“The forest itself was the very fabric of our ancestors’ life. It was their supermarket, their drugstore, their hardware store, all things rolled into one. It was vital that they had an understanding of all the materials that grew around them.”- Master of Bushcraft- Ray Mears----
I got out in the morning to take my dog, Abalone, for a swim in the creek. 30 minutes drive from the heart of the downtown Los Angeles metropolitan area, we found a little piece of paradise in the San Gabriel Mountains. Even in the parking lot I was reminded of the local abundance represented here. Large and healthy labsquarter, a delicious edible plant used traditionally as a pot herb, were growing up beside granitic boulders right next to my car. . Though I would have loved to harvest these, the close proximity to the road makes them ideal candidates for exposure to pollution from car exhaust, as well as pesticides commonly used by CALTRANS as part of programs aimed at keeping brush and trees from overgrowing roadways. As a common practice, it is smart to make your way beyond the roadsides by at least 50 feet before foraging wild foods. Of course, once we got 50 feet out, no lambsquarter was to be seen!
However, on our hike down to the creek many other species were encountered. The term ethnobotany is simply described as “how cultures make use of plants for food, medicine and materials.” And today, as we made our way towards the creek and past countless native and non-native species, I was reminded of my passion for this subject. My interests in ethnobotany was spurred long before I took up the study of archaeology, and is in fact rooted in foraging for local edibles in the orchards of Northern California with my brother, Justin. However, over the years, my passion for anthropology and archaeology led me to look deeper into understanding the relationship between cultures and plants.
Along the trail we first encountered wild cucumber, not an edible species as the name suggests, and certainly not an appetizing sight when one encounters the spike-ridden surface of the seed pod. But this beautiful and inedible plant had a great importance by many tribes in California in ancient times. The seeds of the plant were crushed and mixed with pigments, such as red ochre and became a great binder for applying this paint. The root, which is enormous and by some accounts reminiscent of a human form (which gives this plant another common name, manroot) was pulverized as well. This portion was scattered into still pools of likely fresh and salt water. A mild toxin secreted from this root then clogged the gills of fish, stupefying them, causing them to float to the surface where they could be gathered in baskets. After a time, the weirs were intentionally breached, or the tide came back in bringing new water which diluted the toxin allowing the smaller fish, which were not retained, to breathe more easily and return to the rocks and crevices below. And of course boys will be boys, so when we were kids, we used to make bolas with theses vines using the “spike balls” (as we called them), for weights which we would spin round our heads and hurdle at each other and our enemies…man those were the days!
The next species encountered is one I have heard uses for, but none of which I will relay here in hopes no one will try them. Urban legends are common in the city, and country legends are common in the heather; so in the country everyone seems to know a friend of a friend whose cousin used the leaves of this plant for toilet paper…and will never make that mistake again! Poison oak is extremely common throughout California. Its size can be as small as a few inches in height with leaves less than a centimeter in length when found along the cliffs of northern CA where it barely survives on the water generated from coastal fog. It can be a beautiful shrub about the size of a man along trails and creeks throughout the state. And I have even seen vines nearly four inches in diameter, growing through the center of a Douglas fir tree with a nearly 4 ft diameter trunk, emerging from the other side and climbing to heights of nearly 75ft; this form typically has leaves as long as 8 inches, and in this case must have been around 100 years old. Due to the diversity of its overall size, it makes this species particularly menacing as a single brush of the leaves can leave you with a rash that lasts for weeks, especially in spring when the oils are extra prevalent! Worse yet, this painful itching, blistering mess can go systemic, which means it enters the blood stream and will tickle you all over. As a result, wherever you instinctively scratch, this terrible rash appears. Bottom line, “beautiful sheen of red and green, leaves of three, leave them be!”
At this point, Abalone was a little frustrated with my interest in the plants and finally coaxed me into getting to the creek.
We played fetch in a little swimming hole for an hour and she swam to her heart’s content under a willow (great weaving material with bark that can be chewed in place of aspirin), mulefat (traditional Cahuilla building material for huts and windbreaks), and a sycamore (traditional Chumash material for carving bowls and platters). Finally, I thought we should have a look up a nearby draw where the shade covered the canyon nearly all day.
On the way I found a little water-starved wild mustard in the sun which gave me an idea.
We made our way up the shady draw through patches of moist ground carpeted with chickweed (delicious) and found what we were looking for, healthy large leaves of wild mustard. This plant is not native to California, however in areas such as Jammu and Kashmir, known for fields of mustard which is pressed for its oil, the green leaves of this plant have also made their way into local cuisine. I had already made a nettle saag, but I really wanted to try a traditional Kashmiri mustard green saag; and there is never a better time to forage than in the present.
We made off with enough leaves for the curry. Cooked them down with spices and added some potato chunks for texture. I fed them to my girl, Chelsea as we celebrated seven years together. She looked at me and said with a grin, “This is even better than the spinach saag!” As far as I was concerned, that was the true signal of success!
Carry an extra bag or basket wherever you may go, as you really never know, what delicacies may lay in the trail ahead, but with a forager mindset you’ll always be well fed! Keep the old ways alive! ----Kevin Smith