Many plants are classified as herbs, and most of those have culinary or medicinal properties. California is particularly rich in native herbs, from the Pacific beaches to the Sierra Nevada Mountains along the eastern border. The indigenous people of California used their native herbs for many purposes, but much of that knowledge has been lost over the centuries, along with most members of the native population.
Herbs Used in Foods
Berries of the manzanita bushes were commonly eaten in former times. They were used either in their raw form or were cooked. Miner’s lettuce remains a common wild ingredient in salads. Tule mint is added to candies and other sweet treats and prepared as a tea to help digestion. The fruits (hips) of California wild rose and the California mountain rose are made into jelly, eaten raw and made into tea. Chia, or Salvia columbariae, is a member of the sage family that gives us nutritious seeds that are added to breads, trail mix and muffins. Yerba buena grows in the moist shade around redwood trees and makes a delicious tea.
Herbs Used in Medicinal Preparations
Yarrow is a pretty plant with lacy leaves and tall white flower heads. It has styptic properties, which explains why it has been used in poultices to stop bleeding. Alum root, in the Heuchera genus, was soaked and then pounded to make a poultice that was effective for healing skin lesions, sores and swelling. Wild ginger grows in redwood forests. Its roots were dried and made into candy. Hedge nettle, or California betony, is not the same as the stinging nettle—a tea was made from its leaves and applied to skin wounds. Yerba santa was made into tea that was helpful for sore throats, colds and other respiratory ailments. The leaves were also used for skin healing.
Herbs With Strong Fragrances
Coastal sagewort, hummingbird sage, butterfly mint, white evening primrose, white sage, Cleveland sage and a plant called woolly blue curls are all native California herbs that attract bees, birds and butterflies because of their strong scents.
Herbs With Miscellaneous Uses
The California lilac’s flowers can be made into soapy lather. California sagebrush, or Artemisia californica, is a shrub that reaches four feet in height. It has been used to repel moths and other insects. Native Americans in California made baskets from the digger pine’s roots.