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GOING WILD WITH NATIVES: Eat Your Native Garden, the Kumeyaay Way

By Susan Lewitt, for Let’s Talk Plants! June 2023.

Pollinator enjoying a Wildrose. Photo courtesy of Calscape.

Eat Your Native Garden, the Kumeyaay Way


California native plants are functional as well as eye catching, and native plants were a major resource for the Kumeyaay.


What did they eat and what did they use for other necessities?


There were well over 700 native plants for the San Diego Kumeyaay to use and many of these native plants are available to grow in your garden now that were used previously for building materials, tools, clothing, food and medicine. Many are still used today.


Here are some examples:

  • The Kumeyaay made ‘ewaa’ homes, from sturdy branches for the frame and covered it with leaves from Arroyo Willow, Salix lasiolepis, and other plants.

  • Willow and elderberry bark, most likely Blue Elderberry, Sambucus Mexicana, were used for clothing.

  • Fibers of yucca and agave made strong protective sandals.

  • Wood, cane, and reed made functional tools.

  • The agave plant was also used to make dependable fishing nets.

  • Yucca and agave fibers made strong ropes, hairbrushes, and saddle blankets.

  • Strips from the Yucca plant came in handy for hanging fruits. Coastal Agave, Agave shawii, and Chaparral Yucca, Hesperoyucca whipplei, are a couple of the San Diego species that the Kumeyaay most likely used.

  • Spiny Rush, Juncus acutu, and others of the same genus were used for basket weaving, but because of its sharp terminal spines, it is not recommended for landscaping.

Chia flower. Photo courtesy of Calscape.

The Kumeyaay food sources included:

  • Pine nuts from pines such as Oneneedle Pinyon Pine, Pinus monophyla.

  • Chia seeds, Salvia columbariae.

  • Coast Prickly Pear, Opuntia littoralis, leaves and fruit.

  • Acorns from Coast Live Oaks, which needed to be leached to be safe to eat.

  • The nutritious fruit of the Honey Mesquite, Prosopis glandulosa, was also used.

Many of the native plants have medicinal qualities:

  • Yerba Mansa, Anemopsis californica, has been used for headaches, coughs, bruises and more. It has been made into a poultice and tea.

  • Toyon, Heteromeles arbutifolia, was used medicinally, but the cooked berries were also made into a pie with a tart apple taste.

(This is not medical advice, so please always consult your physician before using any of these ideas or making changes to treat medical conditions.)


Blue Elderberry in bloom. Photo courtesy of Calscape.

Blue Elderberry with ripening fruit and Blue Elderberry with ripe fruit, photos courtesy of Calscape.

Blue Elderberry tree. Photo courtesy of Calscape.

Native trees provide more than shade and oxygen. Many parts of these trees have been used:

  • Blue Elderberry bark has been used to make rattles, flutes, and clapper sticks. The flowers have been used to make antioxidant rich tea. Elderberries cannot be eaten raw, but properly processed elderberries worked well as syrups, jams, jellies, and medicine.

  • Lemonade Berry, Rhus integrifolia, has sour fruit that wildlife relishes, and some humans can tolerate, but use caution because some people are allergic to this fruit.

  • Southern California Black Walnut, Juglans californica, is an endangered species due to overdevelopment, which has an edible nut that was eaten by Chumash Indians of the California Channel Islands. It also appeals to wildlife.

  • Laurel Sumac, Malosma laurina, has dried flowers that look like tiny trees and were used for miniature scenes.

Many wild plant leaves can be consumed in salads or used otherwise:

  • Most milkweeds are toxic, but Showy Milkweed, Asclepias speciosa, with pink flowers is said to be edible.

  • Wildrose, Rosa californica, whose petals make a great addition to salads and sandwiches, can also be made into a tea. Also, wild rose hips have been eaten raw or cooked and made into syrups, dried like raisins, or crushed into a powder. It is recommended to first remove the tufts of the hips, split open and scoop out the seeds before consuming. Rose hips are loaded with Vitamin C and contain calcium, iron, and phosphorus.

