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Native Herbs in a San Diego Riparian Zone

by: Jill Richardson

Sun Jan 13, 2013 at 19:09:30 PM PST

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Today I went on one of the Self Heal School's herb walks, to San Diego's Old Mission Dam. Here is what we saw and learned...
Jill Richardson :: Native Herbs in a San Diego Riparian Zone
We began in the parking lot and before we even really left on the trail, we saw this:

Matilija Poppy, also known as Fried Eggs for reasons that are more obvious when you see the flower

Matilija Poppy

Matilija Poppy

The whole plant, with really, really bad light

So as you can tell, it's winter, even here in sunny California. No flowers on this one right now. Wildflowers start exploding out everywhere in about a month or two from now. Right now everything's dead, dying, and dormant. Which makes it an interesting time to do an herb walk and identify a bunch of dried up dead herbs :) There is beginning to be some new growth now that we've had a few weeks of rain, as you can see on this plant. I plan to come back to this trail periodically throughout the year so I can see these plants in their different life stages.

California wild rose

OK, so that's a lousy picture. I wanted to get a shot showing how it looked to us as we were walking past it. It looks like nothing, really. Like a bunch of dead sticks. But actually, there is a lot of value in this plant right now, thanks to these:

Rose hip, fruit of the California wild rose

Rose hips are the fruit of the rose and they are off the charts in vitamin C. They aren't as tasty as their domesticated cousin, the apple, but they are good good good for you. You can eat them plain (don't eat the seeds) or dry them and use them in tea. You can also infuse them into honey or make a syrup with them. Unfortunately, they don't taste or smell like roses at all.

Later, we passed more wild roses and they were easier to recognize because they had more fruit and leaves:

California wild rose

California wild rose

Rock Rose, which is not a real rose

This plant here is called a Rock Rose but it's not actually a rose. I lost interest in it when the guide told us it was purely ornamental.

Coast live oak

The three main trees you see in this area, a riparian zone, are sycamore, oak, and willow. Even though it's winter, the oak and willow both have leaves. The sycamore does not - it's deciduous.

Hooker's Evening Primrose

Hooker's Evening Primrose

Another thrilling dead plant. Actually, this IS a right time to find this plant, because much of its value comes from an oil in its seeds, and you can collect the tiny little seeds from the plants when they are dead and dried up like this. Good luck collecting enough to use for oil though! The oil is used as a hormone regulator for women.

Lemonade Berry, Rhus integrifolia

Lemonade Berry, Rhus integrifolia

This lovely plant, which is related to sumac, has sour leaves (edible but I don't recommend them!) and even more sour fruit. Our guide told us that the sour flavor is thirst quenching, but the leaf I ate reminded me a little too much of an under-ripe hachiya persimmon if you know what I mean. Lemonadeberry plants are drought tolerant and fire retardant, making them a great landscaping choice in San Diego for anyone worried about wildfires.

A sycamore without its leaves and a few leafy bunches of mistletoe, a parasite

European mistletoe can be used medicinally, but not this stuff - it's toxic. As you can see, the tall sycamore it's on has no leaves. In this area, sycamores usually grow near waterways, so a good way to find water is to look for sycamores.





Toyon, Heteromeles arbutifolia, is also known as Christmas berry or California holly. Holly as in Hollywood - in case you were wondering where they got the name. It's in the rose family. The red berries are edible but rather bitter. Based on the one I tried today, I wouldn't recommend eating them unless you were fending off starvation. I'm told they taste better when they are juicier.

Mulefat, Baccharus glutinosa

Mulefat is a good fodder plant for animals.

Chaparral broom, Baccharus sarothroides

The indigenous people used this plant as a broom. I've also read that it can be used for several medicinal purposes. You can make a tea with it for duodenal ulcers or spasmodic diarrhea, or you can make a poultice to use on external wounds. It treats pain and inflammation on external injuries, and it's mildly antimicrobial.

I asked the guide about this and he hadn't heard any of that. I think I might have drove him a bit nuts today because I was a bit like Hermione Granger on the walk today, answering every question he answered. I think he wanted to stump us and then surprise us with the answer instead of having someone answer him so easily every single time.

From what I've read, Chaparral broom is a pioneer species, one of the first to move into disturbed soils. It stabilizes the soil and makes it inhabitable for other plants. There's a ton of this plant around here so it'd be wonderful if it turns out to be good for what my little one used to call "owie-booboos." Especially because she falls and hurts herself all the time when we're out hiking, and being able to grab the most common plant on the trail and patch her up with it would be awesome.

Wild Buckwheat

Wild Buckwheat

Here's another one that looks ugly and dead but is at its most useful stage in its lifecycle - at least as far as humans are concerned. The indigenous used to gather the seeds, winnow them, and then grind them into a flour. It's very high in B vitamins. Also, when the leaves turn rust colors, the indigenous would make tea with them for respiratory complaints.

Artemisia californica, California sage, which is badly named because it's a true sage

Artemisia californica, California sage

By this time in the walk, I was less trusting when the guide told us to taste this. I rubbed my fingers on a leaf and then smelled my fingers and said "Mmm!" Thinking I'd tasted it, he said, "And then?" Right! Proof I was smart not to put this thing in my mouth!! Apparently this plant is sweet and then bitter.

