This wild rose is a favorite sight in spring and summer, as pink blossoms give way to ripe red fruit. This is the California rose (or as it is conversely known in Latin, Rosa californica), which grows in nearly every county in California, as well as in parts of Oregon.
This hardy shrub can look scraggly, but also can be groomed into a good garden plant, with pale green leaves and colorful fruit and flowers. It grows to 8 feet tall but is usually smaller. The tangle of thorny branches make excellent shelter for birds, and I’ve spotted many a nest by peering into a wild rose bush.
Rose hips are a renowned source of Vitamin C, and you can make an immune-boosting tea just by pouring boiling water over the red fruit. The hips can also be eaten fresh, though the inner bit is unappetizing, filled with seeds and strange stiff hairs. But the thin outer layer of flesh is tasty–I usually eat it by splitting the fruit open with a fingernail and scraping out the seeds. But this is labor intensive, and rose hips were never a significant food source for Native Americans. There was some medicinal use, though. A tea of wild rose hips was used to treat fever, sore throats and stomach aches–as well as to wash sores and sooth the pain of babies.
There are several different kinds of wild roses in California, and they all look fairly similar. The California rose (according to the Marin Flora) has the brown remains of its sepals at the tip of its ripe hips, and also tiny hairs visible on the stems of its leaves. It grows in full sun and partial shade, and in both wet and dry areas.
Salal is a familiar companion of the forest underbrush from Alaska to Santa Barbara. It is unadorned for most of the year, a simple shrub with largish (~4 inch) leathery leaves that dance up alternate sides of a slightly zig-zagged stem. In between the large veins, the leaves are traced with an intricate lacey pattern somewhat like the crease on the palm of a hand.
Small bell-shaped flowers of pinkish white appear at the tips of the stems in the early summer, and by now the dark purple fruit has ripened. Each berry is lightly hairy, and they are fairly sparse on the plant. Though edible, I have found them to be bland the few times I’ve tasted them. The leaves can be made into “a pleasant tea“, and poultices made of the leaves were traditionally applied to cuts, burns and sores. The fruit or leaves were also used to make dyes (of purple or yellow).
Golden chinquapin with nut
In the scrubby underbrush of dry hillsides is a shrub with velvety golden down on the underside of its shiny green leaves. This is the aptly named golden chinquapin (Chrysolepsis chrysophylla), which is a member of the oak family. It’s nuts, which are covered with a spiky golden husk, ripen in the summer time. The nuts are sweet-tasting and can be eaten raw or cooked; they were a common food for local tribes. If you plan to collect them, I recommend taking thick gardening gloves though–the spines are SHARP!!
Golden chinquapin is mostly found in coastal counties in California, but it does grow in scattered inland locations as well. It’s native to California, Oregon and southern Washington, where its range moves inland (and the plant gets larger). In our area it usually appears as a shrub, but don’t be fooled if you see a tree that fits the same description. The more widespread variety of this species is a tree that can grow up to 60 feet tall!
Clusters of grayish-blue fruits hang from the branches of a small tree. Blue elderberry (Sambucus nigra) is a beautiful plant with arching branches. Its shaggy bark is wrapped around with furrows in older plants. The leaves are a fresh green and paired; each pinnate leaf actually looks like several leaves, since it is composed of 3–9 little leaflets.
Elderberry has a rich history of being used in cuisine, crafts, and medicine–but it must be approached with caution since the green parts of the plant and the unripe berries are quite toxic. The roots are the most toxic of all. But ripe berries make a delicious syrup, jam or wine, and the plant has long been cherished by traditional cultures. Petals can be eaten raw, made into a tea, or used to flavor pancakes. Some have even dipped the entire flower head in batter and fried it! Elderberry syrup is said to be an effective treatment for the flu; you can buy bottles of it at most health food stores. Native Americans used the branches for baskets, flutes and arrow shafts, and the fruit was a main food source.
Before the fruit is ripe, you can tell blue elderberry from its cousin, red elderberry, by the shape of the flower head. Blue elderberry has a flat-topped cluster, whereas red elderberry flowers are arranged in a pyramidal or roundish shape.
Notice the flower head is flat, not cone-shaped
White heads of flowers dot the unmowed ball field like cotton balls scattered freely. But look close and the blooms are not at all cottony; this is a clover, each head a cluster of dozens of small pea-type flowers. The leaves are distinctively bisected with a faint crescent line that looks like a watermark, or the pattern left behind on paper that was soaked and then dried.
