Thanks to the contributions of two energetic people who know plants, chavezpark.org is publishing a complete botanical inventory of the park. Jutta Burger PhD is Lead Scientist for the California Invasive Plant Council, and Bob Huttar is a certified arborist and a consulting field biologist specializing in botany generally and rare plants in particular. Together they are photographing and identifying everything that grows in the park, both common and scientific names. They’ve done the scientific heavy lifting. I’m adding some background blog-talk. We’re publishing the results in a series, with a new installment every Friday.
This week’s Flora Friday feature is “edibles” with a question mark. The group includes a series of plants whose common names suggest a food or a beverage, herb, spice, or condiment. That’s the Australian Tea Tree, the Big Saltbush, Bittercress, California Bay, California Sagebrush, Cape Honeysuckle, Carrotwood, Cheeseweed, Cherry Plum, Coffeeberry, Four-wing Saltbush, Himalayan Blackberry, Holly Leaf Cherry, Lemonadeberry, Lollipop Tree, Santa Cruz Island Buckwheat, and Sugarbush. All of them grow in the park. (Some others that fit this description, like Wild Radish and Wild Mustard, have been covered on this website long ago.) For most of these plants, the hint of edibility in the common name is a fiction. Only one of today’s list is likely to yield some actual food value without major effort, and that’s the Himalayan blackberry, which, however, is neither from the Himalayas nor really a berry. Let’s take a look.
Australian Tea Tree
The Australian Tea Tree (Leptospermum laevigatum), as the name suggests, is a native of Australia. Captain James Cook, after arriving on the coast of New South Wales in 1770, is said to have brewed a tea from the leaves. He may have been the last person to do so. I’ve not seen more recent mentions of tea made from this plant. A related plant is cultivated commercially for tea tree oil, which is said to have medicinal properties. Laevigatum is considered invasive in parts of Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa and is classified as a “watch species” in California, where it may be spreading. However, it also has its fans in the landscaping trade, where it is valued as a screen. It develops a profusion of small flowers in the spring, and attracts birds and insects.
The Big Saltbush (Atriplex lentiformis) gets its name not from its taste, but from where it grows, among other places: habitats with saline or alkaline soils. You’ll find it edible only if you’re a saltbush sootywing butterfly (Hesperopsis alpheus) or the larva of certain other Lepidoptera. It’s a native of the American southwest. Here’s a closer look at its flowery stems
This plant has a very flexible attitude toward gender. It can bear male flowers, or female, or a mix, and it can change genders over time. Whatever.
Bittercress (Cardamine oligosperma) is native to California and other western states. It hasn’t attracted much of a literature. A British website rates it two stars out of five for edibility and one out of five for medicinal uses, but cautions that there is very little information about it. More photos at CalPhotos and CalFlora.
The California Bay (Umbellularia californica) is the familiar Bay tree that grows abundantly in some Bay Area parks, particularly near streams and creeks. The strong odor of its leaves, when crushed, resembles the Mediterranean bay laurel leaves sold as a cooking spice, but is much stronger and needs to be used with caution. Historically, this tree has enjoyed a rich diversity of culinary and medicinal uses. Wikipedia says:
Umbellularia has long been valued for its many uses by Native Americans throughout the tree’s range, including the Cahuilla, Chumash, Pomo, Miwok, Yuki, Coos, and Salinan people. The Concow tribe call the plant sō-ē’-bä (Konkow language).
The leaf has been used as a cure for headache, toothache, and earache—though the volatile oils in the leaves may also cause headaches.Poultices of Umbellularia leaves were used to treat rheumatism and neuralgias. A tea was made from the leaves to treat stomach aches, colds, sore throats, and to clear up mucus in the lungs. The leaves were steeped in hot water to make an infusion that was used to wash sores. The Pomo and Yuki tribes of Mendocino County treated headaches by placing a single leaf in the nostril or bathing the head with a laurel leaf infusion.
