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ECI-03: Local Plants and Their Uses
Materials List:

3 plant posters

Pictures of 4 trees (kinds?)

Digging stick

Plant samples

  1. soap root,soap root brush

  2. Bay leaves and nuts

  3. Poison oak encased in clear contact paper

  4. Yerba buena leaves and seeped leaves for tea in thermos

  5. Rose hips

  6. Madrone bark

  7. Tule and some items made from tulle

  8. Willow branches and leaves

  9. Cattails, Douglas fir needles, currents (optional)

  10. Buckeye Pods

  11. Seeds from Pine cones

  12. Pine Needles

  13. Manzanita berries

  14. Manzanita leaves

  15. Blackberry vine

  16. California Redwood

  17. Chia seeds

  18. Douglas Fir cones

  19. Cattails

  20. Coast live oak

  21. Bay Laurel

  22. Acorns

  23. Bay nuts

  24. Black walnuts

  25. Curly Dock

  26. Pine nuts

  27. Blue Elderberry

  28. Horehound

Container of water to combine with ground soap root for demonstrating soap and glue

Damp and dry towels

Hot water in a thermos for making teas

Small paper cups

Grass basket

Pine needle basket


Indian hemp

Winnowing basket

Tule mat

(If acorn station is not being done in class, get acorns from refrigerator in office. Stones for crushing and grinding are in that learning station.)

ECI - 3

SOURCES: Lee Cole & Fran Stevenson Fall 1993


Students will become familiar with several local plants, how Native Americans used them and why plants are still important to us today.

SCIENCE THEMES: Systems and interactions, patterns of change

PROCESS SKILLS: Observing, comparing, relating, applying



Native or indigenous, bulb, corm, rhizome, digging stick, medicinal, fumigant, endangered, chaparral, woodland, grassland, riparian


Native Americans had a thorough knowledge of their environment, the plants and animals and where they could be found. For plant gathering, they had to know the best times to gather depending on the seasons, and how to dry and store them.

A good starting point would be a comparison of how and where our culture and Native American cultures obtain food, medicines, cloths, tools, etc. This would then lead to a discussion of the gathering, uses and storage of selected local indigenous plants by Native Americans
Start by comparing where and how modern societies obtain food, clothing and tools with where and how Native Americans obtained them. Spring, summer and fall were the best times for gathering, preparing and storing plants for food and medicine. Native Americans were not just gatherers, but also husbanded their plant supplies in order to provide the quantity needed. This meant that they would burn certain areas, dig to loosen the soil, prune certain plants and actually plant seeds, corms and bulbs.

The plants available in this station are:

1 Acorns (Use only if acorn grinding station is not being done in class. Acorns are in the ‘frig, pestles andgrinding rocks in NA-2 bag.) Acorns were picked by the tribe in the fall. Women ground, leached and cooked them with hot rocks. Oak trees were found all over California. There are 5 varieties, one of the favorites being the Black Oak with its large acorns which contain abundant oil. The Costanoans made more use of the coast live oak. These would be mixed with other local acorns. Burning underneath the trees would kill insects and moths.

2 Soap Root is a bulb surrounded by stiff hairs. The California Indians dug it up with a digging stick usually made from whatever was a local, easy to find, hard wood (in kit). Soap root is found in dry, shady areas or grassland. The root is 6" under ground. some sources say the root was eaten like a baked potato. It was also cut into small pieces and mixed with water to make soap or glue. It could also be sprinkled on a still pond where it would paralyze the fish. The outer hairs were tied and glued together to make a brush.

3 Bay Laurel tree. The leaves were medicinal. and could be gathered all year round. Today the leaves can be used as a flavoring in sauces and soups. The dampened leaves were tied around the head to cure headaches, burned in the sweat lodge, spread on the floor of houses, and the smoke from leaves acted as a fumigant against fleas. The bay nuts were gathered in late summer or fall and roasted.

4. Yerba Buena. The leaves are used for tea to aid digestion. It is a low-growing plant found on the forest floor. The leaves smell and the tea tastes like mint. It can be found all year, but it is more abundant in spring and summer.

5. Poison Oak. is a low bush, small tree or vine. The leaves can be green or, especially in the fall, red. It has white flowers in the spring which turn into waxy white berries. Native Americans cooked fish in the leaves and used the juice as a black dye, also rubbing it into tattoos to make them black. The Costanoans used the young shoots for making baskets and the leaves to wrap around baking bread.

6. Rose Hips are the fruit that forms after the white flower of the wild rose falls. The outer husk of the hip is eaten for its abundant vitamin C and brewed into tea for colds. Rose bushes can grow into large mounds and hedges and can be found in woods or fields.