Everpresent in lawns and weedy berms, white (Trifolium repens) clover is one of the most common (and dare I say overlooked) plants around. Rare, shy, or temperamental flowers are a treat to find and behold–but I also like to take the time to get to know the species that are so common that they are easy to ignore. This little European invader is certainly one of those. But it turns out that not only is it a favorite snack for livestock, but humans can eat it too! Young leaves can be used in salads or soups, or it can be cooked like spinach. Dried flowers and seed pods have been ground into a high-protein flour that can be used on its own or as a garnish. The plant can be boiled for a tea, either just because its tasty or as a traditional Cherokee treatment for fever. Roots can be cooked and eaten, and evidently the leaves give baked goods a vanilla-like flavor. Who knew.
In spring, the native roses bloom with graceful pink blossoms. In the summer, they are decked with clusters of red fruit. And year-round, the elegant bushes are lush with small round leaves. A wild rose is a treat in any season or any setting, whether forest or garden. Telling the different species apart can be tricky (the local key requires fruit which isn’t helpful in spring). But at this time of year, the wood rose–Rosa gymnocarpa–stands out because it loses its sepals as its fruit begins to ripen; other species retain the sepals (and sometimes the dried remains of the stamens too) on the ends of the fruit. One of its other common names is “bald hip rose”.
Though technically edible, the small red hips are packed full of seeds that are nestled inside a dense layer of hair that grows on the inside of the fleshy shell. Not exactly succulent, they have a tart, good-for-you, vitamin-C kind of tang. I read that the seeds are a good source of Vitamin E. The petals also can be eaten, and both petal and hip can be steeped for a tea. Historically, leaves were sometimes chewed as a remedy for bee stings, while the soaked bark was a wash for sore eyes.
See how the end of the fruit is smooth?
This tough, blue-eyed plant is a rugged survivor (aka, a weed). Chicory (Cichorium intybus) thrives on the edges of human activity: roadsides and empty lots. It was originally native to Europe, but now it is so well established across North America that it often is described as “naturalized”.
Chicory also has a long relationship with people as a food. It’s roots–roasted, toasted and ground–are a renowned coffee substitute. They also can be cooked and eaten like parsnips. The bitter leaves are used in salads or spaghetti; they are less bitter in the wintertime. Because chicory plants have plenty of inulin (a type of starch that diabetics can’t digest) they are a recommended food for people trying to limit their glucose.
Their pretty blue flowers are light sensitive, opening at dawn and closing by the afternoon.
So you thought a blackberry was always a blackberry, huh? Well, no. Or rather, there are a few different kinds of blackberry, so you have to look close.
I wrote about the invasive Himalayan blackberry a few weeks ago–but now the native Pacific blackberries (Rubus ursinus) are beginning to ripen, so keep your eyes out for them as well. Superficially, these look similar to their invasive cousins. Both grow in prickly mounds of briars. Both have leaves that generally are in groups of three, and many-segmented berries. But Pacific blackberries are all-around more delicate: their berries and their thorns are both more delicate, and their leaves are a lighter green and a thinner texture. Flip one over, and the Pacific’s leaf will be green below while the Himalayan’s leaf will be white.
If you get a look at the flowers, the distinction gets even easier. Pacific blackberry is the only local member of the Rubus genus to have gender-segregated flowers. What this means is that instead of male stamens and female pistils being in the same bloom, some flowers only pack pistils while others only sport stamens.
And that is why botany is awesome.
It tastes great in salads, but fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is an unfortunate weed in California. It grows avidly along roadsides and in other disturbed places. This plant grows up to ten feet tall, with feathery leaves and yellow umbrella-shaped umbels of flowers.
The leaves and the seeds have a distinctive licorice flavor, which is likely why the plant came to the Americas in the first place. It’s been used as a spice and a medicinal plant for centuries, and is thought to have escaped into the wild time after time.
Fennel is an invasive species, and takes over areas by forming dense stands where nothing else can grow. This isn’t just because the plants are so numerous that there is no room for any others. They also exude chemicals that actually prevent their competitors from growing!
Check out the above video for an musical animated interpretation of why fennel is a problem…
A sprawling pale-stemmed bush is decked with dark purple raspberries. Warmed in the sun, they have a mild, rich sweetness. These tasty fruits are smaller, leaner, and much darker than their plump commercial cousins. I’ve always preferred the wild version!
There are many listed names for Rubus leucodermis (western raspberry, white stemmed raspberry and whitebark raspberry) but I’ve always just called this “wild raspberry” since it’s the only native one around. It’s in the same genus as Himalayan blackberry, but though the plants are similar they are easy to tell apart even when not in fruit. Western raspberry is a delicate shrub with slim branches that have a glaucous coating which you can rub off with a finger. The leaves of both species are three parted, but blackberries’ are much thicker and darker.
Western raspberry is one of my very favorite California berries, but you won’t see it growing in Marin. Sonoma County? Yep. Santa Cruz? Yep. Even down to San Diego and up into Alaska. But for some reason it doesn’t like the San Francisco bay – there’s no record of it in SF, Marin, the East Bay, or the Peninsula.