Both the flesh and the inner kernel of the fruit have been used as food by Native Americans. The fatty outer flesh of the fruit, or mesocarp, is palatable raw for only a brief time when ripe; prior to this the volatile aromatic oils are too strong, and afterwards the flesh quickly becomes bruised, like that of an overripe avocado. Native Americans dried the fruits in the sun and ate only the lower third of the dried mesocarp, which is less pungent.
The hard inner seed underneath the fleshy mesocarp, like the pit of an avocado, cleaves readily in two when its thin shell is cracked. The pit itself was traditionally roasted to a dark chocolate-brown color, removing much of the pungency and leaving a spicy flavor. Roasted, shelled “bay nuts” were eaten whole, or ground into powder and prepared as a drink which resembles unsweetened chocolate. The flavor, depending on roast level, has been described variously as “roast coffee,” “dark chocolate” or “burnt popcorn“. The powder might also be used in cooking or pressed into cakes and dried for winter storage. It has been speculated that the nuts contain a stimulant; however this possible effect has been little documented by biologists.
Some modern-day enthusiasts have revived these historical food uses, adds the author. You’re on your own with that.
California Sagebrush (Artemisia californica) is a native with a preference for the coast and foothills, typically in chaparral communities. It’s a member of the sunflower family, not a true sage. However, it has a fragrance of its own that can be used in cooking and to brew tea. It is said to have medicinal properties; check Wikipedia. Here’s a closer look:
Have you ever plucked a honeysuckle flower and sucked the tiny sweetness from it? Well, even though this Cape honeysuckle (Tecoma capensis) is not a close relative of the true honeysuckle (Lonicera caprifolium), its nectar has a sweetness that hummingbirds seek out, and it’s not toxic to humans. It’s a native of South Africa with an established following in the garden trade, where it’s valued for hedging and for ease of propagation. It can produce its flowers just about any time of year. It grows in the forested grove on the west side of the park.
Carrotwood (Cupaniopsis anacardioides) is an Australian tree that has an orange inner bark, and orange fruits, hence the name. Otherwise it has nothing in common with the garden vegetable. However, some Australians (not many) like to eat the thin fleshy part of the fruits, called an aril. Many birds also like it. The tree prefers to be on the coast and grows in the forested grove on the west side of the park. It’s listed as a noxious weed in Florida, where it’s also known as carrotweed, but not yet in California.
Cheeseweed (Malva parviflora) can be found in many spots in the park, and has many names, including variants of “mallow.” It is not a California native, but its origin is vague — somewhere in Europe or the Mediterranean. The fruiting head resembles a miniature round package of Brie or Camembert, hence the “cheeseweed” moniker. The west coast lady (Vanessa annabella) and the common checkered skipper (Pyrgus communis) both commonly use cheeseweed as a host plant. The plant has its culinary fans as a salad ingredient or a cooked green. However, don’t let your chickens gorge on it, they’ll produce lower quality eggs.
The name of this Cherry Plum (Prunus cerasifera) promises a double happiness of sweet stone fruit, but delivers a double disappointment. The joy is all in the blossoms, which radiate in February for a week or two. It grows on the south side of the park along Spinnaker Way. When it’s in bloom it’s not to be missed. More about this tree.
This Coffeeberry (Frangula californica) is a California native, so named because its seeds look like little coffee beans. The berries are catnip to birds and deer, as well as to bears and livestock if present. The berries are bland to the human tongue and don’t have much flesh, but humans do eat them, make pie with them, or throw them in the juicer, albeit with a caution not to tempt diarrhea. With a lot of effort you can even roast and grind the seeds and make “coffee” out of them, which is said to be better than chicory (a low bar) but contains no caffeine. (So why bother?) This coffeeberry plant grows in the forested grove on the west side of the park.
Four Wing Saltbush
The Four Wing Saltbush (Atriplex canescens), is a relative of the Big Saltbush (above). It likes to grow on disturbed sites and to keep company with California Sagebrush (Artemisia). It is listed as edible for forage, but its more interesting food-related use is in the preparation of Native American maize. To become edible in tortillas and other food items, the maize needs to be nixtamalized. In modern practice, slaked lime is used for this process, but traditional people used the ashes of Four Wing Saltbush. This plant grows in the forested grove on the west side of the park.
