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Eriodictyon californicum – Yerba Santa

Only image available of Eriodictyon californicum labeled for reuse. Please contact me if you have a better image!

Only image available of Eriodictyon californicum labeled for reuse. Please contact me if you have a better image!

More Images

With the exception being the poor quality image to the left, images for this plant are unobtainable for reuse without breaking copyright laws. To see a better collection of photos please go to UC Berkeley’s CalPhotos site. Please feel free to contact me with any images that better capture the form of this plant.

Also Called

Yerba Santa, Holy Weed, Mountain Balm, Consumptive’s Weed and Bear Weed



Distribution and Habitat

E. californicum can be found in Foothills and Mountains, Chaparral, and Redwood forests as well as in urban and cultivated areas below 5,500 ft elevation. Mostly found in Northern California. The species E. trichocalyx is found in Southern California.

Description of Plant

This is an aromatic shrub which sheds bark and has a weedy growth habit. The leaves are alternate and have a leather-like texture and are commonly toothed. The tops of the leaves are sticky while the underneath is a lighter color. Flowers are produced in branched cymes and can be white to purple. The flowers are horned shaped and tubular with five lobes and five stamens. This plant blooms May to July.

It can be propagated by division as this plant grows by rhizomes.

Description of Plant Uses

The Spaniards called this plant Yerba Santa or ‘Holy Weed’.

Today, E. californicum is used by the food and pharmaceutical companies to mask the bitter properties of different foods and drugs. It is also used as a habitat and restoration plant and in fire resistant landscapes.

Tea was made by tearing 2-3 leaves (either fresh or dried) and steeping them in boiling water. Chewing the fresh leaves also produced a refreshing taste in the mouth soon after the initial bitterness dissipated and is said to quench a persons thirst and is therefore valuable on the trail.

Ethnobotany / Medicinal Uses

The plant can be used to cure poison oak rashes. The leaves are boiled and turned into a thick concentrate which is then applied to the skin as hot as the person can bear. After only one application the rash will disappear in only one to two days.

It has also been used as a cure for colds and asthma. The flowers, which appear in Summer, and the leaves were used in teas for stomach aches, sore throats, fever, colds, coughs, congestion, fatigue and rheumatism. It was also smoked like a tobacco plant. The leaves were also warmed as a poultice for sores and aches.

Mashed leaves were applied to areas which were wounded such as cuts and abrasions as well as on areas with broken bones to reduce swelling. It was also used for pain relief. It was used by both the Native Americans and then later adopted by the Spaniards.

Additional Resources or References

Chlorogalum pomeridianum – Soap Plant, Amole

Chlorogalum pomeridianum flowers

Chlorogalum pomeridianum flower stalk

Also Called

Soap plant or Amole


This plant is part of the Hyacinth or Hyacinthaceae family.

Distribution and Habitat

All zones except the high mountains and deserts. Dry and open slopes up to about 5000 feet. From Oregon to San Diego.

Description of Plant

This plant grows from a bulb and has long leaves which are strap-like, looking like a wide grass. In late spring and summer the flower stalks range from four to eight feet tall and can form small colonies of plants. The flowers are one inch wide, scattered along the stalk and evening blooming. The flowered open over a period of several weeks and each lasts for a single week.

Description of Plant Uses

The Native Americans used this plant for many different uses including for fiber, soap, adhesive, food and to stupefy fish.

The bulb is stripped of its outer fibrous layer and then crushed to make a soap. The soap was used to create a lather to clean clothes as wells as hands. It was also considered to be an excellent shampoo.

Chlorogalum pomeridianum leaves

Chlorogalum pomeridianum leaves

If slow roasted in a pit oven this bulb could also be used as a food source. Usually the bulbs would be placed in a pit oven at night and they would be ready for use in the morning. This slow cooking method made the bulb lose its soapy properties. The left over fibers were used as brushes, usually to brush the fine flower made from various nuts and seeds such as acorns out of baskets.

Young leaves were often harvested and cooked in a pit oven. This slow roasting process made these leaves sweet and therefore very delicious. The young leaves were also often eaten raw while the older, larger leaves were used to wrap breads before placed in ovens.

When cooked the bulb produces a thick substance. This was commonly used as a type of glue to attach feathers to arrows. Juice from the leaves were used as a type of tattoo ink, producing a green color.

One of the most interesting uses for this plant was its use as a fish poison, which is now illegal in California. Large numbers of fish were caught by damming streams and then by throwing in the crushed bulbs. This would stupefy the fish which would then float to the surface and could easily be picked out by hand. This process would stupefy fish and eels but not frogs. The poison also did not affect the fish as a food source.

Ornamental Value in the Landscape

This plant can be used for its ornamental value in the landscape. It is easy to cultivate and may multiply into a small colony in the garden. Plant it amount shrubs or at the edge of an oak canopy. It prefers sun to partial shade and is drought tolerant. It is adaptable to many different soil types.

Ethnobotany / Medicinal Uses

The soap plant, Chlorogalum pomeridianum, was also used medicinally. It was commonly used as a poultice for sores and rheumatism.

