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.
Pink Rock Rose
This Rock Rose (Cistus incanus) grows on the west side of the park on the edge of the picnic area. It’s not only pretty, it has a long history of uses in traditional and sometimes modern medicine.
Another clover! We already have Crimson, Rose, Strawberry, and Hop Clover. This White Clover (Trifolium repens), standing by itself here, is out of its usual setting; normally it has a lot of company. White Clover is probably the most widely grown type of clover in commercial agriculture worldwide. It’s a legume, meaning that it fertilizes the soil with nitrogen, eliminating the need to add synthetic nitrogen chemicals. It spreads via underground rhizomes, making it resistant to mowing and grazing, and outcompeting many weeds. It’s frequently found in lawns, in part because many commercial lawn mixes include some White Clover seeds. It makes prime fodder for cattle, and is edible to humans mixed in with salads or vegetables, although the green stems may want a few minutes of boiling.
This is a wild ancestor of cultivated lettuce. It’s also known as the compass plant because its leaves twist around during the day to follow the sun. It is quite an ancient plant, with seeds found in the sanctuary of Hera on Samos in the seventh century BC. In Greek mythology it was sometimes considered food for the dead. It’s also food for the living. Wikipedia has this:
Lactuca serriola can be eaten as a salad, although it has something of a bitter taste. Young leaves can be eaten raw or cooked. However, its presence in some ancient deposits has been linked more to its soporific properties which might suggest ritual use. The Ancient Greeks also believed its pungent juice to be a remedy against eye ulcers and Pythagoreans called the lettuce eunuch because it caused urination and relaxed sexual desire. The Navajo used the plant as a ceremonial emetic. In the island of Crete in Greece the leaves and the tender shoots of a variety called maroula (μαρούλα) or agriomaroulo (αγριομάρουλο) are eaten boiled. It is used by a growing number of Jews and the Samaritans as the Maror (bitter herb) on Pesach.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lactuca_serriola
As if one ragweed weren’t enough, the park also has a population of Western Ragweed (Ambrosia psilostachya). It’s also known as Cuman ragweed. It’s native to North America and from there has spread to all temperate zones worldwide. It’s found in disturbed places, burned areas, roadsides, and depleted rangeland. One nursery rates it as an indicator of a garden in trouble. Because it can spread by fairly deep rhizomes, it is one of the first plants to grow vigorously and multiply rapidly after fire. It gets poor marks as food for cattle and deer, but its seeds are an important winter food source for birds. When it flowers in fall, it’s one of the main triggers of hayfever in allergic humans. It had medicinal uses for native American tribes for various purposes.
Velvetgrass (Holcus lanatus) aggressively invades and occupies moist ground, even where the soil is contaminated with heavy metals and the air stinks of sulfur dioxide. If you see it, you can be fairly sure there is a wetland. Each plant can produce around 200,000 seeds per year, and where conditions are right, it forms dense stands where little else can grow. It’s one of the top ten noxious weeds in Yosemite, targeted for removal to restore native plant balance. It’s edible to wildlife only when the shoots are young; otherwise it’s distasteful. It has no known human applications. The California Invasive Plant Council rates it as Moderate.
This plant happened to be growing very near the Velvetgrass (just above) but the contrast could not be sharper. Broadleaf Plantain (Plantago major) has a wealth of positive qualities, where Velvetgrass has none. The plantain is not only nutritious, high in calcium and vitamins A, C, and K; it’s also
one of the most abundant and widely distributed medicinal plants in the world. A poultice of the leaves can be applied to wounds, stings, and sores in order to facilitate healing and prevent infection. The active chemical constituents are aucubin (an anti-microbial agent), allantoin (which stimulates cellular growth and tissue regeneration), and mucilage (which reduces pain and discomfort). Plantain has astringent properties, and a tea made from the leaves can be ingested to treat diarrhea and soothe raw internal membranes.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plantago_major
This plantain (no relation to the banana) is also tough. It thrives in compacted, disturbed soils. It can grow in the smallest cracks. It survives repeated trampling. These qualities make it valuable for soil restoration, as it breaks up hardpan and holds soil together against erosion.
Broadleaf Plantain appears in footnotes to history. In Shakespeare’s Love’s Labours Lost, a character cries out for a plantain poultice after cutting his shin. Puritan settlers brought it to indigenous America, where it grew in the disturbed soil around their colonies, earning it the name “White man’s footprint” in some Native American languages.
In showy bloom in May, the California Buckeye (Aesculus californica) is a native of California and southern Oregon. It may grow alone in grasslands or mixed in with oaks and laurels in a variety of habitats. The flowers have a sweet scent and attract a wide range of butterflies, but paradoxically the nectar is poisonous to the common honeybee. In the fall, the tree drops large roundish seeds that, when opened, look like edible chestnuts; but they are poisonous to humans unless first boiled and leached for several days. Some Native American people tossed the seeds into small bodies of water to stupefy the fish and make them easier to catch. The tree is quite beautiful and may live for up to 300 years.