Bay Nature article by Emily Moskal about how the Indians used acorns and bay nuts for food, and how you can use analogous methods today with modern kitchenware! Acorns were probably the most important single food source for all American Indians, constituting up to over half their diet! Oaks are almost everywhere in the US, and all of them have edible acorns.
On Saturday, Emily and I went on a foray for mushrooms at a park on the SF peninsula. We were with MSSF people who were out to collect for the fungus fair which was the following day. But the rains were super late this fall, and despite the fact that it poured on Friday, the mushrooms were apparently quite scarce. Chris Schoenstein, the leader of the foray, told us just one good rain in Sept. would’ve probably been enough, and kept pointing out areas that were rife with mushrooms on the same day the year prior.
Good thing plants are always around. I wasn’t too bothered by the dearth of mushrooms since there was plenty of edible and useful flora to gather. See my cornucopia of a haul:
TOYON BERRIES TO EAT
There was plenty of toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) berries which are good to eat, though are kind of acidic and mealy raw. The California Indians usually cooked the berries to make them sweeter by tossing them about in a basket with hot coals or sometimes by boiling (Chesnut 1902). I’m going to try the cider recipe on this site: http://www.livingwild.org/winter/toyon/
Straight toyon shoots were used to make arrow shafts, the wood being rather strong, but fairly light. The California Indians also used a decoction of the leaves for stomachache and various aches and pains (Chesnut 1902), but they contain cyanide compounds, so I wouldn’t use too many leaves. Interestingly, Hollywood got its name from the many large toyon trees that grew there back in the day. Toyon is not a holly (genus Ilex, Family Aquifoliaceae), but its berries and leaves look pretty similar.
CA BAY LAUREL NUTS TO EAT
I also collected a basketful of California bay laurel (Umbellularia californica) nuts. These are so good to eat once cooked. Se my below post about the bay laurel tree for more info on prep.
We recently made “California Native cookies” (our invention) using half bay nut flour, half acorn flour, and manzanita berries.
Here is the recipe:
1 cup acorn flour (from the valley oak, Quercus lobata)
1 cup roasted bay laurel nuts
1 cup California wildflower honey
1/2 cup manzanita berry flesh (seeds removed)
1/2 cup organic butter, softened
1 organic free range egg
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp hot water
1/4 tsp salt
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Mix together butter and honey. Beat in egg. Dissolve baking soda in hot water and add to batter along with salt. Stir in flours and manzanita berries. Drop large spoonfuls onto ungreased sheets. Bake 10-12 mins in the preheated oven. Enjoy!
Thanks to Jill Miller from Olompali State Historic Park for the inspirational recipe she cooked us with acorn flour!
BUCKEYE SEEDS TO PROCESS AND EAT
On our foray, I also collected a number of California buckeye (or horse chesnut, Aesculus californica) seeds. These are highly toxic raw, but the Indians would cook these to eat. I’ve not done this and I don’t recommend you do without further research but here is their method:
Methods for processing varied, but basically consisted of roasting, then washing out the toxin (Chesnut 1902). The seeds were first cooked in a earth oven (Chesnut 1902). A pit was lined with rocks which were heated by a fire burning inside the pit (Chesnut 1902). Once it burned down, the pit was lined with willow leaves, the seeds placed over these, more willow leaves covered the seeds, and the pit was covered with hot ashes and dirt, cooking for 1 to 8 or 10 hours (Chesnut 1902). When done cooking, the seeds have the consistency of boiled potatoes, and were thinly sliced, put in a basket, and soaked in running water from 2 to 4 or 5 days (Chesnut 1902). Alternatively, the (less thin) slices were mashed into a paste with water, while the red-brown skins floated to the surface where they were removed (Chesnut 1902). The paste was then placed to soak from 1 to 10 hours in a basin of sand (as was done for leaching acorns). After either such soaking process, the resulting food, which had the consistency of gravy, was ready to eat (Chesnut 1902). It was often eaten cold without salt (Chesnut 1902). The seeds were not preserved for long times (as in the case of acorns), since they decay or sprout rapidly, and after sprouting, the taste is bad (Chesnut 1902).
Once I collect more buckeye seeds I’m going to try this method… carefully eating the first bits and waiting a while…
The Indians would sometimes use buckeye seeds crushed up to poison fish in pools or sluggish streams, but this didn’t work near as well as other plants they used preferentially for this purpose such as soaproot or turkey mullein (Chesnut 1902).
Buckeye wood is soft and sticks of this species were preferred for the spindle stick for friction fire starting (Chesnut 1902).
The Indians also used mistletoe growing on buckeye as an abortifacient (Chesnut 1902).
SOAPROOT FOR SOAP AND FOOD
On our foray, we collected soaproot (Clorogalum pomeridium) from a large patch. We made sure to leave the lower part of the root to resprout, place any seeds from the dried stalk into the hole, and re-cover it with dirt and litter. That’s how the Indians assured sustainable harvest (Anderson 2005). We taught the other foray members about this harvesting method when they wanted to collect some soaproots too.
Soaproot had lots of uses for the Indians. They gathered the fresh young shoots in March and roasted them to make them sweet and tasty (Chesnut 1902).
