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California Native Plant Society

Santa Clara Valley Chapter


(Fourth Grade--Social Studies and Science)

California has high mountains, valleys, ocean coastline, and many rivers and streams. It supports grassland, oak woodland, chaparral, riparian and forest habitats (communities). The varied settings in California supported many different tribes of native people prior to 1700.

Food resources available to native people (California Indians) were bountiful. California supported the highest density, non-agricultural (farming) population in North America. In 1769, when the first Spanish colonists arrived, there may have been 300,000 Indians living in California (west of the Sierra Crest).

Native Californians were hunter-gatherers, which means they ate wild plants and animals that they could gather or capture. Women usually foraged for plants and men fished and hunted. Native Californians had to be especially attuned to the seasons. They had to know where each variety (species) of edible plant grew and when its fruits because ripe. An error of a week or so might mean the family or band would go without a particular food, a supply of seeds or plants for basketry, or a needed tool for an entire year, until the required plant would once again come into its useful stage. Many tribes moved with the seasons to gather plants or hunt coinciding with plant ripening or animal movements.

Native plants had many uses. In addition to being gathered for food, they were used for shelters, for clothing, baskets, dyes, weapons, cosmetics, and medicine.

In many cases the work of gathering plants fell to the women and children. Cleaning seeds and grinding acorns took a lot of time. Information on plants was passed on to children while they collected and prepared plants with their mothers and other women of their family group. By the time children were nine or ten, they could recognize hundreds of different plants, knew where they grew, and which parts of the plants were useful.

From Wetlands (Swamp, Riparian, and Pond Communities)

Plants were tended to get the right kind of plant material for basket making. Roots of sedge were transplanted and willows pruned and thinned for harvesting each year.

Plants used for food included the young shoots and tubers of cattail (Typha latifolia)

From Grasslands and Chaparral Communities

Plants used for food

Pinole is the name given to meal made from small seeds. Seeds were collected and cleaned of chaff. The clean seeds were placed in a basket with coals and tossed. Seeds were then ground and sifted. It was eaten by pinches taken with the fingers. Seeds for pinole were collected from chia (Salvia columbariae), red maids (Calandrinia ciliata), and grasses such as purple stipa (Nassella pulchra).


After eating primarily highly starchy foods or meat, Indians welcomed the coming of spring. Miner's lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata), clovers (Trifoliumsp.), braken fern (Pteridium aquilinum var. pubescens), and monkey flower (Mimulus sp.) were some of the plants collected and eaten as greens in the spring.


Brodiaeacalochortus and other lilies were harvested with a digging stick. Tubers such as yampah were also gathered and used for food.

There were many uses of soap plant (Chlorogalum pomeridianum)-- including fishing without a hook. The bulb was mashed up raw and placed in streams. Fish would float to the surface and could be skimmed out with sieves of willow. Other uses of the soap plant parts: fibers around bulb were used for brushes and the bulb itself was used for shampoo.


Plants with berries are found in chaparral, woodland, and riparian plant communities. Berries were eaten raw (blackberries), roasted or parched (toyon).

From Oak Woodlands

Plants found in oak woodlands were used as a source of basketry material, arrow wood, tools, and food.

In the fall acorns were knocked from oaks with a long pole and collected in large cone shaped baskets. The large baskets, called burden baskets, rested on the back like a back pack and was held up by a wide band across the forehead. This left both hands free to gather acorns. Good harvesters could collect up to 75 pounds of acorns in an hour.

Before using, acorns must be cracked open and pound (or hit) in a mortar or in a small depression in a rock outcrop. The pound acorns were sifted to remove large pieces that needed to be pounded again. A brush made of soap plant fibers was used to sweep up stray bits of acorn meal so none was lost. After pounding and sifting, the acorn meal must be leached several times with water to remove bitter tasting tannic acid from the meal. The meal was then cooked as mush or bread.

Another nut less commonly used was California buckeye. Seeds are poisonous unless roasted, ground and leached. Buckeye was used primarily when the acorn crop was poor.

As described above, berries, bulbs, and greens were also used in oak woodland communities.

From Forests

Pine (P. sabinianaP. jefferyi) roots were used to make patterns in baskets.

Pine nuts were collected and used for food.

Large burden baskets for carrying big loads of acorns and other foods often had a foundation of split roots of cedar, gray pine or other conifers.

Medicinal Plants

Medicinal Plants were collected from a variety of plant communities. Some of these plants include:

  • Yerba buena is a low-growing, prostrate plant in the mint family. It grows in woodlands along streams and in redwood forests and was used to make a tea to relieve colic.
  • Horse-tail (Equisetum sp.), grow along streams. It was dried and burned and the ashes used on sore mouths.
  • Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) was used to make a tea for the treatment of consumption, stomach ache and headache. Lotions were also used for sore eyes.
  • The leaves of California bay (Umbellularia californica) have been used for headache, stomach ache, and to repel insect pests.
  • Oaks were used in a variety of ways. Bitter tannins from acorns, bark, and insect galls on oaks were used to treat a variety of ailments including open wounds, bladder problems, and intermittent fevers.

For an extensive discussion of medicinal uses of native plants, see "Plants Used by the Indians of Mendocino County California" by V.K. Chesnut, listed below under References.



Anderson, M. Kat and David L. Rowney. 1998. "California Geophytes: Ecology, Ethnobotany, and Conservation." Fremontia 26(1): 12-18. [Note: Geophytes are plants that die back to subterranean storage organs, such as bulbs and tubers.]

Balls, E.K. 1972. Early Uses of California Plants. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Barbour, M., B. Pavlik, F. Drysdale, and S. Lindstrom. 1993. California's Changing Landscapes. Sacramento: California Native Plant Society.

Lowry, J. 1991. Notes on the Real California Cuisine. Bolinas: Larner Seeds.

Margolin, M. 1978. The Ohlone Way. Berkeley: Heyday Books.

Murphey, E.V.A. 1959. Indian Uses of Native Plants. Mendocino County Historical Society, Fort Bragg.

Ortiz, Bev. 1991. It Will Live Forever: Traditional Yosemite Indian Acorn Preparation. Berkeley: Heyday Books.

Roos-Collins, M. 1990. The Flavors of Home: A Guide to Wild Edible Plants of the San Francisco Bay Area. Berkeley: Heyday Books.

Sweet, M. 1962. Common Edible and Useful Plants of the West. Healdsburg, California: Naturegraph Company.

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