Tag Archives: California

Harvester Ants (Pogonomyrmex sp.) Used as Ritual Hallucinogen by California Indians

Pogonomyrmex sp., probably P. californicus – harvester ants; were used as a hallucinogen and medicine by southern California Indians (Blackburn 1976, Groark 1996).

This genus of ants has the greatest mammalian toxicity known of any arthropod (Schmidt and Blum 1978, Groark 1996), with an intravenous LD50 of 0.3-1.1 mg/kg (Schmidt and Blum 1978, Groark 1996).

For use as a ritualistic hallucinogen, in the context of a “vision quest” of Indian youth, harvester ants were eaten after three days of fasting from food, water, and sex and not contacting blood (Groark 1996). In the daytime at an isolated location fully exposed to the elements, an experienced elder administrator, the ant doctor, would lay the youth on their back and feed him, somewhat forcibly, balls of moistened eagle down with about 5 ants inside each (Blackburn 1976, Groark 1996). The dose was regulated, from dozens to ninety or so balls, and the ant feeding stopped when the eyes of the youth turned red and he became lethargic and refused more (Groark 1996). The ant doctor then acts as if they are leaving momentarily, then sneaks up behind and pokes the ribs hard to startle the youth, provoking the ants to all sting his insides at once, causing the youth to pass out (Groark 1996). In most cases, the ants were eaten just once, but in some cases, when the youth awoke several hours later, he would be asked if they can take more ants, repeating the process if able for 2-4 days (Groark 1996).

In the near-death state, the youth would have visions, wherein he would obtain spirits of animals, dream-helpers, to help him in certain abilities in life (Groark 1996). For 4 days afterward, the youth must stay alone and he and the ant doctor must not speak to anyone (Groark 1996). To obtain shamanistic powers, the ants would be eaten in a similar mannar every summer until the powers were obtained (Groark 1996). The ants were also eaten similarly for a variety of ailments, from paralysis to severe colds (Groark 1996).

 

References:

Blackburn, T. 1976. A query regarding the possible hallucinogenic effects of ant ingestion in south-central California. The Journal of California Anthropology 3(2): 78-81.

Groark, K. P. 1996. Ritual and therapeutic use of “hallucinogenic” harvester ants (Pogonomyrmex) in native south-central California. Journal of Ethnobiology 16(1): 1-29.

Schmidt, J. O. and M. S. Blum. 1978. A harvester ant venom: chemistry and pharmacology. Science, New Series 200(4345): 1064-1066).

Eating Nettles

Stinging nettles (genus Urtica) are widespread in Northern Hemisphere temperate regions and are all edible. Urtica is simple to ID; just touch it and if you immediately feel a burning, it’s a nettle! (Ur = burn in Latin, and urtica = nettle in Latin). The burning sensation tapers off in severity after a few minutes, but its after-effects (particularly felt when the afflicted part is put under hot water, or subjected to heat) can last up to a whole day. The chemical is formic acid (the same chemical in ant stings), which is injected by tiny hollow hairs covering all the aboveground plant parts.

If you don’t want to touch it, just look closely for densely packed hairs on the leaves, which become larger and more sparse on the stems, almost appearing like spines. But that’s not a fail-safe ID method unless you have otherwise familiarized yourself with its appearance.

The common species in California and the Pacific Northwest is Urtica dioica. The California Indians used this plant for food, usually cooking it first, but sometimes eating it raw! It won’t kill you to eat it raw, but it will hurt a lot. They also rubbed the fresh plant on areas afflicted with rheumatism to give relief (or maybe just distraction?!). During rites of passage to adulthood for young males, after being covered with large stinging ants for a while, the ants were brushed off with freshly-picked nettles! Double ouch!

Heating destroys the formic acid and renders it safe to eat without burning. To prepare nettles, remove the stems, boil a pot a water, put the leaves in the boiling water for 2-4 minutes (I prefer more like one minute; that’s all you need to kill the burn and leaves it with a leafy texture and taste). Either scoop out the nettles, or drain, but be sure to save the broth which is very tasty and healthy as a tea or built up into a soup. To protect your hands while collecting and preparing nettles, use a pair of leather gloves.

Image

Then use as greens much like one would use spinach (though nettle tastes better). You can make a mean pesto or pizza topping, or just eat them plain.

Nettles are way more nutritious than spinach, and are marketed as a super health food. They are just chocked full of vitamins, minerals, and macronutrients. Plus they are easy to ID, abundant where they are found, and not eaten by many wild animals. You may also get a little rush from eating something that could otherwise hurt you, kind of like rattlesnake or bear meat.

Development of a flintknapper

 

These points are shown in the order I made them. These are all the points I have successfully completed. I began flintknapping late this summer, and had spurts of progress working with the California knappers, and lately by myself.

All are “woodland type” arrowhead points, with exception of the one mahogany small spearhead point.

I used all “primitive” tools, or tools used by stone-age American Indians, not out of pretension but since such tools were made from free materials I already had – meaning I didn’t have to go buy anything like copper billets. The tools I used were mule deer and whitetail deer antlers (for pressure flaking with the tines and using the rosettes for percussion flaking billets), a basalt cobble for a hard hammerstone, sandstone cobbles for soft hammerstones and abrading, and pumice stone for abrading and sharpening my pressure flakers. I made an Ishi-stick pressure flaker from an antler tine, elderberry wood, and artificial sinew (ok not primitive but close enough). Plus I used lots of leather pads, and my safety goggles (also not primitive, but I’m not a fan of obsidian flakes in the eye; Ishi, and presumably other American Indians when struck in the eye with a flake, would quickly pull down their lower eyelid, look down, and vigorously slap the back of their head. American Indians also always knapped in a designated place, and did not talk while knapping, presumably also for safety reasons).

I made the two smaller dacite points into necklaces by wrapping the notched area in copper wire and forming a loop that I strung with a tanned deerskin leather cord.

I gave the 2nd and last four (all the best) as Christmas gifts to all my family members.

Herbal medicine for colds / influenza

‘Tis the season… for respiratory illnesses.
But don’t take antibiotics! In the long run they will weaken both your and your environment’s immune systems. There are about ten times more bacterial cells in your body than your own cells. You want to kill them all off with antibiotics and leave their habitat empty for takeover?! No; instead, take medicinal herbs, especially in hot teas, and eat healthily – lots of juices, fruits and veggies, and hot clear soups.

