Thursday, June 16, 2011

Interest Piece: Native American uses and management of California's grasslands

By Maggie Haseman, SRM Outreach Intern

I recently read an absorbing chapter by M. Kat Anderson titled, “Native American uses and management of California’s grasslands” in the book California Grassland: Ecology and Management (2007). I am intrigued by the many ways humans have historically used plants and thought this chapter about California grasslands was a good example and a note-worthy read.

Native tribes had many uses for the plants found in California’s grasslands. The California area is unique due to its Mediterranean climate; because of this many plants in the region are endemic. Anderson’s chapter outlines how California grassland plants were used for clothing, basketry, construction materials, cordage, medicine and food.

I found it interesting to read about the various clothing and adornments the natives created from plants. For festivals, dances and ceremonies, tribes such as the Tongva and Yokut often wove wildflowers, such as cluster-lilies (Brodiaea), triplet lilies (Triteleia), dicks (Dichelostemma), iris (Iris douglasiana), and common monkeyflower (Mimulus guttatus), into their hair, and to wear in wreaths, crowns and boas. The Sierra Miwok used sleepy catchfly (Silene antirrhina) for dying face paints and wore the flowers of the non-native quaking grass (Briza humilis) in pierced-ears. The Chukchansi Yokut used an unidentified grass they called chulochul to make the front side of women’s skirts and the Wintu made regalia out of grass mat, willow (Salix) sticks, flowers and feathers.

Photo from:
Eastern California Museum
 I was particularly interested in the section regarding the arts of basketry and cordage, or rope making, both of which are old crafts dating to 10,000 years ago in western North America. Anderson outlines how plants such as alkali sacaton (Sporobolus airoides),which was widespread throughout the region, bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum), which was prized for the black rhizomes, and deergrass (Muhlenbergia rigens), which swells in water helping to make baskets water tight were all once used to make baskets. The chapter lists some popular choices for cordage included: throughout California, dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum); in central California the milkweeds (Asclepias); in the northeastern part of the states irises (Iris); and in the southern deserts yucca (Yucca) and agave (Agave).

Also interesting was the use of plants, especially grasses, in the construction of structures and furniture. The Yana, Wappo, Owens Valley and Mono Lake Paiute, Cahuilla, Salinan, Pomo, Modoc, Klamath and Chumash thatched various structures with grasses such as giant wildrye (Leymus condensatus) and California fescue (Festuca californica) Anderson tells us the Pomo created beds by digging a hole, filling the hole with dry grass and covering the grass with tule, mats and/or skin blankets. She also notes that the Michahai and Chukaimina Yokut snake doctors made cages to carry rattlesnakes in, of an unidentified twined stiff grass.

The subject I found most fascinating were the extensive practices cited by the author for medicinal needs. The use of plants for medicine was widespread throughout California tribes. The Kumeyaay made tea for cramps from the leaves of sanicle (Sanicula arguta), the new shoots of giant wildrye were made into a tea by the Chumash to treat venereal disease, the Pomo induced sleep using dried and powdered red larkspur (Delphinium nudicaule), and the Coast Miwok made the roots of the blue-eyed-grass (Sisyrinchium bellum) into a tea to heal stomachaches. Anderson highlights the common yarrow (Achillea millefolium) as the most versatile medicinal plants used by the Ohlone, Yokeya Pomo, Washoe, Hupa, Karuk, Yurok, and Tolowa for teas, decoctions, powders, infusions, and cool or warm presses. The common yarrow was used for washing sores, alleviating toothaches, stomachaches, and headaches, treating burns, chills, fever, and sore eyes, and preventing swelling, and colds.

Perhaps the most prominent use of plants in California was for food; Anderson cited that 60-70% of nourishment for Californian tribes was derived from plants; not including the use of plants for seasoning such as the use of salt crystals from salt grass (Distichlis spicata). Grains, from grasses such as California brome (Bromus carinatus), Indian ricegrass (Achnatherum hymenoides), and the wildryes (Elymus) and seeds from wilflowers including mules-ears (Wyethia), clarkias (Clarkia), buttercups (Ranunculus), and popcorn flower (Plagiobothrys nothofulvus) were a good source of protein. The Yokut used acorns (Quercus) as an additional source of protein. For carbohydrates, California tribes searched underground for bulbs, corms and tubers. The Pomo ate the roots of cutleaf silverpuffs (Microseris lacinata) raw with nut bread. Corms from, cluster lilies, triplet lilies and dicks, and tubers from, yampah (Perideridia), turkey pea (Sanicula tuberose), soaproot (Chlorogalum pomeridianum), and mariposa lilies (Calochortus) were eaten raw, boiled, steamed, baked or roasted. For vitamins, minerals and fibers, Anderson outlines how California tribes harvested leafy greens to eat raw, soaked, or boiled, such as clovers (Trifolium), lupines (Lupinus), and fiddlenecks (Amsinckia). The Mountain Maidu collected woolen beech (Hydrophyllum capitatum) leaves, the Ohlone harvested sun cup (Camissonia ovata) foliage; the Atsugewi gathered wild parsley (Ligusticum grayi); the Kawaiisu picked common lomatium (Lomatium utriculatum). Also popular were angelicas (Angelica), which were used as seasoning in soups, and docks (Rumex), which are higher in vitamin C than citrus juice and higher in vitamin A than carrots.

According to Anderson tribes found extensive uses for the wildflowers, grasses, sedges and ferns native to California; the plants succored, fed, sheltered, and clothed the Native Americans for thousands of years. This article was very informative about the uses of plants native to California, I personally can’t wait to get out there and test some of these ancient customs. For more information or to read this chapter in its entirety, here is the citation:

Anderson, M.K. (2007). Native American uses and management of California’s grasslands. In M.R. Stromberg, J.D. Corbin & C. D’Antonio (Eds.), California grasslands: ecology and management. (pp. 57-69) Berkley, CA: University of California Press

1 comment:

Doug Hudiburg said...

Wow. That is one information packed blog post. Looking forward to hearing more.