7. Tule is a large marsh grass which grows along fresh water streams near the bay and marshy lakes. At one time it was very abundant and was used for houses, mats, skirt and boats. The stems are very light and spongy. The rhizomes were eaten and also used in basketry.

8. Madrone tree. The bark is an attractive red and constantly peels off the trunk as the tree grows, exposing a cool feeling green underbark. The peeled off bark as well as the roots were made into a tea to cure stomachaches.

9. Willow tree. The bark is similar to aspirin, with many uses! The branches were pruned periodically to encourage straight growth. These were used for arrow shafts, spears, hoops and formed the support frame for tule covering in Native American huts. Willows grow in a riparian environment (near streams and lakes.)


Time: 15 minutes

Choose 3 or 4 plants to discuss. Include where plant can be found, when it was harvested, how it was used and stored and any other facts from the list of plants under "Background Information" above. Keep this station participatory by making sure you focus on feeling, smelling and tasting.
Use acorn grinding only if the Acorn Station is not going to be used as part of the day’s presentation.

1. Acorn grinding - (use only if this station is not presented separately) Students crack acorns open with rocks and grind them on flat rocks ( included in acorn grinding station, acorns are in refrigerator in office.) See background information of station NA - 2.

2. Soap root - Show root covered with stiff hairs. Ask what hairs could be used for (brush.) Pass around the brush. Ask the students to feel the hairs. Explain all the uses of this important plant. Mix root pieces with water to make soap and glue. Have students feelthe solution. The root should not be eaten raw. Explain how roots are dug up with digging stick and pass a digging stick around.

3. Bay laurel - have students smell the leaves and pass around nuts. Ask if the smell reminds them of anything they have smelled at home. Explain the uses of this plant. Children can put leaves behind their ears as Native Americans did to keep insects away or to relieve headaches.

4. Yerba Buena - Pass around leaves to smell. Ask what they smell like. Bring a thermos with leaves already steeped in hot water. Pass around paper cups to taste (just a teaspoon each). Discuss uses of tea for refreshment and for medicine.

5. Poison oak - This plant's leaves will be mounted between contact paper to be passed around, Because it is poisonous, emphasize plant recognition. Three leaves, rounded lobes, color, etc. Explain some uses of this plant by Indians.

6. Rose Hips - Pass around 1 hip. Explain what they are. Remove outer husk and let students taste a small piece, it if they want to. Ask them what other plants and fruit are sources of vitamin C.

7. Tule - Pass around the artifacts made with this reed so students can feel how light and porous the stems are. Pass around the rhizomes. Define rhizome. Explain the many uses of this important plant.

8. Madrone - Show a picture of the tree and pass around the red bark. Explain how it was used (tea) and what it was used for. If you can get some of the berries, pass these around and have students taste a bit of the fruit. You can make tea as for #4. (suggestion - don't use both madrone and yerba buena tea, one is enough).

9. Willow tree - This would make a good conclusion since willow was used both for medicine and everyday objects. Pass around the willow branch. show how strong, but flexible, it is. Ask the students to bend the branch. Explain the various uses of the willow.

CONCLUSION: (5 minutes)

As you can see, Native Americans had a wide variety of foods and medicines derived from plants, so they had to know all the plants in their environment very well. Plants were not only used for food and medicine, but also for housing, tools, cordage (tools and cordage are demonstrated in other stations) and weapons. Some plants were indispensable because of their multiple uses, like the oak which supplied a staple food, the willow which provided aspirin as well as straight branches for weapons and tools, and tule which was used for housing, boats, mats, and food.

You could end with the idea that plants are still important to the whole world. There are plants all over the world which may provide important medicines which have yet to be discovered. We must be careful not to destroy plants or have them become endangered, since we may not know what important role they may play in the future. But, apart from their use to humans, plants play a very critical role in the survival of billions of other species. We all have a responsibility to help keep the environment healthy for all living things.

Plants of California
Facts, Uses & Recipes
Note: The following plant list is not considered to be all-inclusive and not all of these are natives. These species were chosen because they are relatively easy to find in the Bay Area.
Use this list as a supplement to a good plant key, such as: Wildflowers of the West, by Mabel Crittenden and Dorothy Telfer, or Pacific States Wildflowers ­ Petterson Field Guides, by Theodore F. Niehaus and Charles L. Ripper and Pacific Coast Tree Finder, by Tom Watts.

Acorn (See Oak)
Alder (Alnus spp.)

Species of the alder tree are found growing in riparian environments.