Raw, the saponins make it toxic, but the bulb is good to eat after being slowly roasted or boiled in its skin. The Indians would use an earth oven of course, like most of their Indian potatoes were cooked I found the following recipe, a comment by “Julie” on this webpage: http://www.tulipsinthewoods.com/wild-plants/soaproot-chlorogalum-pomeridianum/
I’m going to try this. I’ll update when I do. Thanks Julie!
The fibrous root cover was gathered into bunches and used to make brushes used for processing acorns, being used to sweep up bits of flour and nut pieces while grinding and sorting out the hulls (Parker and Ortiz 1991). These fibers were also occasionally used to make beds (Chesnut 1902). Roasted, the bulb was used as an antiseptic poultice for sores (Chesnut 1902).
Fresh, the bulb was rubbed on the body for cramps and rheumatism (Chesnut 1902).
A decoction of the bulb was used as a diuretic and laxative and for stomach ache characterized by excessive gas in the stomach (Chesnut 1902).
Juice of the fresh green leaves was used as green ink for tattooing (Chesnut 1902).
The leaves were highly esteemed in summer, when other leaves are dry, as the best succulent, flexible, and large leaf for baking acorn bread (Chesnut 1902). The dough is completely covered with the leaves, then placed on hot rocks and covered with other leaves and ashes (Chesnut 1902).
When the bulb is roasted, a viscid juice is exuded that served as a substitute for glue for for attaching feathers to arrows (Chesnut 1902). This glue diluted with water was applied to bow backs and soot upon the bow just after to turn it permanently black, making it appear old (Chesnut 1902). The reason the probably did this was to make it less conspicuous to their prey, a bright, shiny, whitish object being alarming and suspicious to any animal.
The name soaproot comes from the fact that when the bulb is crushed and rubbed into any fabric with water, it froths up and is an effective soap (Chesnut 1902). This soap was preferred by Indians to soap made by settlers for cleaning baskets, washing silk and delicate fabrics, removing dandruff, and washing hair, which was left very soft and glossy (Chesnut 1902). That’s mainly what I collected it for.
Crushed pulp of the root was thrown into small, low-water streams, or deep pools to stupify fish and eels, which were then collected in great quantity to eat (Chesnut 1902). One account tells of how after the last rains of June, a village would assemble and mash up many bushels of soaproot bulbs on rocks (Chesnut 1902). Meanwhile, a 6-7 ft high weir is built downstream by driving willow poles into the river bed and lashing them with redbut bark (Chesnut 1902). Indians stationed up the stream for 3 miles or so evenly spread out the crushed bulbs while constantly agitating the water (Chesnut 1902). Shortly the fish and eels, but not frogs, floated to the surface stupified and were captured by hand or in a shallow, coarse-meshed basket (Chesnut 1902). As much as 100 bushels of fish and eels were thus captured at one time, and this quantity evenly divided between everyone in the village (Chesnut 1902). No ill effects resulted from eating such “poisoned” fish Sometimes pther plants were used in combination, or alone, but only turkey mullein (Croton setigerus) was as effective as soaproot (Chesnut 1902).
Soaproot and yucca, (esp. twisted- leaf yucca) are very similar taxonomically, superficially, and in uses by Native Americans. Yucca has saponins, its roots were used as soap, to stupify fish, and was eaten after cooking.
Also on our foray, we collected a few species of mint leaves. These are great for tea. Various species have various medicinal uses, but an important trait of them all is relaxing the smooth muscles, especially the gastrointestinal tract, making them great for upset stomach, digestion, or bowel problems. The tea tastes great just plain for no reason.
We got a few mushrooms, which I haven’t ID’d yet.
Another thing we got was a gall. It’s from Quercus lobata, and is the biggest one I’ve ever seen, and perhaps this kind is the biggest of all types. Fresh green galls make a great black dye if you mix it with a bit of rusty metal, and you can make a permanent black ink from it (Chesnut 1902). In fact, if you poke an old steel pen into the gall, you can dip out a permanent ink that works great to write with (Chesnut 1902)! The one pictured is old, and I just picked it up for a curious decoration.
Lastly, I made a walking stick from madrone, which has finely close-grained wood, so makes for a smooth handle and strong wood. I’ll harden the pointed end with fire to make a traditional digging stick.
So don’t think just because it’s winter, or there’s not been enough rain, there’s no foraging to be had. There’s always many different plant parts ready for use at any season! The Indians might take a trip looking to collect one particular species or taxon like mushrooms, but they’d always end up getting other stuff available at the time that they happened upon. That’s optimal foraging!
Chesnut, V. K. 1902. Plants used by the Indians of Mendocino County, California. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC.
Anderson, M. K. 2005. Tending the wild: Native American knowledge and management of California’s natural resources. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.
Parker, J.F. and Ortiz, B.R. 1991. It will live forever: traditional Yosemite Indian acorn preparation. Heyday Books, Berkeley, CA.
Disclaimer: Always be 100% certain of the identity of any mushroom or plant before ingesting. Many mushrooms and plants superficially look very similar, and without expert identification, it is easy to mistake a poisonous and edible species. I assume no responsibility for any harm, injury, or death from information given in this post.