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Marin IJ Articles

Benefiting from how Native Americans cared for the land

  • Jeanne Price
  • WHAT IF YOUR garden was as big as all outdoors? What if you spent every day tending this wild garden, because everything you ate came from it, as well as all your tools and medicine? If you had been a Coast Miwok or a member of one of the other tribelets inhabiting the Bay Area you would live in and for your garden all your life.

    In her book, "Tending the Wild," M. Kat Anderson contends, "Without an Indian presence, the early Europeans explorers would have encountered a land with less spectacular wildflower displays, fewer large trees and fewer parklike forests."

    Yes, they lived off the land, but they also took care of the land -- cultivating, seeding, burning as well as harvesting.

    Many of the wildflowers we find lovely were important food sources for the Coast Miwoks who inhabited Marin and southern Sonoma counties. The seeds of up to 30 plants such as tidy-tips (Layia platyglossa) and owl's clover (Castilleja densiflora) were gathered by the pound, cleaned, roasted, ground, moistened and made into seed cakes, baked into a flat bread or boiled for mush or soup.

    Oak acorn mush was a staple of Miwok meals. If acorns failed, buckeye seeds would do. Acorns were ground daily, leached and boiled with hot stones. Acorn bread from tan oaks (Lithocarpus densiflorus) has been described as "deliciously rich and oily."

    In the spring they ate many kinds of greens, cooked and uncooked, including the leaves and fibrous stalks of monkeyflower (Diplacus aurantiacus), miners' lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata), angelicas, thistles and bracken fern tips (Pteridium aquilinum). They gathered the tender stalks of cow parsnips (Heracleum lanatum) sweet anise (Foeniculum vulgare), young shoots of cattails (Typha latifolia) and the roots of tules (Scirpus lacustris). All parts of native clovers were eaten.

    The most favored clover was called "saal" by the Miwoks and the whole plant was eaten raw. This plant is now presumed extinct, last seen here in 1969. They seasoned their food with salt from salt grass (Distichlis spicata) or seaweed. They knew how to process wild plants to remove toxicity, but preserve nutrition.

    In the summer they gathered wild berries. Fruit was also used for drinks and soups. Anderson writes, "California Indians' management of fruit-bearing native plants in many ways laid the foundation for domestication of some of the berries grown today. Many of today's berries have benefited from crosses with wild genetic resources, which has conferred such benefits as disease resistance. Thus the stewardship and preservation of these wild plant resources by California Indians has tremendous value today for the berry farmer."

    Soap root was eaten when food was scarce, but only after the bulb was cooked. More often it was used for bathing or made into fibrous brushes. Wild cucumber (Marah oreganus) was used as a soporific to ease headaches and to render fish sluggish and easy to catch by hand. Honey from wild ground-nesting native bees sweetened their meals.

    Hairy cat's ear (Hypochaeris radicata) leaves were eaten raw with salt. Baked brodiaea (Dichelostemma pulchellum) root tasted like new potatoes. Ripe purple pepper nuts (Umbellularia californica) were a spicy condiment. Pepperwood nuts were also roasted and made into bread. Seaweed from the rocky shores was roasted or fried. A cool and delicious cider was made of crushed manzanita seeds (Arctostaphylos). Manzanita bark and leaves were used for medicine. A drink was also made from the leaves of Phacelia californica.

    While researching for this column I made a trip to the Marin Museum of the American Indian in Novato and met Colleen Hicks, director of the museum who gave me access to its library and exhibits. There I also met John Farais, one of the museum's directors who is a chef specializing in using native local plants and developing his own recipes with these ingredients. "What could be more local than natives?" he asked.

    He gave me some madrone (Arbutus menziesii) bark he had toasted in the oven and instructed me to make tea either hot or cold. After steeping it in boiling water the fragrance was woodsy and its flavor delicate.

    The Coast Miwok were masters at basket making using willow shoots, sedge roots and bracken fern roots to design intricate patterns and decorating their baskets with feathers and abalone shell. They are today highly prized and rare.

    Wild plants also furnished the natives with medicine: wild cucumber for treatment of boils; yarrow for snake bite; angelica for colds and cuts; California mugwort (Artemisia douglasiana) for fever and stomachache; cow parsnip for cough, and fresh oak galls to clean teeth.

    Even poison oak was used as charcoal made into a paste, and rubbed on the skin, which was then punctured to create tattoos, according to Sylvia Barker Thalman, author of "The Coast Miwok Indians of the Point Reyes Area."

    The University of California Marin Master Gardeners are sponsored by UC Cooperative Extension. For questions about gardening, plant pests or diseases, call 499-4204 from 9 a.m. to noon, and 1 to 4 p.m. weekdays, or bring in samples or pictures to 1682 Novato Blvd., Suite 150B, Novato.