Tag Archives: ethnobotany

Plant of the day: white clover

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.

Trifolium repens

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Plant of the day: yellow mariposa

A constellation of yellow lilies blooms on a serpentine ridge atop Mt. Tam. The yellow mariposa lilies (Calochortus luteus) are little works of art: delicate patterns of red and orange decorate the inside of the petals. No two are alike. Some are plain, some are complex. All are lovely. Beetles seem to think so too; I’ve often seen them hanging out inside. When I saw the ones pictured here, some still held water from the previous night’s rain in their cup-shaped blossoms.

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This mariposa lily is a California endemic that can be found as far north as Humboldt and as far south as LA.

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Plant of the day: California spikenard

Here is a big, tall plant of the shadows. Smallish, round tufts of flowers are surrounded by large jagged-edged leaves. The unopened flowers are particularly beautiful – they look like a sculptor’s version of the childhood game of Jacks.

Usually this plant, which grows up to nine feet tall, is found in deep shady woods. I saw it deep in the Mt. Tam watershed, growing on a hillside among redwoods and tanoaks. California spikenard (Aralia californica) is in the ginseng family, and is used by herbalists as a tonic. The roots (and sometimes other parts of the plant) were used extensively by various Native American tribes to treat a wide variety of ailments from cancer to fainting to stopping periods. Most commonly it seems it was used to prevent skin infection, or as a tonic for colds. It has also been called elk’s clover or prairie sagewort.

Spikenard in fruit (September)


Filed under Medicinal, Native, Plant of the day

Plant of the day: soaproot

For most of the year, soaproot is an innocuous plant. A tuft of narrow leaves grows straight from the ground like a bouquet of wavy, pale green ribbons. But in bloom they’re a spectacular sight! A long, branched stalk shoots up from the center of the leaves, with white flowers scattered along it like stars. Six long but very narrow petals bend backwards, with six long sepals rising surrounding a long slender pistil. The flowers are delicate but large, and striking enough that I saw them while driving and pulled over for a closer look.

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One reason that I haven’t seen this little agave-family lily in bloom more often is that it only opens in the early evening, and closes again in the morning. The flower stalk can grow up to seven feet long, but is delicate enough that it’s easy to miss when the flashy flowers are closed.

Chlorogalum pomeridianum, also known as amole, star lily, soap lily, or soap plant contains saponins and was traditionally used as its name suggests. The crushed bulb foams up nicely and was used to wash hair, bodies and anything else. The plant was also used in fishing, since saponins are toxic to ichtyoids. The crushed bulb would be tossed into a stream, and soon the hapless fish could be scooped out.

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