  • Cooked bladderpod flowers, Peritoma arborea, have been added to red chilies and omelets. When first picked it is very pungent.

Woodland Strawberry. Photo courtesy of Calscape.

Many wild fruits are just as delicious as their commercial counterparts and some or even sweeter:

  • Beach Strawberries, Fragaria chiloensis, and Woodland Strawberries, Fragaria vesca, may be tiny, but are little gems.

  • The Catalina Island Cherry makes a nice snack, but birds like it even more. It has a small amount of tasty fruit around each large stone.

  • Several grape species grow in San Diego including California Grape, Vitis californica, that animals enjoy. A pleasant one for wine and table grapes is a nursery cultivar called Roger's Red Grape, Vitis 'Roger's Red'.

  • The fruits of many cacti are edible.

  • Oregon grape berries, Berberis aquifolium, have been eaten raw, stewed, or dried for later use.

  • Dried Manzanita berries are full of flavor. Local manzanita examples are Mission Manzanita, Xylococcus bicolor and Big Berry Manzanita, Arctostaphylos glauca.

  • Thimbleberry, Rubus parviflorus, is quite delicious and worthy of a space in your garden.


Big Berry Manzanita, full view. Photo courtesy of Calscape.

Big Berry Manzanita, detail with leaves and flowers. Photo courtesy of Calscape

I hope you enjoy the culinary and practical possibilities of a native garden. Calscape lists 34 edible native plants for San Diego https://calscape.org/plantlist/6451


If you have allergies to plants, please use caution when deciding which “wild” plants to indulge in. Many plants such as poison oak, are okay for most animals, but not for humans.


In the long run, you may get more joy out of your native plant garden by leaving most of it to attract wildlife.

Also please never take any of parts of native plants from wild areas. Only take them from your own or a friend’s garden. If you must forage in the wild either have a permit or use some of the many invasive species that can be eaten such as dandelion, wild mustard, fennel, and thistles, but make sure you know what you are harvesting to avoid problems.

Reference and resources:

An Instant Guide to Edible Plants by Pamela Forey and Cecilia Fitzsimons, Crescent Books, New York, 1989

Calscape (Calscape.org), “Native Edible Plant Garden,” https://calscape.org/plantlist/6451

Cooking the Native Way: Chia Café Collective by Chia Café Collective, 2010

Edible and Medicinal Plants of the West by Gregory L TilfordM0untain Fresh Publishing Co, Missoula Montana, 1997

Edible and Useful Plants of California by Charlotte Bringle Clark, University of California Press, Berkeley, California, 1977

Edible and Useful Plants of the United States and Canada by Charles Francis Saunders, Dover Publishing Inc, New York, 1976

Edible Plants in the Wilderness, Volume 1 & 2 by Dennis Bleything & Ron Dawson, Life Support Technology Inc. Manning Oregon, 1972

Edible Wild Plants, A North American Guide by Thomas Elias & Peter Dykeman, Sterling Publishing Company, 1990

Ethnobotany Project: Contemporary Uses of Native Plants, Southern California and Northern Baja Indians by Rose Ramirez & Deborah Small, www.blurb.com, 2015

Kumeyaay Ethnobotany: Shared Heritage of the Californias by Michael Wilken-Robertson, Sunbelt Publications, 2017

Naturehood Gardening: Growing Good Food https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ImvkkqN6fNE (CNPS YouTuber Video)

The California Frontier Project, “Native Americans of Southern California: The Kumeyaay” by Damian Bacich https://www.californiafrontier.net/the-kumeyaay/#Kumeyaay_Tools

Tree of Life Nursery, “Edible Native Plants,” (This website has recipes) https://californianativeplants.com/blog/edible-native-plants/

 

Susan Lewitt is a member of the California Native Plant Society (CNPS), participating in their Native Gardening Committee, and their Conservation Committee.

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