The following are herbs that the California Indians used to combat colds / flu / sore throats / bronchitis / fevers. They are all native to the California Bay Area, extending through Central and Northern California, but many of the same species or their relatives can be found across the US, both wild and in herb stores. I’ve tried to list them roughly in order of importance and availability.

Yerba santa (“holy herb,” Eriodictyon californicum) – an infusion or decoction of the leaves was drunk as an extensively used, very effective, and specific cure for colds, influenza, fevers, and stuffy / runny nose (Chesnut 1902, Moore 1993). This is probably the best herb for colds/flu; I made a strong infusion and noticed my discharges immediately drying up. I drank several cups of strong infusions with raw wildflower honey the evening I felt real bad and felt much better the following day, drank the same, and was cured by the third. I did, however, use many other of the below herbs, but I feel like most were temporarily relieving symptoms whereas yerba santa was curative.

Wormwood / mugwort / bronchitis plant (Artemisia spp.) – a decoction of leaves was drunk as a specific cure for colic and colds, was very efficacious for bronchitis, and fresh bruised leaves were placed in the nostrils to relieve the symptoms of colds (Chesnut 1902).

Angelica (Angelica spp.) – the roots, gathered when the plant’s leaves dry off in mid to late summer, were chewed and the juice swallowed for colds, fever, and sore throat, a decoction wash made of them for relief of colds, or they were crushed and smoked like tobacco for colds and stuffy / runny nose (Chesnut 1902, Goodrich et al. 1980). I chewed this and swallowed the juice and definitely had some relief; this would be a great relief for sore throat.

Coffeeberry (Rhamnus californica) – a decoction of the bark (a handful of bark per gallon of water was boiled until it tasted like wine) was a specific remedy for influenza (Chesnut 1902). I tried this but it was a little late to tell whether it helped. It was not so much like wine but about as bitter as red wine.

Madrone (Arbutus menziesii) – an infusion of leaves was drunk for colds by the Little Lake tribe (Chesnut 1902).

Manzanita (Arctostaphylos spp.) – an infusion of the leaves was used to cure severe colds by the Calpella tribe (Chesnut 1902).

California spikenard (Aralia californica S. Watson) – the roots, gathered July-August, were dried and a decoction made from these was highly valued as a cure for colds and fevers (Goodrich et al. 1980, Chesnut 1902).

California bay laurel (Umbellularia californica) – an infusion of the leaves was used for colds and sore throats. This is a strong antimicrobial but likely doesn’t cure a viral infection.

Pines and firs (Pinus spp. and Abies spp.) – an infusion or decoction of needles and/or sap were used to relieve and cure colds (Strike 1994). The resin or sap was also burned for incense to relieve sinus problems (Strike 1994).

Infusions or decoctions of redwood, red cedar, and other conifer needles or sap have similar antimicrobial and decongestant effects (Moore 1993). I drank a lot of redwood needle tea and ate pine sap to feel better.

Sweet coltsfoot (Petasites palmata Gray.) – roots were used for influenza (Chesnut 1902).

Balsam root (Balsamorhiza sagittata) – a decoction or tincture of the fresh root is a disinfectant-expectorant used for sore throat, bronchitis, and the flu (Moore 1993).

Lomatium (Lomatium dissectum) – a cold infusion or tincture of the fresh or dry root is a powerful antimicrobial that is used against respiratory virus infections such as influenza, bronchitis, and sore throats (Moore 1993).

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) – a powerful medicine of many uses, yarrow is especially helpful for acute fevers that begin as a head cold or flu (Moore 1993). For this ailment, drink a hot infusion  or tincture (of the whole plant or any of its parts) in hot water (Moore 1993).

Ciliate gilia (Linanthus ciliatus (Benth.) Greene.) – an infusion was used as a remedy for coughs and colds in children (Chesnut 1902).

Rosinwood (Grindelia sp.) – a decoction of the whole plant was used to cure colic and colds, especially in children (Chesnut 1902).

White horehound (Marrubium vulgare L.) – a decoction of leaves and stems was used to cure colds (Chesnut 1902).

Pepper vine (Clematis ligusticifolia Nutt.) – the stems were chewed to cure colds and sore throat (Chesnut 1902).

Bigflower Tellima (Tellima odorata) – roots were chewed to relieve colds (Chesnut 1902).

Dog fennel / fireweed (Anthemis cotula) – this plant has extremely irritating juices that cause a burning sensation, but the fresh plants were sometimes placed in bath water as a wash for severe colds (Chesnut 1902).

References:

Chesnut, V. K. 1902. Plants used by the Indians of Mendocino County, California. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC.

Goodrich, J., Lawson, C., and Lawson, V. P. 1980. Kashaya Pomo plants. American Indian Studies Center, University of California, Los Angeles, CA.

Moore, M. 1993. Medicinal plants of the Pacific West. Museum of New Mexico Press, Santa Fe, NM.

Strike, S. S. 1994. Ethnobotany of the California Indians; Vol. 2. Aboriginal uses of California’s indiginous plants. Koeltz Scientific Books USA, Champaign, IL.

Link

Traditional and Modern Methods of Acorn Preparation

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.

Winter Foraging

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:

Image

Toyon berries, bay nuts, buckeye seeds, soaproot bulbs with fibrous covering and young shoots, mint leaves, two spp. of mushrooms, an oak gall, and madrone walking/digging stick.

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/

“Soap root Recipe.

Prepare:

1. Choose young and tender soap roots.
2. Peel the outer husk till you reach the white meaty part.
3. Snip stems off.
4. Wash thoroughly.

Cook:

1. You can either boil or bake them, but in our experience, boiling is better.

To boil:

1. Set a boiling pot of water on the stove, drop soap root shoots in.
2. Boil for 45 minutes – to an hour.

To bake:

1. Wrap in foil.
2. Set in baking pan.
3. Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
4. Bake for an hour and 10 minutes.

