Tag Archives: bark

Moldy sugar pine cone hanging from my bookshelf.

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.

My colored pencil drawing of a deer fawn standing in water.

Deer Drive Hunt Method of California Indians

It’s open deer season for about another month here in California, and many hunters are afield trying to shoot a buck. I just spent 5 days stillhunting for deer (plus squirrels and mountain quail) with my bow and arrows. I only saw a few does, so plan on an ambush-style hunt next time. Common modern methods include sitting in a blind at an area deer are known to visit, stillhunting/stalking, luring with calls, decoys, and scents, and perhaps most effective of all, group drive hunts.

The California Indians employed all this methods, and had many more elaborate and clever ways of capturing deer. They often disguised themselves as deer, taxidermied head with antlers and all, imitating a grazing deer while approaching, getting as close as inside the herd if necessary before shooting several before they could all escape. Such a method is risky now since other hunters are liable to see and shoot you. The Indians usually knew everyone in the area and when and where they were hunting, and were also probably more able to distinguish a imitator from a real deer. The Indians also used snares to catch deer, sometimes made from the fine edges of the leaves of Iris douglasiana.

Group drive hunts of many varieties were the norm among California Indians, and such hunts probably served to provide the majority of the deer meat and other products throughout the year for most tribes. Modern hunters do group drive hunts; they post half the hunters in a line at a good shooting spot, then the other half walks spread out in a line, driving deer toward the posted line. The Indians often did this with the posted line on the opposite side of a creek, shooting the deer as they crossed the water and were in the open and vulnerable while swimming. Shooting animals near watering areas is illegal in California now, but other natural or artificial formations can assist in a drive hunt. The Indians in the Mendocino County area of California used a long fence of maple bark to form a trap line to direct deer to a central spot to be killed by hidden hunters there.

The inner bark of bigleaf maple (Acer macrophyllum) was used to make a deer trap, being cut into bands about an inch wide, and fastened together for over a mile long into a continuous roll, which was then carried to the appropriate spot, and the band strung on stakes about four feet high to create a very long V-shaped fence, with the apex extending into a valley and the ends terminating at the mouth of two adjacent canyons (Chesnut 1902). This location was chosen for its excellent browse with deer known to feed there (Chesnut 1902). When the fence was strung taut, and deer were feeding inside the V, Indians disguised like animals, and each carrying brittle sticks, a piece of smoldering oak, and a bone dagger were stationed at the end of the lines and in the middle, and some then stealthily approached the deer from the open part of the V (Chesnut 1902). If deer came near the band of maple, one of the Indians would shake the band, frightening the deer back, and if deer attempted to pass an approaching man he would break a stick, or expose the glowing oak bark (Chesnut 1902). In this manner, the deer were corralled into the apex of the V, where the Indians would suddenly jump up and kill the deer with bone daggers (Chesnut 1902).

A maple band seems easily replaced with metal or plastic banding that similarly made an alarming noise when rattled. Since making a long band of inner bark of maple is the most time-consuming part of this method, modern hunters might profitably mimic this method to legally hunt deer. Of course the bone daggers would need to be replaced with bow or firearms legal for taking deer.

The deer provided a principal meat source for California Indians, and provided bones, antlers, hide, sinew, brains, and hoofs to make dozens of essential daily tools of the Indians. Colonists stove to extirpate all predators they encountered, so in current times, deer overpopulation is a major problem throughout California and the US. Hunters, especially deer hunters, are the number one group of (financial) supporters of conservation in the US. So do your job to help conserve more public lands such as our National Forests and BLM lands and keep the deer populations at healthy numbers for them and the ecosystem by buying a hunting license and deer tags and feeding your family the healthiest and cheapest meat in the world!


Fried Fiddleheads and Further Functions of Ferns

Fiddleheads on a ridge in Dark Canyon, Eldorado National Forest

Fiddleheads on a ridge in Dark Canyon, Eldorado National Forest


The fiddleheads of most (if not all) species of ferns are edible. The fiddlehead refers to the unfurling young fronds that appear in late winter through spring, appearing singly for new plants, or at the base or middle of full-grown ferns. They can be eaten raw, but are better after being lightly fried.

The species pictured below, Polystichum munitum (Kaulf.) C. Presl, aka western sword fern, is very common in the east bay hills. Also pictured below are its fiddleheads that I fried and ate this spring.




It is somewhat asparagus-like in flavor and texture. It makes a great side dish or could be an important survival food if lost in a fern-rich area.

Other uses:

Fronds of Polystichum munitum were also used by the Kashaya Pomo Indians of California to line earth pit ovens for slow-cooking many types of foods, as well as to line basins formed in sand for leaching acorn or buckeye meal (Goodrich et al. 1980).

Other fern species and uses:

The juice of fiddleheads of Pteridium aquilinum (L.) Kuhn, aka Western (or common) brackenfern were used by the Kashaya Pomo as a body deodorant (Goodrich et al. 1980).

The root of P. aquilinum was a staple food of California Indians of the Sierras (Chesnut 1902). The fronds of this species were used for beating down grass fires, and lining berry baskets for long distance travel (Chesnut 1902).

Hard wood from roots of P. aquilinum were easily split into flat bands for use in basketry (Chesnut 1902). Gathered from summer til fall, the root was lightly pounded to remove the bark, then the dark core was split into layers (Goodrich et al. 1980). Such bands were chewed to remove the greenish fibers, leaving the remaining black fibers, or buried in mud for a week to turn them black (Chesnut 1902).

Equisetum spp., aka horsetail (equus + setum = horsetail in latin) is a common fern on streambanks and other wet freshwater areas. Species in this genus have many uses. The hard outer “skin” can be peeled off, revealing a watery flesh with a nice taste. Though not quite substantial for easing hunger, it provides many vitamins and minerals. Horsetails are rich in silicates (which make them rough to the touch) and accumulate metals in their tissues. While this makes them risky to gather to eat from areas polluted with metals, it also makes them high in iron; a crucial vitamin.

The Kashaya Pomo used a decoction of the whole Equisetum arvense L. plant for washing itching or open sores, and drank a decoction of the whole E. laevigatum plant for kidney trouble and associated back trouble (Goodrich et al. 1980). The Kashaya Pomo also drank a decoction of E. telmateia Ehrh. stems for menstrual cramps (Goodrich et al. 1980).

The silicate-rich “skin” of horsetails were used like sandpaper for finishing wood such as on arrows (Goodrich et al. 1980). They were also used to polish wampum, the shell discs strung on strings used for money by American Indians (Chesnut 1902). The name “scouring rush” was given to this genus by American settlers since it was so useful for scrubbing metal pots and pans (rush meaning a grass-like plant growing near water).

Adiantum jordanii Mueller (=A. emarginatum Hook.), aka California maidenhair fern, is a beautiful fern growing on seeps, wet streambanks, and other wet areas. Its smooth, jet-black and mahogany leaf stems were used for keeping earlobe holes open and increasing their size (Chesnut 1902, Goodrich et al. 1980). Stems were split lengthwise, dried, and used as a material for basket design by the Kashaya Pomo (Goodrich et al. 1980). The stems are perfectly divided to be half black on one side and half mahogany on the other, which, along with their polished appearance, gives them a notable beauty (see pics below of whole maidenhair plant and its stem):




Chesnut, V. K. 1902. Plants used by the Indians of Mendocino County, California. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC.

Goodrich, J., Lawson, C., and Lawson, V. P. 1980. Kashaya Pomo plants. American Indian Studies Center, University of California, Los Angeles, CA.