The Himalayan Blackberry (Rubus armeniacus) is obviously not a California native. Although it is in commercial cultivation as a food plant, the California Invasive Plant Council rates it as “highly invasive.” The plant “rapidly displaces native plant species and thickets to produce such a dense canopy that the lack of light severely limits the growth of understory plants.” Botanists also point out that the fruit is not a true berry but a cluster of numerous drupelets. The distinction becomes clear when you watch a bird such as a finch attack a black”berry.” It doesn’t eat the whole “berry.” The bird picks off one of the drupelets and processes that with its beak, then goes to the next. Birds also spread the seeds, making it hard to contain the plant. The “Himalayan” species — actually probably Armenian or Iranian — is bigger and sweeter than the common blackberry (R. fruticosus). This plant grows near the northern edge of the forested grove on the west side of the park.
Holly Leaf Cherry
Unlike the “Cherry Plum,” above, the Holly Leaf Cherry (Prunus ilicifolia) actually produces sweet edible cherries under the right growing conditions. It is a California native, and human California Natives cultivated it for centuries. The fruit has only a thin layer of flesh around the large smooth seed. The flesh can be eaten raw or fermented to make an intoxicating beverage. The seed itself smells of almond when crushed, and formed a major food source for some native peoples, second only to acorns. Native Californian women leached the seeds thoroughly to remove the bitter tasting and toxic hydrocyanic acid that they contain. That done, the seeds could be roasted and/or ground into a meal to make a variety of dishes. The plant also had medicinal uses. Source.
The Lemonadeberry (Rhus integrifolia) is a southern California native not commonly found in the wild this far north. The name comes from the fruit which has a tart flavor and can be mixed with water to make a drink reminiscent of lemonade, but Native Americans cautiously leached the fruit before eating it in quantity. The sap from the plant can cause rashes. Source.
Lollipop Tree (Myoporum)
Whoever named this plant (Myoporum laetum) the Lollipop Tree must have hated children. The tree does make fruits, and you could mistake them for small lollipops, but they are poisonous. The whole tree from leaves to roots has “MAJOR” toxicity, according to CalFlora. It’s a New Zealand native, also commonly known as the Ngaio or Mousehole tree. It’s considered an invasive weed in California because it crowds out slower-growing natives. There are several big myoporum trees spreading aggressively in the Native Plant Area on the west side. They were installed over the protest of the native plant area builders at the insistence of the then City landscape architect. They were an urban landscaping fad in the 1970s and 80s because they grow fast, are not fussy about soil, tolerate salty coastal air, and provide dense shade. Collateral damage to children eating the fruits was ignored. In the early 2000s, a tiny bug, a thrip, found its way to the myoporum stands in Southern California and shortly thereafter to the Bay Area. The thrip distorted the leaves, rolled them up, and rendered the previously attractive foliage hideous. Insecticide treatment had poor results. As a consequence, many nurseries no longer sell myoporum trees and others do so only with a warning about thrip infestation.
Santa Cruz Island Buckwheat
The Santa Cruz Island Buckwheat (Eriogonum arborescens) resembles the Santa Cruz Island Ironwood described last week in that it grows in the wild only on a few Channel Islands, and is becoming rare even there. However, many nurseries carry it for its landscape value. It is a member of the buckwheat family (Polygonaceae) but has nothing to do with the distantly related buckwheat used to make bread. Unless you’re a bird, bee, or butterfly, you’ll find nothing edible on this plant.
The Sugarbush (Rhus ovata), is a California native that often hybridizes with the Lemonadeberry (Rhus integrifolia). That seems fitting, as a tart lemonade can often use some sugar. Unfortunately there is no evidence that the hybrids produce sweeter fruit. There is also cause for caution. Some reports say that the fruit of Rhus ovata is edible. Others say that Sugarbush contains the same irritant chemical as poison ivy. Source.