Tag Archives: bay laurel

Bug Honeydew was a Sweet Treat for California Indians

Certain insects in the true bug order are specialized to only feed on plant sap, including all aphids (Aphidae) and scales (Coccidae), and most of the planthoppers, leafhoppers, froghoppers, and cicadas (Hemiptera:Auchenorrhyncha aka Homoptera). These insects have syringe-like mouthparts to pierce the sap and/or water-conducting vessels of leaves, veins, stems, and fruits. Their adaptation to their extremely watery diet has also given rise to a very long intestinal tract with which they can absorb most of the nutrients of the sap before it passes out. But this still isn’t enough to absorb the sap’s sugars and other nutrients completely, so their frass (insect excrement) is very sweet.

A) shows an aphid piercing plant tissue with its syringe-like mouthpart B) shows how this stylet pierces a single cell (in this case making it ideal for sampling cell contents for an experiment by a plant physiologist) Credit: http://5e.plantphys.net/article.php?ch=t&id=136

This sugar-rich exudation of these insects is called “honeydew” or formerly, “Indian honey.” You may have noticed this phenomenon if you’ve parked your car under a tree infested with aphids, leaving the car and pavement below covered in a sticky clear film. It can also be noted on trees that have sooty mold growing on their lower leaves, often to the point of blackening them almost completely. The sooty mold grows on the honeydew medium. Honeydew is produced by very many species of insects on many species of plants, but is produced in most abundance by Aphids on trees.

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black-margined aphids and honeydew (shiny spots) on a pecan leaf. Credit: http://northernpecans.blogspot.com/2013/09/black-margined-aphids-coat-pecan-leaves.html

[As an interesting aside, many species of ants eat the honeydew of sap-feeders who receive in exchange protection by the ants.]

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Black ant feeding on aphid honeydew. Note the ant stroking the aphid’s back, which encourages aphids to secrete honeydew. Credit: http://mattcolephotography.blogspot.com/2011/09/ants-and-aphids.html

Honeydew was one of the few sugary foods known to the American Indians. Others were of course honey, and in some deserts of the US southwest, honeypot ants, which have specialized workers that fill their abdomens with a sugary solution to form a sort of food storage to make it through lean times. However, honey was very limited in supply until the introduction of the European honey bee since native bees produce very little honey (Essig 1931). And honeypot ants are quite limited in distribution and take extensive digging to collect a small amount of honeypots.

So effectively, honeydew was the only sweet food known to California Indians, and was therefore highly prized and collected with zeal.

Many different tribes of Indians used honeydew as a edible treat, and had various methods of collecting this nectar:

– In arid regions, honeydew is especially abundant on willows (Salix) growing along streams and on and under many shrubs, where it dried, adhered, and was collected (Essig 1931).

– In southeastern California, the Tübatulabal and Paiute collected honeydew deposited by aphids on reed or cane (Jacknis 2004).

– The Paiute collected honeydew on reed (Phragmites) by beating the dried honeydew into a basket, making it into a ball which they later softened by a fire and ate like candy (Jacknis 2004).

– The Tübatulabal cut, flayed, and dried common reed [Phragmites australis (Cav.) Steudel], beat off honeydew crystals (onto a hide or the like), winnowed out the debris, and cooked it into a stiff dough with cold water (Smith 1978, Jacknis 2004). When this dough dried, it formed a hard loaf from which lumps were broken off to eat with chia (Salvia columbariae Benth.) or acorn and piñon pine (Pinus edulis Engelm.) seed gruel (Smith 1978, Jacknis 2004).

– The Yavapai and Papago picked and washed off honeydew from cane and willow, boiled it and allowed it to congeal into a sweet whitish loaf (Gifford 1936).

– Honeydew was especially abundant on the leaves and young stems of a common species of willow in the Yavapai territory on Date Creek (Gifford 1936). The branches with honeydew were broken off and stirred into water to make a refreshing drink (Gifford 1936).

