Tall, delicate sprays of tiny white flowers bloom from a shaded crevice of rock. Large scalloped leaves grow abundantly around the base of each stem. This is alum root (Heuchera micrantha), a member of the saxifrage family that was used for a wide variety of medicines by native Californians.
The minute flowers are lovely and intricate, with thin narrow petals that curl backwards around the white sepals like ribbons on a gift. Long white stamens are tipped with rust-red anthers.
The root of alum root was taken for sore throats, boils and liver troubles. Roots and leaves were chewed up and spat onto the skin, or mixed into a poultice along with Douglas fir sap, as a topical treatment for wounds. Leaves and stems were pounded and rubbed on the scalp to make hair grow, and also eaten for food–either boiled or steamed.
Pitted onion (Allium lacunosum) is a small wild onion. Flowers can be white or pale pink, and have dark veins running down the center of each petal. low-growing, reaching just over one foot at its highest. It generally has two long slim leaves, either cylindrical or flat, that often are longer than the stem; sometimes these die by the time the flower is in bloom, so it can appear virtually leafless.
Marin County is the northern limit of this California endemic; it ranges from the coast to the mountains and can be found across much of the southern part of the state. All parts of it were sometimes eaten for food by indigenous Californians.
When I first saw California tea (Rupertia physodes), I wondered briefly if I was looking at a strange variation of poison oak. The glossy leaves are grouped together in threes, after all!
But when this little bush is in bloom it is clearly in the pea family. The flowers grow in small clusters of several white flowers with purple accents on the inner petals. The leaves are completely unlike those of poison oak: they have straight margins, pointy tips, and are slightly hairy. When crushed, they give off a sweet, fruity smell that reminds me vaguely of tomato.
The leaves can be brewed into a tea, hence the name. It is also called forest scurfpea and common rupertia.
This inconspicuous, trailing plant is one of the most prized herbs of the west coast. It has a strongly sweet, slightly minty flavor that made it valuable for both cooking and medicine. The city of San Francisco was named Yerba Buena until 1847; in Spanish, the phrase literally means “good herb”.
Yerba buena (Clinopodium douglasii) is a dainty little plant. It is widespread in the area, growing in the coastal scrub and deep under the redwoods. You can find it from Alaska to Los Angeles county. The paired leaves are a light spring green but often are tough and slightly sandpapery to the touch–though in sheltered, shaded places they can be quite delicate. In the spring, tiny white flowers appear along the stem, at the base of the leaves. It spreads from woody rhizome, but the prostrate stems also can grow roots, which is why you’ll often see it growing as a sparse, leggy mat.
The plant was used to season food, as a tea, and as a perfume; hunters would rub the leaves on their skin to disguise their odor from game. Yerba buena was taken medicinally to treat colds, fevers, pinworms, insomnia, kidney problems, toothaches, colic, upset stomach, thinness, and to become thin. It was also used as an aphrodisiac.
This little vetch is in full bloom right now; you can see it everywhere. Low twining vines sport one to three magenta flowers, nestled among feathery leaves.
Spring vetch (Vicia sativa) is a nitrogen fixer in the pea family that was introduced to the US from Europe and North Africa. The leaves, seeds, shoots and pods are all edible; according to Wikipedia, evidence from Neolithic sites in the Middle East suggest it was a part of the local diet of the time. It has also been reported from predynastic sites of ancient Egypt and several Bronze Age sites in Turkmenia and Slovakia. However, definite evidence for later vetch cultivation is available only for Roman times. If you trust Wikipedia, that is.
It is also known as garden vetch and common vetch.
This little plant stands along the trail like a tiny, tiered pagoda. The upper leaves are a deep purple, but despite its name, purple deadnettle (Lamium purpureum, also known as henbit) doesn’t look at all dead.
The square stem and the shape of its leaves and flowers give it away as a member of the mint family. Purple deadnettle is native to Europe and Asia but has naturalized in California and many parts of the US. The young leaves are edible and used in salads and stir-fries.
Deep in the shaded understory, small star-shaped flowers gleam. Each spray of white blooms is arranged above symmetrical rows of corn-like leaves. This is star-flowered false Solomon’s seal (Maianthemum stellatum).
This pretty little flower is found across much of North America, and goes by a whole boatload of names including false lily of the valley, starry false Solomon’s-seal, star-flowered Solomon’s-seal, starry Solomon plume, starry smilac, and spikenard. The Nuxalk Indians of British Columbia, and many other tribes, collected the ripe berries for food; the root was often used medicinally. The most-cited use was for stomach ailments but it was also used for earache, cough, arthritis, boils, menstrual troubles, venereal disease, and to stupefy fish. It is a very versatile plant.
A large yellow flower blooms on a grassy hillside. The single flower head atop a strong, sturdy stalk looks rather like a small sunflower, with deep yellow ray petals. Leaves are mostly basal, and can be long and skinny or spade-shaped. Both leaves and stalks are slightly hairy and the inflorescence is flanked by many small, hairy bracts.
This is narrowleaf mule ears (Wyethia angustifola) which are somewhat more common than their shorter cousin, Coast Range mule ears. W. angustifolia grow to between 1 and 3 feet tall. It also lacks large, leaf-like bracts surrounding the yellow flower.
The stems and seeds of the plant are edible; they were eaten raw, and the seeds were pounded into a sweetened flour called pinole. The leaves and roots were used medicinally; roots were pounded into a poultice used to draw out blisters or treat lung ailments. A bath made from leaves was used to treat fever.
Narrowleaf mule ears is also known as California compassplant.
Flamboyant pink blossoms decorate the berry canes growing alongside a shady creek. This is salmonberry–a plant graced with both tasty fruit and beautiful flowers. The open-faced blooms have five delicately crinkled petals surrounding a pale cluster of stamens and pistils.
The berries ripen in the fall, and can be eaten raw or in pies or jellies (they are considered too seedy for jam). These attractive plants are nice in a garden, though should be placed carefully as they can get spindly and are also favored by deer.
While researching this plant I was delighted to learn that there are ailments brought on specifically by excess salmon consumption! I don’t know what these ailments are, but indigenous tribes considered the bark of salmonberry to be an excellent treatment for them. The bark was also used to disinfect wounds and (brewed, powdered or poulticed) to relieve pain, headaches, burns, toothaches, labor pain, and sores. The Kwakiutl tribe also encouraged childrens’ growth by applying chewed salmonberry sprouts to the top of the kids heads.
Tiny magenta blossoms are scattered on stalks of narrow, straplike leaves that blend in with the coarse grasses of a pasture. In the afternoon, five fragile petals are spread wide around a handful of little yellow pollen-dusted stamens and a dainty three-parted pistil. Later, as dusk closes in, each bloom folds closed inside a clamshell pair of sepals, fringed with small hairs.
These are redmaids, or Calandrinia ciliata, a tremendously variable little native. The flowers range from the magenta shown here to violet to white, sometimes in the same patch of blooms. There are usually five petals but the size can vary widely (from 4 to 15mm); the number of stamens is also variable (from 3 to 15). The leaves can be linear or more paddle-shaped, and both leaves and sepals may be hairy or hairless.
So how do you know you’re looking at redmaids? The sepals are a solid clue–there aren’t many flowers with this feature. The three-parted ovary helps. But you also have to just mix-and-match the characteristics until you are confident that this is what you’re looking at!
Redmaids are common across the west, from New Mexico to BC. Indigenous people would eat the tender greens and make pinole and other foods from the oily seeds.