Rumex species – Sheep Sorrel, Canaigre, Curly Dock

Also Called

The three species discussed here; Rumex hymenosepalus, Rumex acetosella and Rumux crispus, can also be known as wild rhubarb, Sheep Sorrel, Sour cane, Tanner’s dock, Sour dock, Pie dock, Curly leaf, Dock, and Yellow Dock.

Yet another species, Rumex angiocarpus, also can be known as Sheep Sorrel.


Rumex crispus illustration, an American Native Plant


Mountain Sorrel, Oxyria digyna, is also in this family.

Distribution and Habitat

Curly dock, R. crispus, was imported from Europe. The species, Rumex hymenosepalus, is a native plant to California and was used extensively by the Native Americans. R. hymenosepalus can be found from Wyoming, Utah, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California. It is found in sandy stream beds and in fields below 6,000 feet elevation.

The species, R. crispus, can be found along streams and other wet areas below 8,000 feet.

Rumex acetosella is a common California edible weed which occurs in damp places throughout the state.

Description of Plant

With R. hymenosepalus, this plant has long, green leaves which appear around February. It has very short stems which has a reddish hue. Flowers and seeds appear on the central stalk which turns a rusty red in the fall.

The species R. crispus has long, narrow green leaves on a short stem which come out in clusters from the base of the plant. The leaves has ruffled edges. Flowers are greenish and turn a rusty color as they go to seed.

These two plants look very similar other than the difference in the curly leaves and the root.

Rumex acetosella is a perennial herb with lanceolate leaves with the lower leaves showing more of an arrowhead shape and with petioles longer than the blades themselves. Flowers are yellowish and turn more red with age. Flowers are produced from March through August. Fruit is small and triangular. Fruit looks much like the other members of the Rumex genus, see illustration of R. crispus for an example.

Description of Plant Uses

Rumex hymenosepalus

Rumex hymenosepalus, introduced from Europe

All sour docks are highly esteemed by many cultures around the world. They are commonly added to foods such as breaks, salads and soups.

These plants are closely related to rhubarb and are used in many of the same ways except that R. hymenosepalus needs to be cooked in water to remove the bitten tannins found in the leaves. The other species of Rumex do not have as high of concentrations of tannin.

These plants are used in omelets in countries such as India and Native Americans, such as the Miwoks of California, mashed the leaves and added as little as water and salt before eating them.

This was also commonly used as a drink plant made by simmering the leaves in water for about 20 minutes. When cooked the leaves taste similar to spinach with a tartness of lemon.

This plant is also an important and common item in the diet of many animals such as the mule deer as well as many birds.

The high amounts of tannin found in the roots allow this plant to be used to tan hides and leathers.

Ornamental Value in the Landscape

This plant, as being commonly viewed as a weed, has no ornamental use in the landscape and is unobtainable in the nursery trade.

Common Misidentification / Poisonous Lookalikes

There are no known poisonous lookalikes.

Ethnobotany / Medicinal Uses

Rumex acetosella

Rumex acetosella

The Hopi Indians used the roots in a tea to treat colds.

The Navajo used the powdered root as a treatment for sore throats and it was also gargled to help with sore gums.

Skin sores and swellings were also treated by a external tea made from the root.

R. crispus was used by the Pima’s to color the edges of blanket with a mustard colored dye which is produced when the plant is boiled. A mixture of salt and leaves was made into a poultice and bound to the forehead to cure headaches.

R. hymenosepalus was used to make a brown dye for wool.

Active Compounds

The roots contain anywhere from 25% to 35% tannin which has been exported from the Americas to Europe since the 1880’s. This also contributes to one common name given, Sour Cane. This tannin can be used to tan hides and treat leather.

Nutritional Value

Dock is a a good source of Thiamin, Niacin, Folate and Calcium, and a very good source of Dietary Fiber, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Riboflavin, Vitamin B6, Iron, Magnesium, Phosphorus, Potassium, Copper and Manganese.

Read More:

Pinus edulis – Pinyon Pine

Pinus monophylla

Pinus monophylla

Also Called

Nut Pine and Pignolia.

Other varieties include Pinus monophylla, P. cembroides, P. edulis and P. quadrifolia. P. edulis is listed as a rare and endangered plant by the California Native Plant Society.



Distribution and Habitat

Pinyon pine is found between 4,000 and 7,500 feet elevation in dry, rockly places. They are found in Pinyon-Juniper woodland and are also located on the base of the Sierra. Some species are known to border deserts.

Description of Plant

Pinyon Pines have short trunks and conic crowns. Their bark is a grayish brown. They are usually smaller than other pines and normally reach from 5-15 meters tall.

Description of Plant Use

In Native American lore this plant is said to be the oldest food source of the people.

The nuts are picked in fall and early winter. Many tribes took long journeys to collect pine nuts and would gather the green cones with long poles, knocking them off of the trees. They would then be piled into large mounds and set on fire to remove the pitch. The seeds would then be easily removed.

The nuts were often put into baskets with hot coals and shaken to roast them, which aided in their preservation. It was said that the basket never burned but that the nuts would come out well roasted.

