Long before Napa Valley was home to a thriving wine industry, the indigenous people of this area, the Wappo, Patwin and Wintun, considered it a paradise for many different reasons.
In addition to fishing and hunting, knowledgeable tribal experts harvested plants for food and tended to flora by living with the land, rather than on it. Those who had a knowledge of these fertile lands took great care to ensure that lessons for harvesting plants were passed down through the generations. They did not write this information down, but conveyed through word-of-mouth the vital lessons of control burning, harvesting and pruning.
Plants for shelter, medicine and food grew in abundance among the woodlands, chaparral and wetlands of the Napa Valley. Although the landscape has certainly been altered and developed since Native Americans managed the lands, there are, thankfully, many parks, wild lands and opportunities to enjoy California native plants.
Consumption of wild plants, however, should be done only with caution.
Buckeye tree or Aesculus californica is a familiar presence in the Napa Valley, and along the coast ranges as well as the Sierra foothills. Its leaves show up in early spring, and its large spray of candle-sized, light pink-to-white flowers proliferate into the summer months.
Later, its leathery, shiny-brown seed pods hang from the trees like so many decorations. The tree’s seeds, also called nuts, are toxic to some animals and are poisonous to humans if consumed raw.
Indigenous people here rendered them edible through a time-consuming process similar to the preparation of acorns. They were pounded and ground to a rough “flour.” Next, they were leached over and over, usually in a bowl of sand, built by a stream-bed, and baked for use as mush, soup or other foods.
The branches of the buckeye were utilized as a fire-drill tool. The buckeye seed powder was used to stun fish to aid in catching them. Some used the buckeye bark as a poultice as well.
Another plant commonly seen is the cattail, which has proliferated since the time of dinosaurs. It can be found waving its long, green sword-like leaves all throughout the valley.
Wappo Indians ate the roots and shoots both raw and roasted. The plant’s young stalks were consumed like celery, while the plant-tops’ male flowers made up a meal and were enjoyed raw. In some indigenous cultures, it was forbidden for girls to walk in the vicinity of the cattail’s growth. Cattails are experts at survival because they produce energy down into their rhizomes when they create a form of starch.
Yerba santa, or Eriodictyon californicum plant, was used in times past for medicinal purposes. In the early 1800s, Spanish padres at the California missions learned of its value, then named it ‘blessed herb’ or yerba santa.
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Yerba santa is a perennial evergreen shrub of the waterleaf family. Its stems are made up of a shredded-looking bark, while its dark green, lance-like leaves are shiny and leathery in looks. The flowers of the yerba santa plant are trumpet in shape and white. They bloom from early spring into late summer. They can be found growing from Monterey County to the Klamath range. This plant thrives in serpentine soils, oak woodlands as well as pine forests.
Barret & Gifford’s book, “Miwok Material Culture,” says the plant’s leaves were usually gathered prior to its spring flowering and could be used as a tea or poultice. They could be used both fresh and dried. The flowers of the yerba santa plant were used to take care of headaches, stomach aches, coughs and asthma. Preparation for each symptom differed and could include chewing, smoking or heating the leaves.
Bay laurel trees, Unbellularia californica also called California bay laurel, pepperwood tree and balm of heaven, have established themselves both along streams and in scrubby areas in the sunny coasts or shady forests all throughout California.
According to the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service website, “The oils in California laurel leave may produce toxic effects in some people.”
Many Native American tribes in California, however, valued California bay laurel trees for the relief of headaches. A headband, fashioned of leaves or twigs, was worn on the head, or even under a cap. The padres California missions learned from the native people how to concoct a hot poultice with bay leaves and spices to apply on the forehead to alleviate headaches.
Bay leaves also could be ground into a paste for the treatment of rheumatism. Some used the leaves as a tea to treat sore throats or for congestion. Bay leaves were handy to rid one of lice or fleas, as well.
Other important uses included the burning of the plant’s leaves to aid in hunting deer, and numerous ceremonial uses for the plant were given. In the book, “Indian Uses of Native Plants,” the fruit or seed is first peeled and roasted prior to its use as a spice, similar to pepper.
The camphor-scented leaves of the lofty bay laurel have been used as a soup flavor-enhancer for centuries. When added to dishes today, chefs are sure to remove the flavorful leaf prior to serving, since the dried leaf can be dangerously sharp. You will recognize the tree, if not by its pungent scent, but by its lovely yellow flower clusters that attract numerous pollinators.
Soon, when the summer’s season fades to fall, the profligate seeds of these hardy plants will plummet, then disperse themselves all about the mother plants, setting the stage for a new season of growth. Nature’s simple but effective ways of abundance assures its perpetuation.
In addition to the above named sources, I also referred to the following books for this column: “Indian Uses of Native Plants” by Edith Van Allen Murphey and “The Natural World of the California Indians,” by Robert F. Heizer & Albert B. Elsasser.