Scraping:

1. Peel down sides of root.
2. With a butter knife, scrape the meat off the inner side of peel.

Mixing:

1. In a bowl, mix thyme, nutmeg, baking powder, cornstarch, flour. (5 tsp of each)
2. Bake at 400 for 20 min.

Warning!

Has very strong flavor. Sprinkle brown sugar on top before baking.”

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.

MINT TEA

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.

ETC

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!

References:

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.

Oyster Mushroom Gathering

The rains have finally begun here in the east SF bay area, and you know what all they promise?…. Mushrooms!!! That’s right, from the toxic to tasty, they’re a-springing up everywhere in the dank woods.

Now being from a highly fungophobic culture, no one has ever personally showed me what wild mushrooms are good to eat. Although Chris Hobbs once ID’d some pics I’d taken of a Boletus sp. for me back when we were co-gsi’s for intro bio:

Boletus rubripes

Boletus rubripes – bitter bolete

Boletus rubripes - bitter bolete

Boletus rubripes – bitter bolete

But with All That the Rain Promises and More, plus Mushrooms Demystified by David Arora, perhaps the best field guides ever written on any subjects, I’ve finally gone and collected huge bunches of wild edible oyster mushrooms, and feasted on their tasty flesh!

I was also able to identify some toxic and artistic mushrooms on the same foray!

I love eating mushrooms, and a local market (Monterey Market) sells wild-picked chanterelles, oyster mushrooms, and more, but they cost about an arm a dozen. I splurged a few times, mainly to familiarize myself with these species in hopes of encountering them in the wild.

I also have spent over a year absorbing what I’ve read in the above books by Arora (1986, 1991). All That the Rain Promises and more is pocket-sized and covers mainly bay area and California species, while Mushrooms Demystified covers most of North American mushrooms, excepting mostly southeastern species. Both are also laced with hilarious anectdotes, witticisms, and clever turns of phrase; the author really puts the fun in fungi (see, I stole that from him)!

And no, this doesn’t hinge on magical mushrooms… which are still fully described and appreciated by the book, though he doesn’t have much appreciation of those who only care about such types of mushrooms.

So about my foray yesterday….

I first gathered my ‘shroomin outfit: wet-weather boots and jacket, knife (for digging out mushroom bases for ID and for scraping them clean with the back of the blade), camera and field notebook for recording field observations, collecting bag with a stiff sheet of cardboard to prevent the mushrooms from being crushed, waxpaper and aluminum foil for wrapping my collected specimens (don’t use paper or plastic bags due to moisture issues he says), and don’t forget a cheese sandwich (since I’m always hungry like the author apparently is, who has a little bit more than a fondness for these).

I set out, with a gleam in my eye and spring in my step, but not yet a song in my heart…

At first, I was a little disappointed the woods weren’t exactly burgeoning with mushrooms… but maybe I was a little early. It has been super dry here; I don’t think it’s rained all fall. But the last two days it had dumped and poured and finally just sprinkled the night before last, when I decided it was time to gather.

The first mushrooms I found were small and bright yellow, growing on a dead (unidentifiable, severely decomposed) log in a little ditch leading toward and just near Strawberry Creek. I was pretty excited. I collected some and took pictures. Just next to it, also on a dead log, was an artist’s conk.

Hypholoma fasciculare Naematoloma fasciculare clustered woodlover

Sulfur tufts (Hypholoma fasciculare) growing on a rotten log

Hypholoma fasciculare Naematoloma fasciculare clustered woodlover

Sulfur tufts (Hypholoma fasciculare) growing on a rotten log

Hypholoma fasciculare Naematoloma fasciculare clustered woodlover

Sulfer tufts (Hypholoma fasciculare) growing on a rotten log

My intuition told me the little yellow guys were toxic, but anyway there weren’t really enough to eat. But I collected a few to take home and ID. It turned out my intuition was correct (bright colors usually equal toxic); these guys were Hypholoma fasciculare  (Naematoloma fasciculare is a synonym), common name sulfer tufts, aka the clustered woodlover, which are poisonous.

The sulfer tufts can be used to make dye though; I’ll try this sometime since they’re so abundant and vibrantly colored.

I wandered around more and soon got occupied collecting California Bay Laurel nuts, which were just overflowing in this one spot under a grand tree (see my post below about this tree species and eating their nuts, and their many other uses).

I kept wandering around, examining dead logs, and under trees looking for “mushrumps” or what Arora (1991) calls humps of leaf litter indicating a newly popping out mushroom. Not much luck.

I found some toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) berries, which I gladly gathered.

Then, while stopping to… ahem “water a tree,” there they were: two huge clumps of oyster mushrooms!

Oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus) growing on dead coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia) log

Oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus) growing on dead coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia) log

Something like eep-yaaah!! came out along with a little skip-hop. I knew exactly what they were the second I saw those! But my fungophobic heritage made me double-check my field guide right on the spot and later back home I also consulted Mushroms Demystified and both these guides fit the description of what I found perfectly. The most similar appearing and toxic mushrooms to oyster mushrooms were the jack-o-lantern and Clitocybe. So I checked these descriptions and made sure it wasn’t those.

After finding this first two clumps (I only collected the fresher one, leaving the second,larger clump for animals), I kept wandering around, hoping for a feast.

And persistance paid off, because soon enough, I found another huge clump of oysters!

Oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus) growing on standing dead branch of coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia)

Oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus) growing on standing dead branch of coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia)

Oyster mushrooms

Oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus) growing on standing dead branch of coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia)

I gathered less than half of these, just the fresher ones from which I still had to shoo off some pleasing fungus beetles (actually their common family name), and one big black beetle, (which was not so pleasant-looking), leaving most behind for the animals, or perhaps a more cavalier mushroom hunter than me. Before and after gathering all these mushrooms, I made sure to say a short prayer of thanks to the oyster mushroom, oak tree, and forest spirits, something like: Yes! Thank you mushroom! Thanks Oak! Thanks Forest!

I immediately found another huge clump, but it was under a log and behind some shrubs and looked older (can you find it in the below photo?), so I just left it, feeling satisfied with my haul.

Oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus) growing under dead  log of coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia)

Oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus) growing under dead log of coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia)

Oh yeah. Now I had that song in my heart. Inspiration struck! I began my ditty: “(high voice) how big is your fungus, say is it humongous? (low voice) Yes my fungus is humongous; there’s enough to share among us!” Some vivacious, Mozart-esque whistling was the refrain. Kept that going with an even springier step and gleamier eye til I cavorted out of the forest, my mushroom bag heavy with delight!

Along the way I found some more artist’s conks, and left a little drawing of the oyster mushrooms on a well-displayed one.

Artist's conk (Ganoderma applanatum) on a CA bay laurel log with drawing of oyster mushrooms

Artist’s conk (Ganoderma applanatum) on a CA bay laurel log with drawing of oyster mushrooms

Back home, I excitedly displayed the day’s (3 hours…) haul to Emily:

Wild plants and mushrooms gathered in a few hours: three large clumps of oyster mushrooms, sulfer tufts (poisonous), toyon berries, peppernuts, bay leaves (for flea repellant)

Wild plants and mushrooms gathered in a few hours: three large clumps of oyster mushrooms, sulfer tufts (poisonous), toyon berries, peppernuts, bay leaves (for flea repellant)

Fungophobic paranoia made me first cook up a few caps from each clump to eat a small amount with Emily to make sure we didn’t have some allergic reaction. We only waited an hour or so, then I decided to cook up all of one of my three large clumps.

I followed the recommendation of Arora (1991, 1986) to cook them. First I cut off the tough, short stalk part, then washed them, allowing them to drip dry a few minutes. Then I dry-pan-fried them on high, finally adding a little butter and olive oil at the end. A pinch of salt… and done!

dry pan frying oyster mushrooms

dry pan frying oyster mushrooms

Dry pan fried oyster mushrooms with a pat of butter and dash of salt added at the end

Dry pan fried oyster mushrooms with a pat of butter and dash of salt added at the end

One of the clumps seemed to taste a little better and more oystery than the other, which didn’t have all too much taste. But I liked the texture of them both. And the fact I just gathered these from the wild, applying my newfound knowledge made them taste soo much better!

Dinner was good that night.

Dinner with a dish of fried wild oyster mushrooms

I can’t wait to go mushroom gathering again!

Beyond being delicious, mushrooms are nutritious. Quoting from Anderson and Lake (2013):

“Today Central Sierra Me-Wuk elder Phyllis Montgomery says, “the willow [oyster] mushrooms [possibly Pleurotus cornucopiae (Paulet) Rolland formerly P. ostreatus] are like a steak —they’re chewy” (Anderson unpublished field notes 2010). Generally, protein concentrations in mushrooms range from 1 to 4% of fresh weight, or about 10–45% of dry weight, a significant amount (Hobbs 1995:54–55). For the amount of crude protein they provide, mushrooms rank below animal meats but well above most other foods, including milk (Chang 2008). Additionally, mushroom protein contains all of the nine essential amino acids required by the body (Cheung 2008). They are high in fats, phosphorus, copper, iron, various trace elements, and such vitamins as B, D, K, thiamine, riboflavin, ascorbic acid, ergosterol, and niacin (Arora 1986; Barros et al. 2008; Cheung 2008).”

Plus, now that I know where to find the oyster mushrooms I can keep going straight back to the same spot after the next rains, and year after year, since this species (species complex) tends to regrow from the same dead logs (Arora 1991). In fact, you can take home a log from which you collect oyster mushrooms and water it occasionally to make it grow more mushrooms (Arora 1991)!

The California Indians were of course well aware of this fact. Quoting again from Anderson and Lake (2013):

“Many kinds of mushrooms, such as sorog (Neolentinus ponderosus (O.K. Mill.) Redhead & Ginns), appear in the same places year after year, arising from the surfaces of rotting wood, dead stumps, snags, or downed logs during the long process of decomposition. Other mushrooms arise from the ground and have long-term associations with trees, shrubs, and grasses (Douhan et al. 2005; Hynes et al. 2010; Plamboeck et al. 2007). Thus, many California Indians have special areas that they repeatedly visit (Anderson 2009; Richards and Creasy 1996). “These sites are hundreds of years old,” said N. Turner Behill, regarding mushroom gathering areas (Anderson unpublished field notes 2006). Tom Carsoner, Central Sierra Me-Wuk, described his mushroom gathering sites as “a garden” because “you always know where to go” (Anderson unpublished field notes 2010).”

Anderson, M. K. and Lake, F. K. 2013. California Indian ethnomycology and associated forest management. Journal of Ethnobiology 33(1): 33-85.

Arora, D. 1986. Mushrooms demystified. Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, CA.

Arora, D. 1991. All that the rain promises and more… : a hip pocket guide to western mushrooms. Ten Speed Press, Berkeley CA.

Disclaimer: Always be 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.

Umbellularia californica

The Useful California Bay Laurel Tree

NAMES AND TAXONOMY

California Bay Laurel

Umbellularia californica (Hooker and Arnott) Nuttall

Also called the bay laurel, bay, California laurel, Oregon myrtle, myrtlewood (name used for wood used in furniture, carvings, and other products), pepperwood, and peppernut (the latter two from the aromatic wood and nuts), and headache tree (from its ability to cause and relieve headache with its aroma).

It is the only member of its genus, which was widespread in the Pliocene.

In the august family Lauraceae – the same family as the commercial avocado, the sweet bay from which comes the commercial cooking spice (commonly sold in whole-leaf form), and the laurel tree common in many mythologies, often featured as a symbol of peace and victory (ancient Olympic games champions were crowned with a laurel wreath, and the pigeon on Noah’s arc returned bearing laurel leaves, indicating the floodwaters had receded and land was nearby). The most gorgeous bird ever, the resplendent quetzal, also feeds exclusively on fruits of lauraceous trees in the neotropics.

HABITAT AND IDENTIFICATION

It is locally dominant in moist soils of mixed forests, redwood forests, and in coastal foothill canyons, slopes, and streambanks. It’s commonly cultivated around its endemic range (coastal mid to northern CA and southern OR). Its understory is often made open by allelopathic leaf litter, being sometimes totally barren of any plants under the main portion of the tree’s canopy.

Its trunk and branches are thick and smooth when young, developing pale low ridges with age; somewhat oak-like. Often it’s single-trunked in cultivated or upland habitat, but more often it’s multi-trunked on steeper slopes or along creeksides where its root tangles form banks.

