s inner pith (the central tissue of a large woody stem) is very soft and spongy. To make a pipe, the California Indians would ram the pith of sections of elderberry sticks with sharpened, fire-hardened sticks of a hard wood such as mountain mahogany (Cercocarpus betuloides). Such simple tubes of elderberry were packed with tobacco and smoked, or formed the stem of a pipe having a bowl of stone or clay.
I have not read of any Indians making pipes like mine above. I cut sticks in sections just behind a right angle bend, and on the other side of the fork, left room for the pipe stem. So after I formed a tube from the main length, I carved out a bowl from the nub of the fork, and carefully connected the bottom of the bowl to the tube with a thin tube I drilled perpendicular to the first tube. I used a long flathead screwdriver that I sharpened at the tip for the initial drilling, then cleaned out the tubes with a round bastard file. I stained the pipes with linseed oil to protect them. The staining really brings out the beautiful patterns left on the inner bark by bark beetles.
I used only dead, downed wood, so there was no need to dry or season the wood, nor cut any live tissue. The species in the SF Bay Area is Sambucus nigra ssp. caerulea. The first few uses, I smoked plentiful material and didn’t inhale, in order to “cure” the bowl; leaving it thoroughly burnt inside so future smokes don’t have me inhaling elderberry wood smoke. (The pic shows them freshly cut; after curing the bowls are charred black).
I have been using such pipes for smoking herbal blends for years and prefer them (for functionality) any other I’ve ever owned. I’ve made about six of all sizes. They each took about 30 minutes total work time.
Sugar Pine Tree Uses of the California Indians
Pinus lambertiana Dougl. – Sugar Pine
The sugar pine is a titan amongst its august congeners. It is the tallest (70′-200′) and heaviest pine species in the world. It also has the longest pine cones in the world, reaching over two feet long.
It’s range is thick in California and Oregon in the Sierras (reaching Carson City, NV), Northern California mountains, and the Cascades. It’s also found in the coast range of Big Sur, the mountains of Southern California, and into Baja California. Its preferred habitat is slopes in yellow pine forest and red fir forest (Calflora.org). It occurs from 390-9710 ft (Calflora.org), but is more common at higher elevations, about 2500-9000 ft. (Goodrich et al. 1980).
Throughout its range, Indian tribes found the sugar pine tree very useful, even for a pine tree, which are generally species with many edible parts and uses.
The most important resource this species provided were its seeds / pine nuts. These were gathered in the summer (Goodrich et al. 1980). When gathered in sufficient quantity, the large seeds from the long cones are as highly esteemed as those from the Digger pine, Pinus sabiniana (Chesnut 1902, Dixon 1905, Dixon 1907). Sugar pine nuts were known to be eaten by Mendocino area Indians, Northern Maidu, Shasta, and Kashaya Pomo (Chesnut 1902, Dixon 1905, Dixon 1907, Goodrich et al. 1980). The nuts were eaten fresh or dried for winter (Goodrich et al. 1980). Stored nuts were eaten whole or pounded into a flour and mixed with pinole, a blend of dried and powdered grains and small seeds (Goodrich et al. 1980).
To remove cones from a high tree limb, the Kashaya Pomo used a deer antler lashed to the end of a straight pole (Goodrich et al. 1980). As with other pine species, trees were probably also climbed to cut down branches with cones and shake down cones, in addition to simply picking off the ground.
The pine nuts were steamed in an earth oven by the Shasta (Dixon 1907). A hole was dug, a fire was burned inside it to heat a layer of rocks at the bottom, then the coals and ashes were raked out (Dixon 1907). Then the pine nuts, wrapped in leaves, were placed on the hot rocks (Dixon 1907). Then water was poured in, more hot rocks placed on top, and the whole covered with earth, allowing the oven to steam for several hours (Dixon 1907). The nuts were then dried and stored (Dixon 1907). When wanted to eat, the nuts were pounded fine, winnowed, and made into small cakes (Dixon 1907). Often powdered pine nuts were mixed with powdered salmon (Dixon 1907).
The sap of sugar pine tastes sweet; that is what gave the tree its common name. The sap was eaten and chewed as gum or candy by the Northern Maidu (Dixon 1905), Shasta (Dixon 1907), Kashaya Pomo (Goodrich et al. 1980), and Wintu (Jacknis 2004). It was gathered from spring through fall (Goodrich et al. 1980).
One form of this sap was valued as a medicine. The sugary exudation on partially burned bases of trees was valued for cathartic properties (Chesnut 1902). The sap was also used in making whistles (Goodrich et al. 1980), forming the crucial seal for generating sound. Just as other pine trees, its sap had many different uses as a sealant or mastic, such as hafting obsidian blades to wood handles or arrowheads to a shaft.
Although such a use for this particular species goes unmentioned in ethnographies I have studied so far, the inner bark of all pine trees is edible, and furnishes a easily-gathered, calorie-rich food.
Sugar pine logs were used by the Shasta for making dugout, square-ended canoes (Dixon 1907).
Like many other pine species, the sugar pine boughs and needles were commonly used to cover the floors of dwellings and pad beds (Barrett and Gifford 1951). However, Sugar pine boughs were specifically excluded from use as thatching, despite boughs of other pine tree species being commonly used for thatching (Barrett and Gifford 1951). I can only conjecture a higher ratio of sugar to terpene content compared to other pines makes the sugar pine needles more susceptible to decay, making it inferior thatching material.
