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Indigenous Uses for Native Plants

The indigenous tribes endemic to Orange County are the Tongva, Acjachemen, and Payómkawichum. These tribes and many others, share the belief that humans are put on the earth to protect and care for all things in the environment and in turn the environment provides sustenance and takes care of people in return. They acknowledge the interdependence of all living things and their environment.The indigenous tribes of Orange County have lived off the native plant species sustainably for thousands of years. We are going to explore and highlight some of those plants and their uses.

Coast Live Oak acorn and branches. Copyright © 2016 Neal Kramer

Quercus agrifolia by a roadside in San Luis Obispo County, California, July 2020. Photo credit: WeridNAnnoyed

The oak species native to California were an especially important resource for the indigenous tribes of Orange County. The Coast Live Oak (Quercus agrifolia), is the only oak species that is able to thrive in a coastal environment. Acorns from the oak were an important source of food for many tribes; they were high in nutrients and have more fat than an almond (Anderson 2007). The acorns were commonly leeched, cooked, and ground into a paste (Anderson 2007). Acorns had a slight nutty flavor and would pair nicely with other foods like salmon (Anderson 2007). The seasonal gathering of acorns in the fall was a very important event where whole families participated. The gathering of acorns had many rules and they would never take all of the acorns, leaving some for animals that they shared the land with (Anderson 2007). Unfortunately, the Coast Live oak is on the decline due to non-native disease and pests plaguing the community in recent years (USDA).

Black Sage photographed at Hagador Canyon in Corona by OCH Stacey Chartier-Grable

The different sage species native to California have also played important roles in the indigenous communities. Black sage (Salvia mellifera) is the most common sage in California, and it is considered a keystone species supporting many local pollinators. Its seeds were used to season meats, fish, and poultry ( Deo 2022). Black sage also has medicinal properties. The leaves can be heated and applied topically for sore throats and earaches ( Deo 2022). The plant was also used to treat bronchitis and paralysis by making teas from the stem and seeds ( Deo 2022). This plant is drought tolerant. Instead of dropping its leaves, they will curl its leaves in order to preserve water. Black sage can also be used as an indicator for air pollution, since they are sensitive to increased levels of ozone and sulfur dioxide ( Deo 2022). Studies have shown that black sage has a significant decrease in photosynthetic tissue (Preston 1987). Meaning the leaves will shrivel and some will fall off reducing the plants ability to synthesize food.

Photo of white sage photographed by Keir Morse

White Sage (Salvia apiana) is considered sacred for many tribes in California, used in many spiritual and ceremonial rituals (Cannon 2022). White sage was commonly used as a spice or a deodorant. It also has medicinal properties including use as a cold remedy, cough medicine, and a pain reliever (Cannon 2022). White and black sage leaves are commonly used in smudging sticks, which are meant to get rid of negative or unwanted energies, ask for blessings of prosperity, protection and more, with its spiritually cleaning smoke (Hoover 2019). Smudging has become popular among non-indigenous groups and has led to the sage to be unsustainably/illegally harvested for commercial sale (Timbrook 2022). The illegal trade of white sage is causing serious damage to the plant population. Some poachers will string a chain between two trucks and cut all the plants from a hillside (Timbrook 2022). Many indigenous people come to their traditional sage gathering grounds to find them completely bare (Timbrook 2022). To learn more about the illegal harvest and appropriation of sage I recommend watching the documentary “Saging the World”, which highlights the ecological and cultural issues associated with white sage.

Wild cucumber photographed by Jason Matthias Mills

Wild Cucumber (Marah macrocarpa) is a vine plant native to southern California. The fruit is not edible, but indigenous tribes would use the spiky fruit as hair brushes. They would also grind the seeds into paste and use it as a face paint or as a topical medicine for pain relief and anti-inflammatory properties (Natures Collective). The large seeds could also be stung into necklaces for jewelry. The seeds would also be used as a tool for fishing. They would sprinkle the ground seeds into the water, and the toxic nature of the seeds would then cause the fish to become lethargic, making them easy to catch (Natures Collective).

Lemonade berry pictured at Hagador Canyon in Corona Photo Credit OCH Intern Linsey Schroll

The next plant I am going to highlight is the Lemonade Berry (Rhus integrifolia). Southern California tribes would eat the berry raw or make a lemonade-like drink from them. They could also grind the dry berries and make a flour for a mush (Santa Monica Mountains Trails Council). The lemonade berry seed also has medicinal properties when ground into a powder and drunk with water to remedy fevers, coughs,and sore throats (Specialty Produce).

Map pictures the tribes in California that used Chia. Credit: Anderson 2012 (USDA)

Pictured on the right is the Salvia columbariae. Photographed by Keir Morse

Chia (Salvia columbariae) were commonly eaten throughout all of California. Chia seeds are high in fiber and essential proteins. They are capable of slowing sugar absorption and help with the prevention of diabetes (Anderson 2012). Chia seeds were so nutritious that on long journeys tribe members would only need a handful to chew on as sustenance for the journey (Anderson 2012). Chia seeds were also thought to treat respiratory infections, and help with essential nutrients during pregnancy (American Botanical Council).

If you would like to start growing native plants in your garden you should check out the following sites: Theodore Payne Society, California Native Plants Society, and Tree of Life Nursery. If you would like to learn more about these native plants check out these resources down below.

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