Its heartwood rot and trunk/branch loss leaves hollows inhabited by small mammals. I’ve seen many trees toppled and killed with the base regrowing into a full, large, multi-trunked tree.

Its epiphytes are often extensive, being laden with thick moss is wetter areas.

It usually grows 40-70′ (max 150′). It has alternate branching, with simple, lanceolate, thick, shiny, dark, paler undersided, ~3.5″ long, and strongly aromatic leaves. It flowers Jan-Mar, in tiny yellowish clusters. Its fruit is avocado-like, green to purple, globular, and ~1″ wide. (Peattie 1950)

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California Bay Laurel fruit on the ground.

 Umbellularia californica

California bay laurel tree roots forming bank of stream in Wildcat Canyon

Umbellularia californica

California bay laurel trees along creek banks in Wildcat Canyon

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California bay laurel tree full of holes from dead branches, forming nice animal homes

A TREE OF MANY USES

The tree is really common in the CA bay area and has tons of uses, with edible fruits and nuts, leaves good as a spice, disinfectant / cleaner, flea repellant, de-licing agent, headache reliever (or inducer), toothache reliever,  and more…

CARVING MYRTLEWOOD

The wood is very hard, firm, heavy green, medium-light dry (40.5 lb/ft2), and fine-grained, with mottled heartwood, and thick sapwood. It is often used for bowls and furniture (Peattie 1950).

It is subject to attack by bark beetles, so be sure to cure the wood, ideally with repeated coats of linseed oil and turpentine mixed, and once fully absorbed (waiting several weeks between coats and gradually decreasing the turpentine amount, beginning from 50%), a final coat of beeswax made workable with a little coconut oil.

THE BAY LAUREL FOR MEDICINE

Medicinal uses of the bay tree, especially its leaves, abounded for the CA Indians. The probable active ingredient for most or all of these medicines was umbelliferone, which is the essential oil that gives the tree its spicy, peppery, aromatic, or bitter taste in all its tissues.

These medicinal uses include:

– An infusion of leaves was used as an antimicrobial for washing sores or was drank for colds, sore throats, stomach aches, menstrual cramps, and clotting.

– A poultice of the leaves was applied to the affected tooth for relieving toothaches. Heated leaves were applied as a poultice for rheumatism. Bathing in hot water with the leaves twice a day for two or three days was a cure for rheumatism, causing the skin to smart, which provoked thorough rubbing (Chesnut 1902).

– The nuts were eaten during gorges of clover (Trifolium spp.) to prevent the bloating that would often otherwise occur.

– Fresh leaves were crushed and smelled to relieve headache, which could also induce one. To relieve headache, a piece of the leaf was placed in the nostril, or several leaves were bound to the forehead, or the head was washed with a strong decoction of the leaves (Chesnut 1902). My fiance suffered severe migraines following a severe head injury, and smelling crushed fresh or dried leaves was one of the few things that would relieve her headaches.

– For chronic stomach complaints, a large quantity of leaves was tied around the body for a couple of days (Chesnut 1902). To cure both stomachache and headache, a decoction was sometimes drank (Chesnut 1902). The vapor and smoke from burning boughs and leaves on a slow fire was a cure for many diseases (Chesnut 1902).

– Washing the head with a strong decoction of the leaves also was used to kill lice (Chesnut 1902).

BAY LAUREL LEAVES FOR FLEAS

Fresh boughs and leaves were placed around dwellings repel fleas and insects (Chesnut 1902). I do this at my house to reduce the flea infestation, and when I rub crushed leaves on my cats, I can see the fleas fleeing. An essential oil extract placed on the nape of my cats’ and dogs’ necks repels their fleas.

I boiled up a strong decoction from a large potful of leaves with which to wash my cats. The smell from the boiling pot was so powerful it gave me an instant headache, and I had to open all my windows and turn a fan on. Once the bay leaf decoction was cooled, I added some soap (to enhance penetration) and dipped my cats one by one into it, laving lots of the liquid over their whole bodies till they were totally soaked, while standing in a pot full. They hated it and the one we didn’t have in a mesh bag when we washed them bit the hell out of me and Emily. But I’m sure it was a terrifying headache for them.

Afterwards, I inspected their coats and the fleas were all dead or stunned. Checking later, it was clear that many were just stunned, and were slowly recovering as the cat dried. It was really easy to pick them off at this time, since they were slow, and easy to see in the wet coat. Next time, it will be better to wash the cats in the full tub of soapy water after the bay treatment to wash off the stunned fleas and send them down the drain.

I also used the soapy bay decoction in a spray bottle to totally coat the carpets, floors, and other areas the cats hang out to kill flea eggs.

THE BAY LAUREL FOR EATING

One interesting use I’ve only read about once was that the root bark was used to make a drink by the California Indians in Mendocino Co. (Chesnut 1902).

A few fresh or dried leaves make a great spice for hearty or meaty stews. Substitutable for commercial bay, though using less since it has a stronger flavor. I use about 3 or four mid-sized leaves (usually young leaves since older ones tend to have sooty mold) for about a gallon pot of bean stew or pot roast.

The fruit looks like a mini avocado, about 1-2 in long, with skin ranging from lime green to dark green and often with purple, some even being entirely rich purple. I have not found a relationship between the fruit skin color and the stage of ripeness beyond that when totally unripe they tend to be lighter green, not usually developing purple until ripe, but many ripe fruits are still totally light green.

The fruit, which ripens in the fall, has flesh that is edible, but unripe it is rather bitter. Ripe, it is still somewhat bitter or aromatic, but can often be quite tasty if one finds the right tree. A good ripe fruit tastes oily and like an aromatic avocado. The flesh is about half essential oils and fats. But I’ve found that most sufficiently ripe fruits are partly rotted or eaten or otherwise damaged. Perhaps picking them slightly unripe and allowing them to ripen in a paper bag would be a solution.

COLLECTING BAY LAUREL NUTS TO EAT

The bay laurel has edible nuts that were a common food among the California Indian tribes living within the tree’s range. They parched or roasted the nuts in their thin seed coat shell, which then splits easily, revealing the large kernel.

