Signs of the Season

Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia)
Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia)

A standard exercise in early schooling, from K to 6, is to have the kids find “signs of the season.” Here’s some stuff for those exercises, kids. The top photo shows the berries of Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolio). If you want to impress the teacher, call the berries “pomes.” They look like tiny apples (pommes in French). Can you eat them? Yes and no. Yes, people have been eating them for centuries, see below. But no, you shouldn’t pig out on them raw as they contain tiny amounts of cyanides (but so do apples, apricots, peaches, cherries, and plums). Some cooks have made Toyon pome pie, and it’s said to be not bad; cooking gets rid of the cyanides. Birds love the pomes and may go bananas eating them without harm. If they have nothing better, bears eat them too. But there aren’t any bears in the Native Plant Area of the park, where this Toyon is thriving. The Toyon is the only California native plant that still goes by the name that the indigenous people gave it, or something like it. Indigenous people had names for every local plant but all those names have been lost and replaced with English common names except for the Toyon.

California indigenous people used the Toyon not only for food but also for medication. According to Wikipedia,

The pomes provided food for local Native American tribes, such as the ChumashTongva, and Tataviam. The pomes also can be made into a jelly. Native Americans also made a tea from the leaves as a stomach remedy. Most were dried and stored, then later cooked into porridge or pancakes. Later settlers added sugar to make custard and wine.[19] The plants were also often cooked over a fire to remove the slightly bitter taste by Californian tribes.[20]

The Tongva (who called the plant ashuwet) ate the berries fresh, boiled and left them in an earthen oven for 2 to 3 days, roasted them, or made them into a cider. Pulverized flowers were steeped into hot water to make tea which could be used to ease gynecological ailments. For stomach pains, bark and leaves are steeped in hot water to make tea. The same tea can serve as a seasonal tonic and ease other body pains. Also, applying mashed ashuwet to sores eases pain. Infected wounds are washed using an infusion of bark and leaves.[21] The ʔívil̃uqaletem also called the plant ashwet. They often consumed the fruit both raw and cooked.[20]

The plant has been used as a treatment for Alzheimer’s by indigenous people of California and recent research has found a number of active compounds that are potentially beneficial to Alzheimer’s treatment. These include icaricide compounds, which protect the blood-brain barrier and prevent infiltration of inflammatory cells into the brain.[12]

Is that enough for your Show and Tell on the Toyon? So next we go to Fennel. The three photos below the Toyon pomes are Fennel seeds. Some of them are still green, others are a bit older and have dried up and turned brown. Either way, you can eat them. They’re sweet, with a slight licorice flavor. They don’t have anything potentially harmful in them, unless you’re pregnant, in which case first check with your doctor. On the web you can find a lot of positive recommendations for Fennel seeds. A remarkably long list of benefits appears in the WebMD site. It reports Fennel seeds used for weight loss, cancer prevention, improved breastfeeding, and general nutrition, among other points.

The EatingWell website elaborates:

Fennel seeds are tiny but mighty—they contain minerals like calcium that play a role in building bones and maintaining nerve and muscle function. They also have iron, an essential nutrient for growth and development, and magnesium which supports muscle and nerve functions. Fennel seeds also contain manganese, a mineral that is important for bone health and supporting the immune system.

Research suggests that the antioxidant and antimicrobial properties present in fennel seeds may play a role in lowering blood pressure, improving heart health and decreasing cancer risk.

You can find some recipes for cooking with Fennel seeds on the BBC-cooking website.

You don’t have to buy them in a store. You can get all the Fennel seeds you could want for your home for free in the northwest corner of the park and on the northern half of the western ridge, as well as in scattered locations almost anywhere in the park. Several kinds of birds also rely on them in the winter months, but you needn’t fear that by taking seeds for yourself you’re depriving the birds. There’s plenty of Fennel to go around for every creature.

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