– Honeydew was stored by the Paiute using a special shallow basket made of tule (Sutton 1995).

– The mealy plum aphid, Hyalopterus pruni (Geoffroy), although only introduced around 1879 from the Mediterranean region, was one species whose honeydew was eaten by the Indians (Heizer and Elsasser 1980).

The California Bay Laurel is one very common local species in the Bay Area that is often covered with aphid honeydew. Its leaves are edible (and very flavorful), so it has potential as a source of collecting local honeydew. In the right season, I will try to dry branches with a fresh layer of honeydew to beat off, or perhaps dip into water  to dissolve it.

REFERENCES

Essig, E.O. 1931. A history of entomology. The Macmillan Company, New York, NY.

Gifford, E.W. 1936. Northeastern and western Yavapai. University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology 34(4):268.

Heizer, R.F. and A.B. Elsasser. 1980. The natural world of California Indians. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.

Jacknis, I. 2004. Notes toward a culinary anthropology of Native California. In Food in California Indian culture. ed. Jacknis, I. Phoebe Apperson Hearst Museum of Anthropology, Berkeley, CA.

Smith, C.R. 1978. Tubatulabal. In Handbook of North American Indians Vol. 8: California, eds. W.C. Sturtevant and R.F. Heizer, p. 444. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.

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Winter Foraging

Ringtail Cats

On Saturday, Emily and I went on a foray for mushrooms at a park on the SF peninsula. We were with MSSF people who were out to collect for the fungus fair which was the following day. But the rains were super late this fall, and despite the fact that it poured on Friday, the mushrooms were apparently quite scarce. Chris Schoenstein, the leader of the foray, told us just one good rain in Sept. would’ve probably been enough, and kept pointing out areas that were rife with mushrooms on the same day the year prior.

Good thing plants are always around. I wasn’t too bothered by the dearth of mushrooms since there was plenty of edible and useful flora to gather. See my cornucopia of a haul:

Image Toyon berries, bay nuts, buckeye seeds, soaproot bulbs with fibrous covering and young shoots, mint leaves, two spp. of mushrooms, an oak…

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Oyster Mushroom Gathering

Ringtail Cats

The rains have finally begun here in the east SF bay area, and you know what all they promise?…. Mushrooms!!! That’s right, from the toxic to tasty, they’re a-springing up everywhere in the dank woods.

Now being from a highly fungophobic culture, no one has ever personally showed me what wild mushrooms are good to eat. Although Chris Hobbs once ID’d some pics I’d taken of a Boletus sp. for me back when we were co-gsi’s for intro bio:

Boletus rubripes Boletus rubripes – bitter bolete

Boletus rubripes - bitter bolete Boletus rubripes – bitter bolete

But with All That the Rain Promises and More, plus Mushrooms Demystified by David Arora, perhaps the best field guides ever written on any subjects, I’ve finally gone and collected huge bunches of wild edible oyster mushrooms, and feasted on their tasty flesh!

I was also able to identify some toxic and artistic mushrooms on the same foray!

I love eating…

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The Useful California Bay Laurel Tree

Ringtail Cats

NAMES AND TAXONOMY

California Bay Laurel

Umbellularia californica (Hooker and Arnott) Nuttall

Also called the bay laurel, bay, California laurel, Oregon myrtle, myrtlewood (name used for wood used in furniture, carvings, and other products), pepperwood, and peppernut (the latter two from the aromatic wood and nuts), and headache tree (from its ability to cause and relieve headache with its aroma).

It is the only member of its genus, which was widespread in the Pliocene.

In the august family Lauraceae – the same family as the commercial avocado, the sweet bay from which comes the commercial cooking spice (commonly sold in whole-leaf form), and the laurel tree common in many mythologies, often featured as a symbol of peace and victory (ancient Olympic games champions were crowned with a laurel wreath, and the pigeon on Noah’s arc returned bearing laurel leaves, indicating the floodwaters had receded and land was nearby). The most…

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