Some people these days eat bay laurel nuts:

http://paleotechnics.wordpress.com/2012/11/05/baynutting-tips-for-harvesting-storing-and-using-california-bay-nuts/

http://rootedincalifornia.blogspot.com/2011/02/no-snow-and-california-bay-nuts.html

http://bushcraftusa.com/forum/showthread.php/79599-Bay-Nuts-I-eat-my-words!

I collected some bay nuts today, though the surrounding fruit flesh was very rotten on all of them. But that made it easier to squeeze the nuts out. A lot were already out of the flesh, just sitting on the ground in their nekkid seed coat. Close inspection of tooth marks revealed the fox squirrel (and perhaps some birds) was eating the fruit flesh and dropping the nut. Pretty surprising; I would think they’d prefer the nut to the flesh. But it was making my collection easier, so thanks Sciurus niger!

COOKING BAY LAUREL NUTS TO EAT

Raw, the oil-rich kernel is edible but a bit acrid. Cooked, the flavor is pleasantly peppery. A single family of Indians would use 3 or 4 bushels in a year, and even more were kept on supply by many (Chesnut 1902). Indians would eat only one or two dozen per meal (Chesnut 1902). These nuts were carried on long trips or when going a long time without food, being used for their stimulant properties (Chesnut 1902). They were often eaten with clover or were pounded up into a small mass, which being so oily, easily forms a cake of “bread” called pōl’-cum höt’-mil by the Yuki (Chesnut 1902).

Back home after collecting, I thoroughly washed the nuts, then let them them drip-dry a half hour (some were still damp when I put them in the oven). As per recommendation of a fellow flintknapper, Bill, a few weeks back as well as some of the above sites, I roasted my nuts in a convection (regular) oven at 450 degrees F, stirring every 3 or so minutes for a little over 20 mins total, until all the seed coats had cracked open, and the kernels changed from dull lime green to light greenish-brown or creamy brown.

Some were more well-roasted than others, but all of them were pretty good. They didn’t taste too much less bitter than the raw kernels, but I liked those pretty well too. I had to limit myself to only a few tonight since I didn’t want to be up late. I can’t wait to gorge myself on these in the morning and feel the stimulant effects!

I actually enjoy their peppery taste, and don’t expect wild plant foods to taste as bland as food you get in the grocery store. Aren’t things that are really good for you supposed to taste “bad” anyway, like brussel sprouts? A lot of people get turned off from wild foods when they find they taste surprisingly strongly of a flavor they’ve never tasted. But that’s actually one of my favorite things about foraging wild plants. Not to mention knowing those strong flavors are strong plant compounds that are bursting with vitality. Supermarket foods are as dull in taste as they are nutritionally void. I won’t go into the references but lots of studies show that wild plants have way more nutrition; macro and micronutrients, vitamins, minerals, active rna, etc. than what you find in grocery stores. In this respect, organic foods are not much better than conventional foods, and both are a chasm apart from wild foods! This holds for plant as well as animal foods.

UPDATE: After eating more of these and comparing the more to less roasted ones as well as getting feedback from another blogger (see his post http://paleotechnics.wordpress.com/2013/11/10/roasting-baynuts-in-a-popcorn-popper/), it became clear that lots of mine were not well enough roasted. They left a tingling, slight burning sensation in the back of my throat, compared to the well-cooked ones, which still had the same flavor, but without that lingering throat taste. My pictures show the kernels peeking through the seed coat crack that are still greenish and/or beige color… those are the unfinished ones. My main problem was not letting them dry first, or cook long enough. After putting the less cooked ones back in the oven for a few minutes again at 450, I got them all well done, and looking brown (see the above blog again for good pics of well-done nuts). Much better aftertaste for these now! They’re great with a little salt.

UPDATE 2: These are awesome if you grind them up (Emily, whose idea this was, used a blender) and make an infusion of (pour boiling water over) the powder! Smells and tastes like toasty cheerios, with a little bit of that zingy bay flavor. Since it has stimulant properties (though I haven’t felt much after several cups), this is a great coffee substitute!

UPDATE 3: BAY NUT COOKIES

For a recipe to make cookies out of bay nut flour and other CA native plants, acorns and manzanita berries, see my post “Winter Foraging”!

Umbellularia californica

California bay laurel fruits rotten on ground, but the nuts are still great to eat

Umbellularia californica

I collected this handful of California bay laurel nuts in about a minute

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Kernel of California bay laurel seed naturally splits in two

 

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Bowl of washed fresh California bay laurel nuts

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Washed fresh California bay laurel nuts ready to cook

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Cooked tray of California bay laurel nuts

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Close-up of bowl of cooked California bay laurel nuts

References:

Chesnut, V. K. 1902. Plants used by the Indians of Mendocino County, California. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC.

Peattie, D. C. 1950. A natural history of western trees. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston MA.

Santa Barbara Sedge Baskets

Santa_Barbara_sedge

Carex barbarae

Santa Barbara Sedge – Carex barbarae

The Pomo Indians of California called this sedge Kä-höm’ which translates “water-gift.”

This species was very often used in basket making, being the white or creamy groundwork of most Pomo baskets (Chesnut 1902).

 Many hundreds of species of Carex are found across the US, and many were used for basketry by the American Indians.

Roots were collected during the summer and early fall (Chesnut 1902). A root end by the plant is grasped between the first and second toes, while a clam shell is used in one hand to scrape away dirt and a stick is used in the other hand to pry away stones and other roots and loosen the ground (Chesnut 1902). Women would gather about 15-20 root strands each day but men only about 10 on account of his long siesta (Chesnut 1902).

To maintain the root’s flexibility and soften its bark, roots are immediately placed in water to soak overnight (Chesnut 1902). The next morning, the end of the roots are chewed to separate the bark, which is then scraped away while one end of the root is held in the teeth and the other between the toes (Chesnut 1902). This white or tan inner root is coiled for carrying (Chesnut 1902). When ready for use, the roots are thoroughly soaked in warm water, then the ends split with fingernails into three parts, which were grasped by the teeth, and two hands to carefully and very evenly split the root into three sections (Chesnut 1902). Each of these sections is then split again in the same way, and the resulting sections split again the same until the desired fineness of strand is reached (Chesnut 1902). The value, beauty, and quality of the basket increased with fineness of strands used (Chesnut 1902). Finer strands were used like thread to wrap around horizontal withes (Chesnut 1902).

