An herb is any plant that may be used for
pleasure, fragrance, or physic (medicine).
Many years of worldwide traditions and
cultures are behind the growing of herbs.
In California, the indigenous people's lives
and their culture were destroyed when the Spanish and then the settlers
from other foreign lands came to California. Consequently, there are
missing gaps in the information concerning herbs used by the native
Californians, especially the inland areas of the outer south coast
ranges of the state. Also, there is somewhat of a bias to using
California herbs as they are relatively unknown compared to European
herbs and are local (and not foreign, exotic objects) and,
consequently, low in status, and they were utilized by a culture that
was unfortunately,despised, feared, and systematically destroyed.
California herbs have a rich, history and have
much to offer any student of herbs.
They can be grown with many of the European
California herbs in cooking
The fruits of Manzanitas,
Arctostaphylos species the plants with the evergreen leaves,
small, urn-shaped white to pink flowers, and gorgeous red bark, were
used for food and drink.
The berries were eaten raw
For a refreshing drink: scalding water was
poured over a bowl of ripe berries, let sit a few minutes, crushed to a
pulp, the same amount of water was added, steeped for 1 hr. strained
A story by Jeff, a white man raised by the
Indians, told of an elderly native Californian, placed in jail for a
minor infraction of the law.
After a short while, on white man's food, he
was rapidly declining in health, In the spring he begged his jailers to
let him out in the sun for a bit, They consented, and then watched as
he walked through the field of wildflowers near the jail and picked and
eat the tips of a wide variety of plants. There are other reports of
this same phenomenon. In the spring the indigenous peoples would diet
upon the fields of flowers and herbs, much the same way that people
cook and eat spring greens. There is a drought of scientific names
referring to this subject.
One plant that could be and was effectively
used was Claytonia
(Montia) perfoliata, or Miner's Lettuce, an herb whose leaves can
be eaten raw in salads. This was also used by early settlers, as you
can see by the name.
Another herb that is enjoyed in the early
summer is California
Strawberry, Fragaria californica. The tiny berries are rich, sweet,
very fragrant, and rival the alpine strawberry of Europe. Walk by
several plants of this strawberry and you notice the unmistakable
strawberry fragrance. They make a great ground cover and birds are
attracted to the berries.
The next plant comes from the most popular
genus in the world. The flowers can be used for potpourri, can be eaten
raw, can be made into jelly, and the fruits can be eaten raw, made into
tea, or jam , etc. Can you guess?
The California native rose is a must for herb
Rose, Rosa californica, This rose grows locally. It has a single
layer of pink petals, and small red fruits. It grows to about 4 ft.
tall. Its resembles the ancient apothecary rose, Rosa gallica, in that
they both form clumps. This habit is very pretty in an informal garden.
Mountain Rose, Rosa woodsii var. ultramontana, is called the
Fragrant Rose and is it fragrant! The rose hips are intensely fragrant,
excellent for tea, and jam. This rose grows on the east side of the
Sierras, does well throughout California.
This small tree, the Blue Elderberry
mexicana), is the third most important wildlife plant in the
pacific states. It produces small bluish-black berries that are very
popular with the birds. Many people consider it a weed. I consider it a
treasure. The large yellow flowers have sweet fragrance. Humans as well
as birds like elderberries. They will make you sick if you don't cook
them and they need a lot of sugar. My grandmother made excellent
elderberry jelly. The berries also make good cobbler and of course
elderberry wine. Yum!
Another plant that we think the native
Californians carried with them from place to place locally is the Wild
Golden Currant, Ribes aureum or maybe they just settled in the same
areas that this plant preferred as its habitat as they are often find
in their camps. This is a deciduous shrub, around 4 ft. tall, a mass of
golden color in the early spring, and a mass of ruby colored jewels
turning to black in the summer when they are ripe. The currants can be
eaten fresh or can be dried. They are very tasty. They are a favorite
of the Phainopepla,
Phainopepla nitens and the California
thrasher, Toxostoma redivivum and people!
