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.
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.
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.
Bedstraw – a.k.a goose grass, cleavers, or stickywilly
If you walk through a patch of bedstraw, you’ll know it right away. The stalks grow long and sprawling, and will wrap around your ankles. But they also are sticky! And the leaves are studded with tiny hook-like bristles! They don’t hurt to brush up against, but they certainly do cling. Its other names include goose grass, cleavers – and stickywilly.
The flowers of Galium aparine are tiny, white, four-petalled stars. But the plant’s most distinctive feature is its leaves: they stick out all around the stem like the spokes on a wagon wheel. Bristly, green, tongue-shaped spokes.
Bedstraw is widespread – not only across California, but throughout the US and southern South America, as well as Europe. A Scottish friend was just telling me that kids will grab handfuls and stick it on one another as a game. It’s listed as a native both in California and in Europe, but is described as an invasive/non-native in other states (like Arizona), so it is clearly aggressive. Bedstraw is used as a medicinal plant, taken as a tincture, juice or tea to treat maladies such as adenoids, nodules, kidney stones, roseola, and cough. It’s also been used on the skin to treat psoriasis, and eczema.