Since each basket was created from the mind with no model or skeleton, exacting care was necessary to make symmetrical designs (Chesnut 1902). It required many months to years of leisure work for a high quality basket (Chesnut 1902). A single regular-sized basket could take 600-800 hours of work to finish!

Such baskets were made to be watertight. They were used as cooking vessels, with rocks heated in a fire stirred with water and food in the basket to boiling temperatures. On account of their beauty and durability, they were passed down as heirlooms despite heavy, intense usage (Chesnut 1902).

Chesnut, V. K. 1902. Plants used by the Indians of Mendocino County, California. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC.

basket made by Pomo

Sedge basket made by Pomo Indians (Wikipedia)

Juana Basilia, Chumash presentation basket with Spanish colonial coin designs, 1815–22. Deer grass, Indian rush, sumac, 24 ½ in. diameter, 4 in. height. Courtesy of the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History.

Juana Basilia, Chumash presentation basket with Spanish colonial coin designs, 1815–22. Deer grass, Indian rush, sumac, 24 ½ in. diameter, 4 in. height. Courtesy of the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History.

See the below blog posts about modern-day basketry by California Indians, where I got these photos of amazingly beautiful (& functional!) baskets made by Abe Sanchez.

http://deborahsmall.wordpress.com/2010/01/16/basket-sumac-rhus-trilobata/

http://deborahsmall.wordpress.com/2009/10/18/yokuts-style-basket-abe-sanchez/

http://deborahsmall.wordpress.com/2011/01/11/gathering-rhus-trilobata-aka-basket-sumac/

Grisly Grizzly Hunting

Grizzly bears (Ursus arctos) used to be in every state in the USA (except Hawai’i) until European settlers began systematically extirpating them. Grizzlies had been respectfully lived with in (relative) peace by the American Indians for ten thousand years, but they were seen as a threat to settler’s livestock and feared as vicious killers. Quickly, the new “shoot on sight” approach to bear management killed off their populations everyone except the remote mountains.

Nowadays, only the most distant fastnesses of mountain wilderness in Montana, Idaho and Washington, or throughout Alaska are the only places in the US these awesome, hulking beasts are still found. If we respect them and allow them space, maybe one day they will return to the wild undeveloped Rockies and Sierras, as the black bear has been making such a comeback after being similarly viciously oppressed (very recently, the black bear has returned to the Chisos mtns. of Big Bend, TX, and are thriving in CA so that here a week-long, archery-only hunting season is allowed).

Grizzly bears are light brown to dark brown and have a more predatorial look than the smaller, pudgier black bears (which actually range from light brown to black). Grizzlies are distinguished by their powerful jaws, strong arms, muscle-bunched shoulders, and a trim body. They are more likely than black bears to attack, kill, and eat people with no (apparent) provocation. Oh and if you’re lucky enough see a polar bear, it is surely lusting after your blood. Without a powerful gun, fast vehicle or sturdy building, it’s probably going to hunt you down and eat you.

BEAR ATTACKS

A grizzly being aggressive is most likely a sow with cubs nearby that to her you are seemingly threatening. Otherwise, it may be defending a carcass cached nearby, or it’s a worked-up, frustrated boar in mating (=fighting) season, or maybe it’s a mean one and it just doesn’t like your stupid fucking face. Usually, slowly backing away while facing the bear, but not looking directly in its eyes (them’s fightin’-eyes in bearspeak), or going far to one side and around the bear to continue on your way will make the bear calm down and not kill you. Or the bear will step up the aggression.

Now black bears will bluff charge, meaning they’ll rush you head-on, but stop just short if you don’t flinch (good luck). But grizzlies aren’t known to bluff charge, and they can easily out-sprint Usain Bolt (and running from a predator tells them you’re prey), so you have several options if an attack is imminent:

1) Kill the bear. Only a high powered rifle (.357 cal +) shot in the head or chest is a reliable bear-stopper. Any lower caliber not perfectly placed in the heart (it’ll still have a good few minutes of steam then) will just infuriate the bear more.

2) Bear spray. These formulations of aerosol pepper-spray may burn and temporarily blind the bear and cause its retreat, but it could still catch and kill you.

3) Climb a tree. Bad move if the bear can knock the tree down or climb it up to you, so choose a sturdy tree and climb high, fast.

4) Play dead. Curl in a ball, protecting the back of your neck with your hands, and hope it gets bored of batting you around. This will take balls and luck. A large backpack may help protect you so if you have one, keep it on.

5) Be a complete and utter badass and use a wooden club to break all of its legs (one per charge), then smash its massive skull when it’s disabled (see story below).

Really there is no fail-safe method of avoiding or mitigating a bear attack. The best response is to gauge the bear’s behavior and try to prevent it stepping up the aggression. It’s recommended to speak loudly regularly or wear a bell or something in grizzly country because bears have poor vision and hearing compared to us and are often incited to anger when spooked by people unexpectedly coming too close for their comfort. Bears, grizzlies or blacks, are not inherently malicious (ok the polar bear is pretty bloodthirsty), and if they have a choice to avoid confrontation, they will.

I got a lot of this info from “Longbows in the Far North” by E. Donnell Thomas Jr, a guy who’s hunted and killed both black and grizzly bears with his longbow.

DIET

After hibernation, grizzlies scavenge carcasses killed by severe winter weather or kill and eat animals weakened by the winter (Frison 2004). As plants become available, grizzlies eat more as the spring progresses (Frison 2004). They eat rodents, newborns, and very young of many animals, especially elk (Frison 2004). Spawning salmonids are a classic grizzly food (Frison 2004). Pine nuts, and army cutworm moths (Euxoa auxilaris) are important late summer foods (Frison 2004: 187-188). Grizzlies are known to love lots of berries, honey, and lily roots, but are highly omnivorous and can learn to exploit many new food sources, including from humans.