Mashed leaves can stop bleeding; a red dye is obtained from the root bark.
Arrowhead (Sagittaria latifolla)

An aquatic herb, the tubers are edible when boiled or baked

"Indian swamp potato" baked and dried for use as a starchy flour.

Arrowhead Pancakes

3 cups fresh pealed arrowhead tubers soaked in water with juice of two lemons added to water

Discard water/lemon juice and grate the tubers into a bowl adding:

1 egg 1 cup flour 2 Tbsp. oil 1 tsp. sugar 1 tsp. salt

Spoon the mixture on to a hot greased griddle, turn to brown both sides.

Serve pancakes with syrup

Bay Laurel (Umbellularia californica)

Grows in arid foothills. A poultice of leaves relieves aches. Dry leaves repel fleas. Leaves are used in sauces. Nuts can be soaked, peeled and roasted.

Bay Pepper Balls

Soak several cups of ripe bay laurel nuts in water overnight

Remove the hard cover and the husk

Bake the nuts to a light golden brown, cool (they are good to eat roasted too)

Grind the roasted nuts into a medium flour

Add a small amount of sea salt to the ground nuts

Roll this mixture in your palms to make a small ball (marble-sized)

Allow to set

Blackberry (Rubus ursinus, R. vitifolius, R. procerus, R. laciniatus)

They can grow in a variety of habitats and the ripe berries are edible and can be eaten fresh or cooked to make jam. A tea can be made from the roots or the leaves.

Brodiaea (Brodiaea spp.)

The underground bulb (actually the corm) of the “Indian Potato” is good roasted, boiled or fried. Harvest only when in bloom, or if you know for certain that you aren’t digging up the deadly, white-flowered Death Camas

Buckwheat (Eriognum arborescens)

Buckwheat seeds can be eaten. Tea from the leaves is said to cure headaches and can also be used as an eye wash.

Cattail (Typha spp.)

The roots may be cooked and eaten, or ground into meal. The young “tails” can be eaten raw or steamed and eaten like corn on the cob. The pollen from the mature cattail can be used as a flour in cakes. It is also absorbent and makes a good insulator. The leaves can be woven to make light-weight baskets.

Creamed Cattail Hearts and Shoots

6 cups hearts (found where the vertical stem joins the underground steam, walnut-size ball) and young shoots diced 2 cups milk

2 Tbsp. butter or margarine 1 tsp. salt

2 Tbsp. flour 1/4 tsp pepper few drops of lemon juice

Steam or boil hearts and shoots about 25 minutes (until tender)

Add melted butter/margarine and flour, salt, pepper mix well, cool for about 1 minute

Stir in milk, cook until thickened

Add lemon juice and simmer for about 5 minutes

Serves 6
Ceanothus (Ceanothus spp.)

Both the flowers and fruit can be used as a soap. The roots yield a red dye. The dry seeds are edible.

Chinquapin (Chryolepis sempervirens

The steeped leaves provide an astringent. The nuts are good raw or roasted.

Chinquapin Shortbread

1 cup butter or margarine 1/2 cup of cornstarch

3/4 cup brown sugar 1 pinch salt

2 cups of flour 1 cup of chinquapin nuts

Preheat oven to 325 F

Cream butter/margarine with brown sugar

Add flour, cornstarch and salt

Knead until smooth and add the nuts

Spread on to an ungreased cookie sheet, 1/4 inch thick, pierce with a fork

Bake for 35 minutes, until lightly brown

Serves 12
Clover (Trifolium spp.)

Both the flowers and leaves can be eaten raw in salad or steamed.

Cow Parsnip (Heracleum lanatum)

The young stems, flowers and roots are edible.

Coyote Bush (Baccharis pilularis)

The crushed leaves will help reduce swelling and sores.

Currant (Ribes spp. )

Several species occur at different elevations and some species are more palatable than others. Besides eating the berries, the tea made from them is said to cure stomachs. Currants are high in vitamin C. They are good mixed with other berries and made into jams or pies.

Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii)

A common lumber tree, also sold for Christmas trees and in landscaping. The young needles make a refreshing tea. The needles give off a wonderful fragrance when burned.

Elderberry, blue (Sambucus caerulea)

Both the berries and flowers are edible raw and steamed make a healthy drink that reduces fever, upset stomachs, colds and flu. Some people feel nauseated from eating the fresh fruit, but dried or cooked fruit is safe. The leaves or flowers reduce pain and swelling from bee stings. The bark produces a black dye. The berries make a good wine. The red elderberry is inedible.

Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)

Seeds used as a substitute for anise. Young tender shoots are edible. A tea from the roots was used as a cold remedy.

