A Key to Plant Descriptions

The following sections include California native plants that can be used in landscaping within the state. Some may be used throughout, most are at least somewhat restricted, usually by temperature or available water. The listing is anything but complete as virtually any plant can have some landscape application. The choice of what plants to include is somewhat arbitrary. They all have landscape application, commercial availability, plus at least one other characteristic of particular interest. That aspect may be that they have been used historically for food or medicine, other historic significance, or that they attract wildlife.

The plants that have been listed are all available commercially, either in plant or seed form. It is not usually a good idea to attempt to collect specimens from the wild for at least three reasons. Perhaps the most important of these is that there are few enough relatively undisturbed wild areas now; removing plants from the wild can adversely affect the local community, just the opposite of what we are trying to accomplish. On a more practical level, wild plants, particularly mature ones, tend to be difficult to transplant, the shock of moving often will kill them. Even if you are able to nurse them along, their wild youth may make them leggy and sparse, unsuitable for garden use. The last reason is one of positive identification, not an issue for some gardeners, critical for others. If you find a lot that is about to be bulldozed for one purpose or another, transplanting may be appropriate. Collecting seeds from the wild may be appropriate if the plant is locally abundant, and you take only a small percentage of the available seed, a very little from several plants.

Categorizing the plants into various sections is also, in some cases, rather arbitrary. The difference between wildflowers and shrubs as well as between shrubs and trees is a little hazy. Some plants are in that hazy area, like California Sage that could be considered either an herb or a shrub; others can occur in different forms, like Elderberry that can grow either as a tree or a shrub. They have been listed here by their most common landscape application.

The plants have been listed within type, alphabetically by latin name. Please do not be put off by this; common names are also given and are included in the index for easy reference. The reason for the use of latin is really quite simple: latin names are more specific than common ones and less prone to confusion. Latin names are not perfect, plant names are occasionally changed and there are instances of disagreements among botanists as to the correct name of a given species. While this is true, there is at least an order of magnitude less confusion with latin names than with common ones. Where discrepancies exist in the latin name, The Jepson Manual: Higher Plants of California was used as the final authority. When dealing with medicinals, it can be important to be very specific. Edibles allow a little more margin, but the only way to be safe is to know exactly what plant you are dealing with. There are many common names that are used for several plants like Blue Fescue, Chamomile, and Indian Tobacco. You do not have to memorize the latin, just reference it so that you know what you are buying and what you are looking up in other references.

The individual plant descriptions contain information about potential food and medicinal uses as well as other ways in which the plant has been used historically. This information has been provided primarily so that you can learn some of the history and possible contributions of the plant. This knowledge can help you more fully understand and appreciate the plants that are a part of your life. These details may not make you a better gardener, but they are interesting and may lead to a deeper enjoyment of what is around you.

Unless you have some experience collecting and preparing wild foods and medicinals a few comments are in order. First, be absolutely sure of the species of plant you are dealing with before you eat it. Although there are not a lot of poisonous plants around, and most of them are not apt to kill you, there are a few, even several that are commonly used in landscaping. One or two could make you very sick or even kill you. The best approach is to make a positive identification and become familiar with the most common poisonous plants like Poison Hemlock (Conium maculatum), Poison Oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum), and Oleander (Nerium Oleander). You may find it helpful in your landscape to place some of the plastic name labels that come with many plants with them when you put them in the ground. If your final design drawing is accurate with respect to species, it can be helpful. Additionally be sure of species, not just the plant family; close relatives do not always share the same characteristics. The deadly Hemlocks are in the same family as the edible Carrots and Queen Anne’s Lace. They also have a similar appearance.

When trying a new food, especially a wild one, it is advisable start with a small quantity. Some people have food allergies that can cause problems. Allergies to most domestic foods are normally isolated at a young age and dealt with as a matter of course. Reactions to wild foods can also develop. Since wild foods are much more varied than domestic ones the probability of being allergic to something is higher, but should this happen, you will probably not have to avoid as wide a spectrum of foods.

A little care, knowledge, and familiarity can go a long way. It is not commonly known how many poisonous plant parts are in our orchards and gardens that we avoid as a matter of course. We eat the tomato’s fruit with abandon, but never consider using the leaves in a salad. Most of us have no idea why, we just do not do it. Tomatoes are closely related to the highly poisonous nightshades, and tomato leaves are poisonous. As a rule when we eat apples we bypass the seeds, discarding the core. Apple seeds contain cyanide and are fatal if consumed in large quantities. This is not meant to scare you, but rather to put all edibles in perspective.