GRIZZLY ROPIN’

Grizzlies were hunted by 18th century Spanish vaqueros (cowboys) in California, who threw rawhide reatas (lariats / lassos) from horseback around the bear’s neck (Frison 2004). To bait the grizzlies, the hunters would kill a mare and open its intestines in a spot that bears would find and have little cover or escape holes nearby (Storer and Tevis 1983). Covering the carcass with brush prevented vultures from stealing the bait (Storer and Tevis 1983). The first night, the bait was left alone so the bears would be less wary and more bears may come (Storer and Tevis 1983). The second night, 2-5 hunters with horses would wait quietly downwind of the bait (Storer and Tevis 1983). The most experienced bear-hunting horse would notify the hunters when the bear arrived (Storer and Tevis 1983). Then the hunters would ride down and lasso the grizzly around the neck, body, or legs (Storer and Tevis 1983). The rope must be kept taut or the bear can easily remove the lassos (Storer and Tevis 1983). Larger grizzlies required multiple lassos (Storer and Tevis 1983).

Despite extreme danger to horse and man, the horses displayed “remarkable …sagacity and skill” in the hunt, and “delight in mastery of the bear” (Storer and Tevis 1983). Experienced bear hunting horses exhibited great agility dodging the lasso ropes being violently pulled about that could otherwise disastrously entangle their legs (Storer and Tevis 1983). Such horses would not run away from or to the side of attacking bears, instead knowing it is easier to wait until the last moment while directly facing the grizzly, then leap over it completely, and turn around to face the grizzly before it did (Storer and Tevis 1983). Grizzly hunting horses would tremble with loud heartbeats from as soon as a bear is seen til the moment it was taut on the lasso, when it would then be in the highest glee (Storer and Tevis 1983). Damn, horsey! I guess that’s why horses (especially stallions) were so useful for mounted warfare. I think it was Cormac McCarthy who wrote something like “a man doesn’t know the true spirit of horses until he has been into battle with one.”

An account of a bear taken this way describes how it was then brought down to a ranch and secured by its hind feet to a sturdy timber and had its forepaws tied to a strong stake: “The bear lay with his head between his huge paws, covering his eyes, save occasionally, when he would furtively lift his eyes, like a sulky child, to look at his captors; then covering his eyes again, remain a moment, and steal another look. Soon he gave heavy sighs, and some one said, ‘He is dying! … he is not wounded, but his heart breaks—he dies of rage.’ And, in a few moments he had breathed his last…” (Storer and Tevis 1983).

CA GOLDEN BEARS

Depredation of livestock by grizzlies whose former forest had been razed for rangelands incited the killing off of grizzlies from much of their former range in America (Frison 2004: 52, 189). Formerly, grizzly populations were denser in California than anywhere else in the world. The largest individual grizzlies ever recorded were from California. Many grizzlies in California had a golden yellow or light brown coat, and became known as the “golden bear” (CA is the “golden state”). The golden bear was first featured on a flag in California during the Bear Flag Revolt of 1846, which made California a Republic. The Bear Flag became the state flag of California in 1911 and the last California Grizzly Bear was shot in Tulare County, CA in August 1922. Over thirty years later, in 1953, the golden bear became the state animal of California.

INDIANS AND BEARS

The California Indians had a really different relationship with grizzlies. Their similarity to man, both in appearance and diet, made the Indians much more aware of their kinship, calling them brothers. It was said that the first men learn to fish from the heron, to hunt from the coyote, etc. but some foolish hunter killed the bear before they could learn its trick of sleeping all winter, so now they have to tough out the cold and hunger.

Women out gathering were really likely to encounter bears since they were often after the same foods; berries and roots. Especially in manzanita berry season, when bears basically lived in the manzanita groves in which the women would go out to each day to pick. When a grizzly or other bear was encountered, it was addressed in a normal voice something like; hey bear, I’m just out picking berries too, don’t mess with me; go away, leave us alone. Then the bear would go away or the people would. Sometimes though, some ornery old boar or sow with cubs would get aggressive. In such a case, a good tree would be climbed, or a hunter would try to kill the bear.

Here’s one bear fight story: mountain mohogany (Cercocarpus betuloides) wood is extremely hard, and used for making arrow foreshafts, digging sticks, and clubs (Chesnut 1902). One Indian reported how when he was a small child, a grizzly threatened his father and him, whereupon his father placed him into a high fork of a tree for protection, and when the bear charged the man, he waited til the last instant, then leaped aside, simultaneously striking the bear’s leg with his mountain mahogany club (Chesnut 1902). Enraged, the bear continued its charging attacks, and the man repeated clubbing its legs one by one until the bear was crippled, and could no longer walk (Chesnut 1902). At this point, the man walked up to the stricken bear and clove its skull with a mighty blow, instantly killing it (Chesnut 1902).

Now that’s so much more hardcore than lassoing the poor bear with your mounted buddies out on a trip just to torture and kill bears.

Many Indians bore old scars from wounds inflicted in bear fights. The Fresh roots of Oregon ash (Fraxinus oregana) were mashed and used by the Yokia Indians to cure wounds inflicted in fights with bears (Chesnut 1902).

Even polar bears were hunted and killed by the Inuit. They would exploit the bear’s relative inferior mobility while swimming and harpoon the bear from their kayak.

Another effective, but cruel, trick of the Inuit for polar bear hunting was to carve out a thin, wide strip of springy whalebone about a foot or so long, then roll it into a fist-sized ball, keeping it that shape by covering it with fat, then tying a string around it and freezing it. When the fat froze it kept the bone rolled up and the string was untied, and more fat applied and frozen around it. Then they simply left the ball somewhere the bear would find it, whereupon the bear would swallow it whole, thinking it was just a tasty ball of fat treat. But once its body heat and stomach acids melted the fat, the whalebone would spring back out into its long shape, puncturing the bears stomach and intestines, making it die a slow and painful death. Then the Inuit would track it from the spot they left the ball and collect a massive pile of meat and bones, and its huge pelt.

References:

Chesnut, V. K. 1902. Plants used by the Indians of Mendocino County, California. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC.

Frison, G. C. 2004. Survival by hunting: prehistoric human predators and animal prey. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.

Storer, T. I., and L. P. Tevis, Jr. 1983. California grizzly. University of California Press. Berkeley, CA.

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