A tiny, creeping, native mint that supposedly
the Japanese use commercially and that contains menthol is Mentha arvensis,
Tule Mint, and can be used in the same way that other mints are
used, to flavor candies and sweets, calm upset stomachs, and aid
There is a native species of Nettle, Urtica
dioica ssp. holosericea. You can cook the leaves (gather them with
thick plastic gloves) and put in stews and soups. The chemical compound
that causes the stinging is destroyed by cooking. Use small amounts at
first. They are very high in vitamins. Another interesting fact, if you
are into butterflies, nettles are the food plant for the Satyr
Anglewing, Polygonia satyrus neomarsyas, Milbert's Tortoiseshell,
Aglais milberti furcillata, Painted
Lady Vanessa cardui and West
Coast Lady, Vanessa annabella butterflies.
columbariae, Chia is a true sage and is a well-known herb by now.
It is a pretty little annual to grow in your garden. Chia does best in
dry, sunny places. The seeds are highly nutritious. The way I used them
was to mix them with those red sprinkles and scatter them over the top
of plain sugar cookies. They were a big hit as part of a class
demonstration. But I'm sure that there are healthier ways to eat them.
For instance in breads, muffins, or in trail mix.
Another well-known native herb is Yerba Buena,
Satureja douglasii, San Francisco's old name, the leaves of which
can be used for tea. This creeping perennial grows best in the shade
under oaks. Yerba buena is also very drought tolerant,and without
summer water it just goes dormant. It stays very low, only a few inches
off the ground. It is excellent next to a path or amongst cobblestones
in the shade.
Mahonia aquifolium, is a popular native plant used mostly in
landscaping. All parts of the plant are poisonous except for the fruit
which can be cooked to make jelly or wine and make a beautiful dye.
Nichol's Garden Nursery has home wine-making supplies.
Tree or California Bay or Oregon Myrtle (Umbellularia californica)-should
be used with caution- leaves can be used as a substitute for bay leaves
but use half the amount. Also, leaves can be used for potpourri. They
have a clean fresh scent. I use them in my spaghetti sauce.
Several customers have asked me lately if I
have any water plants. Cattail, Typha
domingensis, is a popular choice. Practically the whole plant is
edible, though it does not fit the classical image of an herb. The
roots are pure starch, a good substitute for corn. In the winter, young
shoots of the roots can be cooked and eaten like veggies, potatoes, or
dried and ground into flour. In the spring the flowering stem tips can
be eaten raw or cooked like bamboo shoots, and the pollen can be made
into bread. Possible Problems: Guardia, make sure the water is not
contaminated and some people get hay fever from the pollen.
I'm going to include these two as they are
very important California native plants. Even though they aren't really
herbs. They have beauty and utility and a California tradition, which
should count for something.
“Digger” has such a contemptible
meaning, meaning to dig for food (bulbs, insects, etc.) with pointed
sticks, referring to the native Californians again. I think that
gathering your food from the soil by digging has more dignity than
buying it after someone else picked it or dug it up. This tree was so
associated with them and their culture, I guess that is how it got its
Pine Pinus Sabiniana. The new name is Gray Pine (which is very
confusing...) A real interesting
fact about this pine is that it is a member of the genus (Pinus) that
is utilized as food (not to mention homes), and even when dead, to more
animal species than any other in the Pacific states. gorgeous gray pine
with very large, sweet pine nuts that taste great: i Also, the native
Californians used the roots of this tree for some of their finest
basketry (many examples are in museums in Europe). Gray pine can live
for 250 years. You have to be on the alert to get any pine nuts as
competition for them is fierce.
cherry, Prunus ilicifolia is a large, shiny, bright green,
evergreen shrub or small tree which is drought tolerant. It provides
great erosion control. The cherries have thin pulp, but are good in
cherry pies. The seeds contain cyanide, as apples and other stone
fruits do. The down side is that the plants are slow growing and Black
bears, Ursus americanus, love the fruits, but how many bears have you
seen lately? Not to mention the prefer orchard fruits like plums when
given a choice.
Fragrant California native herbs
Many of the other herbs listed are fragrant
but these are some of the best!
pycnocephala, Coastal Sagewort, This herb has silvery blue-gray
leaves, a strong fragrance, and can be used in dried flower wreaths and
Salvia spathacea This sage is a true sage, but grows mostly in the
shade of oaks. The leaves of this spreading, low-growing perennial,
produce a tall spike of magenta flowers that are fragrant, and can be
used in potpourri. Also, the hummingbirds love the flowers.