Fennel and Fruit Salad

1 cup tender fennel shoots sliced crosswise

2 medium apples diced 1/3 cup chopped walnuts

1/2 cup raisins (soak for 5 min.) 1 cup vanilla yogurt 1/2 tsp. lemon juice

Mix ingredients, chill. Serves six.
Fern, Bracken (Pteridium squilinum)

The rhizomes may be roasted and pounded into a flour for bread, the young shoots can be eaten raw.

Filaree (Erodium cicutarium)

The young leaves can be cooked or eaten raw.

Gooseberry (Ribes roezlii)

The round purple berries are edible when ripe and are high in vitamin C. Gooseberry pie and jam are quite tasty.

Gooseberry Pie

1/4 cup of flour 1/2 cup sugar

2 Tbsp. butter or margarine 1/4 cup water

1/8 tsp. salt 2 cups berries, mashed through a sieve

1/4 cup lemon juice 1 baked 8 or 9 inch pie crust

Blend all of the above in a saucepan, except one cup of the mashed berries, simmer until thickened

Remove from the heat and add the remaining gooseberries

Pour the mixture into the baked pie shell and chill Serves 6

Gum Plant (Grindelia spp.)

Gum plants are found in upland areas of salt marshes and in the grasslands. A tea made from the boiled roots helps to purify the liver. A plaster of the leaves relieves running sores. A small amount of a tea made from the leaves and held in the mouth relieves toothache.

Hazelnut (Corylus cornutat)

The hazelnut’s wood is tough and is sometimes burned to make artist’s charcoal. The straight branches makes good fishing poles or arrow shafts. The roots are used to refine wine. The nuts are roasted and the thin skin is easily removed.

Holly-leafed Cherry (Prunus ilicifolia)

This native is often planted as an ornamental shrub or small tree. The fruit can be eaten, pressed to make a drink and the bark steeped to make a tea that reduces cold symptoms. The seed kernel can be removed from the pit and ground into a flour.

Horehound (Marrumbium vulgare)

Horehound has the distinction of retaining its strong flavor and having a soothing affect on sore throats and coughs.

Horehound Lozenges

A tea from 1 cup of leaves boiled in 2 cups of water for 10 minutes makes a concentrate that can be added to 2 parts of honey; add a pinch of cream of tartar and heat to 290°F, then add a bit of lemon, cool to make old-fashioned cough lozenges.

Horsetail (Equisetum hyemale)

Whistles can be made from the hollow stems. The silica impregnated stems are good for scouring out pots and pans.

Hound's Tongue (Cynoglossum grande)

The roots can be cooked and eaten.

Iris (Iris spp.)

The narrow leaves of the iris can be stripped into narrow fibers and used for binding, basket weaving or even sewing.

Lemonade berry (Rhus integrifolia)

The berries from this plant can be soaked in hot water and then the liquid strained through a cheese cloth or sieve to make a kind of pink lemonade. The leaves also produce a tea that is good for reducing discomfort from colds. The berries can be plucked and sucked on for a quick refreshing snack.

Lilly, wild (Lilium spp.)

The bulbs of lilies are edible and may be roasted or boiled. Some people dry the roasted bulbs and pound them to make a flour.

Madrone (Arbutus menziesii)

The bright red berries are edible and the leaves can be boiled to make a healing tea to combat colds and sore throats.

Manzanita (Arctostaphylos spp.)

Almost all of the numerous species of manzanita are edible. The ripe berries can be eaten fresh or dried. A liquid extract from the leaves relieves poison oak rash and if drank cures headaches. The wood from the tree is good for utensils.

Manzanita Jelly

1/2 gallon ripe berries 1 cinnamon stick

sliced lemon peel from 1/2 lemon 4 cups of sugar
Cover the berries with water and crush. Add the lemon peel and cinnamon and simmer for 15 minutes. Strain in cheesecloth. Bring the strained juice to boil and for every 5 cups of juice add 4 cups of sugar. Cook until the liquid sheets off the spoon. Pour into sterilized jelly jars and seal.
Maple, Big Leaf (Acer macrophyllum)

The bark from this tree can be striped and twisted to make rope. The dry wood is good for smoking fish.

Mairposa Lilly (Calochortus spp.)

See Lilly, wild. The bulbs from mariposa lilies should not be dug up and eaten (unless on your own property). This plant rare in California.

Miner's Lettuce (Montia spp.)

Fresh young miner's lettuce leaves are a great addition to a salad when mixed with sorrel and wild onions and they are high in vitamin C.

Mint (Mentha arvensis)

Mints grow in a variety of habitats, from dry grassland to moist riparian. The leaves are good as a flavoring and seeped make a tea that aids digestion.