This tree was also sometimes host to the Pandora moth (Carolin and Knopf 1968). The Pandora moth caterpillar was a crucial, abundant food of the Paiute and other Sierra Indians.
Barrett, S.A. and E.W. Gifford. 1951. Miwok houses. In The California Indians: a source book. Edited by R.F. Heizer and M.A. Whipple.
Carolin, V.M. Jr. and J.A.E. Knopf. 1968. The pandora moth. USDA Forest Service Forest Pest Leaflet 114: 1-7.
Chesnut, V. K. 1902. Plants used by the Indians of Mendocino County, California. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC.
Dixon, Roland. B. 1907. The Shasta. American Museum of Natural History Bulletin 17(5).
Goodrich, J., Lawson, C., and Lawson, V. P. 1980. Kashaya Pomo plants. American Indian Studies Center, University of California, Los Angeles, CA.
Jacknis, Ira J (ed.). 2004. Food in California Indian culture. Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley.
Ants as Native Californian Cuisine
California Indians caught ants by spreading a damp skin or fresh-peeled bark over ant hills, which immediately attracted ants to the surface (Sutton 1988). When the skin or bark was covered with ants, it was carefully removed and shaken into a container where they were confined until dead, and then they were sun-dried and stored (Bodenheimer 1951).
The Nisenan and Achumawi were known to eat ants (Olmsted and Stewart 1978, Wilson and Towne 1978). Mono Lake Paiute ate the larvae of ants (Sutton 1988). Ant eggs, pupae, larvae, and adults are all edible and eaten by many aboriginal cultures worldwide (Bodenheimer 1951), thus it is likely the California Indians ate all these life stages.
Surprise Valley Paiute gathered ants “early in the morning when they were all bunched on the top of the hill” (Sutton 1988). Since ants carry their pupae to the top of the mound in the morning when the sun hits it, this may suggest the Paiute were aware of this activity and exploited it to easily collect the pupae, which are probably the preferred ant food. Alternatively, the gathering of ants was conducted in the early morning since they were less active then. Ants were frequently collected during the frozen winter (Sutton 1988), perhaps for the same reason, or since other food was scarce at the time.
Some Indians dug out ants, larvae, and pupae (the latter two being probably erroneously called eggs), and winnowed them to boil alone or with other foods (Sutton 1988). Ants were sometimes ground into flour for storage (Sutton 1988). Ants were preferred even to grasshoppers by the Northern Paiute since they contained more fat (Sutton 1988). Ants were killed with live coals then eaten dry, or stored to later thicken soups (Sutton 1988).
The larvae and adults of carpenter ants (Camponotus spp) were enjoyed by California Indians, according to John Muir (1972). The heads of the adults were bitten off and spat out and the “tickly acid body” eaten with enjoyment (Muir 1972). Carpenter ants were dug out of their nest early in the morning when it was still cold by the Western Shoshone (Sutton 1988), perhaps allowing gathering with fewer stings. The ants were winnowed from the soil with a basket, killed with hot coals in a parching tray, and boiled into a mush (Sutton 1988). These ants are very large: probably the reason the Indians preferred them. However, their nests harbor fewer individuals than those of smaller ants.
A few weeks ago, I collected a few dozen carpenter ant workers and drones. I broke apart the their wood log nest, and put down wet paper towels over the swarm, which they clung to, biting. I then flicked them off the paper towels into a cooler with a few inches of cold water, where they drowned or were cooled into immobility. I fried them in a pan with a few drops of oil on medium for about a minute, then ate them whole and plain. The workers have a great lime flavor and a nice crunch. The drones don’t have that zingy flavor (lacking formic acid glands and stingers), but taste mild and nutty. Overall, they were a great snack that was easy to collect.
Honeypot ants (Myrmecocystus spp.) are found in the deserts of Southern California, and are known to have been eaten by Southwestern US Indians and Mexican Indians (Bodenheimer 1951, Sutton 1988). Specialized “nurse” or “replete” workers of this ant, living in special chambers of the nest, store “honey,” or a very sweet solution, in their greatly engorged abdomens to regurgitate to other ants in times of famine (Bodenheimer 1951, Sutton 1988). These nurse ants were collected by Indians and eaten or alcohol or medicine (Bodenheimer 1951). I wouldn’t try to go dig up a nest without some serious expertise on their nest structure though. One professional entomologist in Arizona spent 12 hours digging an 8 foot trench in the desert to get just a few handfuls of repletes! If anything, this testifies to the supreme ecological knowledge of hunter-gatherers, especially regarding the hymenopterous (bees, wasps, and ants) nesting and reproductive biology.
Bodenheimer, F.S. 1951. Insects as human food. Dr. W. Junk Publishers, The Hague, The Netherlands.
Muir, J. 1972. My first summer in the Sierra. Norman S. Berg, Publisher, Sellanraa, GA.
Olmsted, D.L. and O.C. Stewart. 1978. Achumawi. In Handbook of North American Indians Vol. 8: California, eds. W.C. Sturtevant and R.F. Heizer, p. 228. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.
Sutton, M.Q. 1988. Insects as food: aboriginal entomophagy in the Great Basin. Ballena Press anthropological papers: no. 33.
Wilson, N.L. and A.H. Towne. 1978. Nisenan. In Handbook of North American Indians Vol. 8: California, eds. W.C. Sturtevant and R.F. Heizer, p. 390. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.