A little baby thistle

Last year's thistle plant

Baby thistle growing up under last year's thistles

Thistles are edible. I once read someone call them "celery with thorns." The leaves and the stems are edible. If you cut off the outer part of the stem, you'll get to a fleshy inner part that is quite tasty, I hear.

A lovely dead mustard plant

This is actually a native mustard plant. Most of the mustard around here is black mustard, which was brought by the Spanish. You can eat the mustard greens, but I wouldn't want to. Our guide assures us they are very nutritious, but that doesn't make them taste good.

Datura, a.k.a. Jimson weed

Datura, a.k.a. Jimson weed

Datura, a.k.a. Jimson weed

Datura, a.k.a. Jimson weed

The seeds and the roots of this plant are psychedelic. But it's REALLY not something to mess around with unless you know what you're doing or you're with someone who does. The guide told us a story of a pair of friends who got pretty high off this stuff and went wandering off. They got separated, and one wandered into someone's camp. They found the other one a few days later - dead.

A type of thistle, perhaps milk thistle

Like other thistles, the leaves of milk thistle are edible. Once they are a bit more mature than this one, they are easy to recognize because it looks like someone spilled milk on the leaves. The seeds are used to increase milk flow in lactating mothers. The seeds are also powerfully protective of the liver so it's often advocated as a detox herb. The active compound that does that, silymarin, is not water soluble, so you won't get much out of drinking milk thistle tea. Instead, you can eat the seeds, or you can make a tincture with them. If you're on prescription drugs and you want to use this for detox, it's probably a good idea to talk to your doctor about the best way to go about that. Milk thistle seeds are so potent that they can save someone who has eaten a poisonous mushroom. You don't want them also "protecting" your body from prescription meds that you actually need!

We came to a pair of oaks, and I took several photos because there just didn't seem to be much about them that really stuck out to me as a good way to remember them.

The inner bark of the oak tree is astringent and it's very good to use on hemorrhoids. The acorns, which drop in the fall, were an important food source for the indigenous people around here. To eat them, you have to leach the tannins out of them first.



This species of mugwort, Artemisia douglasiana, is many times stronger than the type usually used, A. vulgaris. Both types are known for stimulating vivid, epic-length dreams. You can eat it, drink it, smoke it, or smell it to get its effect. A. douglasiana is also bitter (which stimulates digestion) and diaphoretic (helps push heat out of the body). It also stimulates circulation in the abdominal area, making it a nice herb for women generally but a rather bad herb for pregnant women. Mugwort is an annual, so it will come up here in the spring. The leaves are green on the top and silver on the bottom.

White sage, Salvia apiana

White sage, the sage everyone already knows because it's used ceremonially. Many people use dried bundles of this like incense to clear bad energy out of a place. Because of this plant's popularity, I would absolutely avoid harvesting it in the wild. It gets picked too much as it is.

Sage is a cleansing plant, and it slows secretions, making it a good choice for women to dry up their milk flow when they wean their babies. It's hot, pungent, and bitter. In traditional Chinese medicine, pungent plants are thought to be disinfecting. Our guide explained that this is because the pungency typically comes from essential oils, and essential oils are often disinfecting. This sage can be used as an insect repellent and as a gargle for sore throats.

Sage is in the mint family, and mints tend to be cerebrovasodialators, which means they open up blood flow to the brain. No wonder everyone says to use peppermint for migraines! Sage is also very astringent.

Prickly pear

If you hang out with Mexicans, then you already know about eating nopales. If you can find a way to get past the prickles, this plant is some good eating! Use newly grown leaves - minus the spikes - and cook 'em up. They are a good asthma remedy and good for blood sugar regulation. They're a bit slimy like okra, but delicious. The fruits, called tunas, are delicious as well. (And prickly - don't pick 'em with your bare hands!)




And almost last but very much not least, we came to the plant I was most looking forward to: willow! I've got a bunch of pomegranate cuttings I'd like to propagate, and willow is chock full of root growth hormone. To use willow to promote root growth, snip off the tips of newly growing branches, remove the leaves, cut the branches into one inch segments, and make them into a strong tea (you can let it steep for a while). Once it cools, use it to water the plants you are trying to propagate. You can store your willow water in the fridge, at least short term.

Willow is, of course, also famous because it's the natural source of the chemical aspirin is based on. The pain relieving compounds are in the inner bark of the willow. Willow does not have the same nasty side effects as aspirin, although some of the same precautions still apply (don't give it to kids with fevers). Compared to aspirin, the pain relief from willow comes more slowly and gradually but lasts for longer.





Horehound, which is in the mint family, is bitter and expectorant, which means that it helps expel mucous from the lungs. The leaves are soft and fuzzy. Horehound is fairly easy to propagate from a cutting.

So that was our herb walk! There were several plants that were MIA just because it's winter, so I'd like to go back to hike here throughout the year, and maybe even go on another guided herb walk once new plants spring up several months from now.

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Sycamore trees (4.00 / 2)
I kinda miss them. Where I am in Northern California I just haven't seen them in the wild. But people plant them and they do OK. Our Forest Service ranger station was build during the Roosevelt era and they have a couple of huge ones on their lawn. What we get in those moist canyons instead are big leaf maples.

I was very surprised to see a large growth of white sage on our Mount Konocti after they opened a road to the top for public hiking access last summer. Otherwise, I hadn't seen any of those around here, either.

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