Tag Archives: food

Crayfish Catching by California Indians

I like to free dive with snorkel and mask, and often find crayfish, which I’ve caught many times by hand (though I usually let them go). I find crayfish delicious, so I did a little research on the methods the California Indians used to catch and eat them.

Freshwater crayfish were eaten by the Indians of Northwestern California. The Yurok Sometimes caught crayfish by fastening a piece of salmon onto the end of a string tied to a pole. This bait was set in the water and when the crayfish grabbed it, they were pulled in. Instead of salmon, sometimes a ball of grass was attached, to which the claws or legs of the crayfish were entangled as they were pulled out of the water. The Karok used this method but with salmon gills as bait.

The Karok trapped crayfish by tying salmon gills above or in a basket that was set beside or under a rock, then lifting the basket out when the crayfish were feeding on the bait. Another Karok trap was a large, openwork, plate-shaped basket, with a four-foot stick attached to the center to keep the basket horizontal when lowered into a still place in the river. Salmon gills were placed on the basket as bait. Once the crayfish were lured onto the basket, it was lifted out quickly.


Shasta crayfish (Pacifastacus fortis), the only remaining native crayfish in California, is critically endangered. It’s endemic to Shasta County, where, before widespread environmental damage, it was caught by the Shasta Indians. Most crayfish in CA now are the introduced, invasive, signal crayfish (P. leniusculus).

The Shasta caught crayfish using the same type of trap, except instead of the four-foot stick, several strings were attached to the basket’s edges, and a stone was laid on it with the bait to weigh it down. This trap was used in about four feet of water in the evening. After 10-15 minutes, it was gently pulled to the surface.

Often, crayfish were simply caught by hand by the Yurok and Karok at the water’s edge. The Tolowa caught them by hand under rocks in streams while people were swimming.

The Karok roasted crayfish in ashes or hot coals till they were deep red. The Tolowa cooked them in ashes or in an earth oven. The Shasta boiled them in a basket with hot rocks.


Kroeber, A. L. and S. A. Barrett. 1960. Fishing among the Indians of Northwestern California. Anthropological Records 21(1):1-210. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.

June Bugs are Edible

It’s already the time of year where June bugs are flying to my porch lights, much to the glee of my cats, who enjoy these fun toys.

June bugs are not known widely as edible, but according to one or two sources, they were food for some California Indians.

Bear River Indians ate June bugs (Nomland 1938:111). They were roasted in a fire and eaten immediately (Nomland 1938:111).

June bugs / June beetles, specifically including the white-striped June beetle
(Scarabaeidae: Polyphylla crinita and P. spp.), were listed by Essig (1931) as insects eaten by the California Indians.


June beetle: Polyphylla sp.

Essig may have determined this based on Nomland’s (1938) ethnography of the Bear River Indians. That is the only other source I have found listing June bugs as food for the California Indians.

Unfortunately, neither source mentions whether the adults or grubs were eaten. Presumably, they refer to the adults since they are commonly encountered, whereas the grubs live underground feeding on roots.

I’m confident the grubs are edible also, as  related grubs in the scarab family, such as the rhinoceros beetle, are edible, and also live underground.

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

Nomland, Gladys Ayer. 1938. Bear River ethnography. Anthropological Records 2(2):90-126. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.

Sugar Pine Sap

Sugar pines (Pinus lambertiana) have the largest cones of any conifer in the world! Besides having edible inner bark and seeds like all pines, their sap is particularly sweet, thus their name. It can be collected from wounds or off the scales on the cone (you can see it as yellow gobs on the pictured cone). The Northern Maidu, Shasta, Kashaya Pomo, and Wintu Indians used the sap as a candy gum. The sap was collected in the summer and fall.

California Foragers's photo.
California Foragers's photo.
California Foragers's photo.

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.

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.

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.


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.]


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.


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.

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.

Eating Nettles

Ringtail Cats

Stinging nettles (genus Urtica) are widespread in Northern Hemisphere temperate regions and are all edible. Urtica is simple to ID; just touch it and if you immediately feel a burning, it’s a nettle! (Ur = burn in Latin, and urtica = nettle in Latin). The burning sensation tapers off in severity after a few minutes, but its after-effects (particularly felt when the afflicted part is put under hot water, or subjected to heat) can last up to a whole day. The chemical is formic acid (the same chemical in ant stings), which is injected by tiny hollow hairs covering all the aboveground plant parts.

If you don’t want to touch it, just look closely for densely packed hairs on the leaves, which become larger and more sparse on the stems, almost appearing like spines. But that’s not a fail-safe ID method unless you have otherwise familiarized yourself with its…

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Soap and Food from Soaproot

Ringtail Cats

Soaproot (Clorogalum pomeridium) gets its common name from its use as soap by the California Indians. The plant is also called amole or amole lily.

I collected soaproot  from a large patch this winter, as you can see I found it by its dried stalks and leaves, since only a few small young leaves were showing:


I made sure to leave the lower part of the root to resprout, place any seeds from the dried stalk into the hole, and re-cover it with dirt and litter. That’s how the Indians assured sustainable harvest (Anderson 2005). In fact, such gathering techniques often enhanced the growth of the bulb populations, since they co-evolved with disturbance from humans, rodents, pigs, and other consumers, they reproduce vegetatively, so the tilling and breaking up of the root, and spreading seed all act to make the population expand in number and size (Anderson 2005).


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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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