Monkey Flower (Mimulus spp.)

The "sticky" monkey flower gets its name from the leaves, which readily stick to the skin. The crushed leaves bring some relief when placed on superficial burns or sores.

Nettles (Urtica spp.)

The nettle leaves are edible and fibers from the stems can be used in basket making. A broth made from the roots is said to relieve rheumatic joints. A yellow dye may also be derived from the roots. Even though the leaves of the stinging nettle can cause a painful rash (brought on by leaf releasing formic acid), they are edible when cooked.

Oaks, various (Quercus spp.)

When acorns of species of oaks are ground and leached to remove the bitter tannic acid, a nutritious meal results. Native Americans made this a dietary mainstay. Nothing was added to the mash to season it. It was eaten as a thick porridge or baked as a flat bread.

Acorn Roca Bars

1 cup butter/margarine` 1 cup brown sugar 1 egg 1 tsp. vanilla

2 cups flour 1/2 tsp. salt 3/4 cup chopped/leached acorns

12 oz. semi-sweet or milk chocolate pieces 1/2 cup shredded coconut (optional)

Preheat oven 350 ° degrees. Cream butter, sugar, egg and vanilla. Add flour, salt and 1/2 cup of the acorns. Spread on 10 X 15 inch tin. Bake 30 minutes, remove from oven and sprinkle on chocolate pieces, spread. Sprinkle remaining acorns and coconut on top, cool, cut into bars.
Onion, wild (Allium spp.)

The crushed onion leaves are said to repel insects and the crushed bulbs relieve stings. The bulbs are edible and good fresh in salad or roasted.

Pearly Everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea)

When dried can be made into a tea to aid digestion.

Peppergrass (Lepidium virginicum)

The seeds can be ground into a flour. The leaves can be boiled and the resultant mixture used as a hair rinse.

Pickleweed (Salicornia spp.)

The pickle-like leaves can be eaten fresh. As the dry season progresses, the bright red "pickles" become increasingly salty, a good snack.

Plantain (Plantago spp.)

A poultice from the leaves was an antidote for venomous bites from reptiles and insects. The young leaves are good in a salad, or boiled with other vegetables for a soup.

Poppy, California (Eschshoizia californica)

The mashed stems emit a narcotic that helps alleviate pain. Sometimes used to stop toothaches.

Sagebrush (Artemisia californica)

A tea brewed from the leaves soothes sore eyes and is a hair tonic. When drank relieves cold symptoms and stomach disorders.

Salmon berry (Rubus spectabilis)

A delicious edible berry that can be eaten fresh or cooked into a jam.

Saltbush (Atriplex spp.)

The leaves are a healthy substitute for spinach and are best when cooked.

Soap root (Chlorogalum pomeridianum)

The raw bulb, when mashed, makes a good soap; it can also be roasted and eaten like a potato. The juice from the mashed bulb also makes a glue. When the mashed bulb is tossed into a stream the chemical causes fish to float to the surface for easy catching.

Sorrel, redwood (Oxalis oregona)

Sorrel leaves have a sour taste and in contrast with other greens make a good salad. Use sparingly because the leaves contain oxalic acid, which causes the sour taste, and can also create stomach upset if eaten in large quantities.

Squaw bush (Rhus trilobata)

The berries are edible. A tea brewed from the stems combats coughs. Stems were also used in making baskets.

Thimbleberry (Rubus parviflorus)

The fruit is edible and the tender young shoots were also eaten fresh or boiled.

Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia)

The red berries are only edible if they are first roasted, but a tea from the bark and leaves is supposed to cure stomach-aches.

Yarrow (Achillon millefolium)

The leaves are brewed to make a general-all-purpose tonic or crushed and applied to sores to help with healing.

Yerba buena (Micromeria chamissonis)

The dried leaves can be brewed to make a delicious aromatic tea.

Yerba santa (Eriodictyon californicum)

The leaves brewed into a tea are said to be a remedy for colds, grippe and asthma. The mashed leaves can be applied to cuts and abrasions to help heal, cut swelling and alleviate pain.

Other Plant Uses


Cordage - milkweed, stinging nettle, iris, flannel bush, vines

Traps - hazelnut, willow

Cleaning - soap root, horsetail, ceanothus

Brushes - soap root, horsetail, broom

Housing - willow, tule, grasses

Bows - yew, bay laurel, alder

Boats - tule

Baskets - willow, redbud, bigleaf maple, ferns, roots

Digging stick - various hardwoods (alder, maple)


Skirts/aprons - grasses Hats - grasses, tule

Your Notes

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