Mint, Monardella species, is a small perennial and a relative of
Bee Balm, Monarda species, of the Midwestern and Eastern U.S. The
leaves possess an intense fragrance, and can be used in potpourri, and
the bees and butterflies love the flowers.
Evening Primrose, Oenothera caespitosa This herb has large, white,
a sweet fragrance on a summer's night. Hummingbird moths love to visit
the flowers at dusk.
apiana with unusual white leaves, has been used more in recent
years for native American religious ceremonies, for incense. This sage,
with the intensely fragrant leaves grows two about three feet tall.
Sage, Salvia clevelandii This herb is native to San Diego County,
and the leaves have a unique, musky fragrance. This small sage is the
most popular of the native sages, being very ornamental, drought
tolerant, with beautiful blue-purple flowers. On humid days you can
smell the fragrance on the air from a good distance. Musk Sage makes
Curls (Trichostema lanatum), is a dry land shrub with wonderful
strange, fuzzy , purple flowers and thin fragrant leaves. Many people
think this looks like rosemary. Woolly blue curls grows well in sunny,
dry places, is very showy and fragrant, and the leaves and flowers can
be used for potpourri. Hummingbirds use the flowers and Goldfinches eat
Herbs used for Physic (Medical), for Household
uses, dyes, soaps,
baskets, insect repellents
californica, California Sagebrush, The leaves can be used as an
insect repellent, a strewing herb, and a moth repellent. California
sagebrush is a 4 ft. shrub, with beige-gray leaves, and grows best in
an informal herb garden or wild land garden
Achillea millefolium, This yarrow is part of a complex group of
plants from around the northern and mountainous parts of the world.
This California native yarrow was useful medicinally. The boiled leaves
were applied as a poultice, to people and horses (collar boils). Yarrow
contains anti-inflammatory compounds, helps clot blood faster, and can
be used on wounds, and used in lotions.
Anemopsis californica, This creeping herb, grows in moist places
and was called Mild or Gentle Herb. An infusion can be made from the
root and used as a liniment for wounds or bruises. The leaves can be
heated and applied as a poultice to relieve swellings. The leaves were
boiled in water; then one placed the aching part in water and soaked it.
Heuchera species The root of this herb was moistened and pounded,
and then applied directly to sores and swellings. These small, clumping
perennials live in shady spots under oaks.
Asarum caudatum is a beautiful small creeping herb, native to the
redwood forest of California. It has large leaves and strange little
flowers with very long spurs. The rootstock was dried or candied,
though it is not used now for this purpose. Wild Ginger is pretty in
chamissonis, Hedge Nettle is a spreading herb in the mint family
with fuzzy leaves and stems, and Purple flowers. It is not a true
nettle and does not sting as true nettles do. Another name for this
plant is California Betony, and it is a very pretty perennial to grow
in shady, dry places or part-shady, moist places. An infusion of fresh
leaves was used as a wash for sores and wounds.
Santa, Eriodictyon californicum is an ungainly, thick-stemmed
perennial. The medicinal properties more than make up for its unlovely
appearance. Tea was made from the leaves to alleviate the discomfort of
sore throats, colds, bronchitis, and asma. The fresh leaves, crushed
were applied as a poultice on sores, and for sore limbs, and
rheumatism, of man and animals. The tea is so strong it is difficult to
swallow and I would rather breathe the fumes from the tea than to drink
Lilac, Ceanothus species is an evergreen shrub with showy blue,
purple or white flower clusters that grows throughout California and
you can make soap lather from the fresh flowers, by rubbing them in
water. Also, a tea can be made from the leaves and flowers and was used
as tonic. The tea is good mixed with Yerba buena tea.
A Few of the Sources Utilized
Wild Edible Plants of the western U.S.-------
Common Edible and Useful Plants of the
Early Uses of California Plants---Edward K.
Indian Uses of Native Plants---Edith Van Allen
Rodale's Illustrated Encyclopedia of
Poisonous Plants of California ---- Thomas C.
Fuller & Elizabeth McClintock