Each plant, whether wild or from the grocery, should be treated uniquely. Wild plants, or those from your landscape, are not more difficult to harvest or prepare than the more traditional vegetables. They appear so only because we lack familiarity with them. This is easy to overcome.

Harvesting the natives is similar to domestic varieties. Leaves should be picked when they are young, before the plant blooms; like domestic vegetables, the leaves grow bitter and tough with age. Flowers are best when they first appear, fruit and nuts just before they fall, and roots should be dug just while the plant is dormant or just before. This makes sense, if you think about what part of the plant is receiving the most development attention in a given growth stage.

As a rule, wild foods have a lot more nutrients than domestic varieties. Commercially grown vegetables have been hybridized for marketability. That is, they have been selected based on characteristics such as appearance, uniformity, size, ability to withstand transportation and storage, and to be picked mechanically. Unfortunately nutrition and flavor have suffered.

The flavor of wild foods does tend to be stronger than that of domestic foods. This might take a bit of getting used to as much of what is found in the grocery is really quite bland. Greens, particularly those with some age, can be quite bitter. If you are boiling them, like spinach, pay particular attention to preparation. First, always bring the water to a boil before adding the leaves; this keeps the bitterness from setting. If they are still bitter, boil them in one or more changes of water. Each change of water removes some of the bitterness. Nutrition loss is often compensated for by greater original content. Lastly, just because a plant is cooked like spinach and even looks like it, do not expect it to taste like spinach.

Herbal teas are made in a similar manner to domestic tea. Again, always bring the water to a boil before adding the plant. Normally tea from leaves and flowers should be steeped, that is, remove the boiling water from the heat, add the plant material, and let it stand long enough to produce the desired strength. This is called an infusion. Roots, bark, and seeds on the other hand are usually best added to boiling water which is allowed to continue slowly boiling. This is called a decoction. Play around with various plant quantities and steeping or boiling times until you find what strength tastes best to you. You will probably find that the steeping or boiling time is a little longer and quantities a little larger than what you expect with store bought tea. A bit of experimentation with various combinations of plant material will yield a bounty of new flavors.

Over half of today’s modern pharmacopeia originated with wild plants. The active ingredients of many of our present medicinals is either taken directly from plants or are laboratory copies of chemicals found naturally in plants. Much of today’s medical research still involves searching the plant kingdom for new cures.
The medicinal information that is given for the plants is strictly historical. None of the information should be used as an alternative to seeing a medical doctor or any other modern medical treatment. Most of the information provided is very general and has been taken from ethnobotanical literature, without regard for its effectiveness. Volumes have been written on the subject. Some of the historical “cures” had little or no effect, some may have even aggravated the condition being treated.

Herbal medicine was all that was available for most of man’s existence, and its use has been universal. Most often some person within a tribe or group was considered the most knowledgeable and capable healer. This person was often, but not always, also the spiritual leader. The practice of herbal medicine by primal people throughout the world bears little resemblance to today’s medical practice. Very little distinction was made between medicinals and edibles, this is largely a modern concept. When a condition arose that required special treatment, as a rule the herbalist was intimately familiar with the patient, observing and living with the person on a daily basis. Treatment was extremely personalized based on this knowledge and on the results of previous individual approaches. The therapy used was holistic in that they combined emotional and spiritual aspects with the physical through ceremonies and other devices. Care could be constant, sometimes the healer would stand a continual vigil until the patient’s condition improved. Treatment could be altered, as needed, on a moment to moment basis. Additionally the herbalist was quite familiar with whatever plant material that was used. The affects of herbs can vary depending on when it is collected, under what conditions, where is grows, how it is applied, in what combinations, and many other variables. The healer took all this into consideration.

Should herbal remedies be of interest to you, there are several good references listed in the bibliography that you are encouraged to investigate. You may find valuable remedies to some of the milder maladies, particularly in the form of teas for nervousness or to help induce sleep.

The other uses that are listed for the plants are also for interest sake. Materials can be gathered from your landscape for natural dyes, basket making, and other crafts and projects. Again, several references are listed in the bibliography should you want to pursue any of these.

Several of the plants listed have been used in smoking mixtures. These have been noted for interest rather than as a recommendation. Before Columbus arrived on this continent, smoking was uniquely American. Today’s use of tobacco is not at all similar to the traditional Native American practice. The original purpose was spiritual, or medicinal, or both. Very few of the materials used were addicting, and it was rarely, if ever, abused. To do so would have been sacrilegious.

Primal people were totally dependent on the landscape in which they lived for all of their needs. We still are today, though the dependence is less obvious and modern transportation allows the landscape we draw on to be larger. Knowledge of the relationships that our predecessors had with plants that we still live among today may help us to remember our connection to the land and broaden our enjoyment of it.

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