Seeds were sometimes gathered by raiding nests of pack rats, where they were stored in large quantities.

Pinus edulis

Pinus edulis

The nuts were consumed raw, roasted and in atole (a type of gruel).

The seeds have a high nutritional value with a high amount of protein and fat. They have more than 3,000 calories per pound.

Some native tribes did not allow pregnant women to eat pine nuts because it was believed that it would make the baby too fat and therefore hard to deliver.

Pitch from the Pinyon Pine was used to waterproof water baskets as well as to repair broken pots. Pitch was also chewed as gum.

The inner bark of the Pinyon Pine was used as an emergency food by many tribes.

Medicinal Uses

The pitch was used to treat sore throat, burns, sores as well as for a glue.

Leymus condensatus – Giant Rye Grass

Also Called


Distribution and Habitat

This plant is commonly found from Central California to Mexico, especially coastal areas of California. See map.

It is found in Coastal Sage Scrub, Chaparral, Southern Oak Woodland, Foothill Woodland, Joshua Tree Woodland and sometimes wetlands. It is found below 5,000 ft. elevation.

This plant follows fire and is one of the first plants seen in fire disturbed areas.

Plant History

Before cattle ranchers invaded California this plant was found in coastal mountain areas in huge plains which were called Carrizo Plains. The largest of these plains was once 60 miles long and 10 miles wide and was a valuable and unique ecosystem. The destruction of this natural habitat is the reason why the pronghorn antelope is an endangered species in California. Grazing cattle consume this grass faster than it can grow.

Description of Plant

This plant grows in clumps and spreads by slow growing rhizomes. It can grow over 9 feet tall. The blades are flat and around 3/4 of an inch wide.

Description of Plant Uses

Native Americans used this grass to make arrow shafts. The arrow shafts were made when the grass was at its full height of 9 feet and then was straightened using hot soapstone.

Giant Rye was used to make sugar. This was done by collecting grass which was infested with aphids who secrete honeydew. This was collected by thrashing the grass on leather hides and then the honeydew was dried and collected. It is said to have a similar taste to that of brown sugar. This was one of the sweetening agents of the Native Americans.

Common Misidentification

Anthropologists commonly misidentify this plant as Phragmites australis, common cane.

Umbellularia californica – California Bay

Budding flowers of Umbellularia californica

Budding flowers of Umbellularia californica

Also Called

California Laurel, Bay Laurel, Oregon Myrtle, Pepperwood, Psha’n (Chumash)



Distribution and Habitat

The California Bay can be found throughout the coastal areas of the Pacific. It is common in lower mountain slopes, hillsides, flatlands and western slopes of the Sierra Nevada. It can be found in Chaparral, Yellow Pine Forests and Mixed Evergreen Forests below 5,000 ft.

The Bay can be found in a variety of soils.

Description of Plant

The Bay is a small to medium sized tree which grows up to 66 feet. It has thin, dark brown bark. It is an evergreen tree with a broad crown.

Leaves are alternate, simple, evergreen, lance-shaped and pointed at the tip. The leaves are dark green and shiny, leathery and have a very strong odor when crushed.

The flowering clusters are flat topped and contain 4 to 9 individual yellow flowers which are 1-1.4 cm across. Blooms December to May.

Fruits resemble olives. They are globe-shaped to broadest near the base and are 2-2.6 cm long. They are slightly fleshy, green and turn a yellowish-green or purplish-green when mature. Each fruit contains a single seed.

Description of Plant Uses

A closeup of the flowers of Umbellularia californica.

A closeup of the flowers of Umbellularia californica.

Leaves are harvested when young and unblemished. They are washed and then dried in the sun until they are completely dry. Ripe fruits are picked in late summer or fall and the seeds are removed and cleaned.

Dried leaves are used as a flavoring in foods. The California Bay is much stronger in flavor than the standard bay leaf normally used as a food flavoring.

Seeds are roasted, split and normally turned into flower.

The Spanish crushed the leaves and used them as a condiment while the Natives used this plant medicinally. When the leaves are consumed they have a heavy pepper flavor and are hot like pepper corns.

The leaves were also used as an insect repellent. Even today a small branch is placed in chicken coops to prevent lice.

There are no poisonous look-alikes.

Medicinal Properties

Some medicinal properties of the Bay include:

  • Headache: a leaf was placed inside the nostril or several were bound to the forehead. The Chumash Indians would tear apart 16 leaves and devein them and place in a cloth to treat migraines. It was also stated that it a leaf was placed and held in the mouth a migraine would subside in about 10 minutes.
  • Stomach Aches: a tea was brewed from the leaves
  • Rheumatism: a bath was prepared
  • Toothache: chew the leaves
  • Diarrhea: a tea was made from the leaves
  • Immunity Booster: near the change of the seasons this plant would be consumed to boost the immune system. This is safe and recommended. Simply eat as a spice in foods.

Active Compounds

The California Bay tree contains many active compounds including: cineole, thujene, umbellulone, sabinene and flavonoids.

Opuntia basilaris (O. littoralis) – Prickly Pear

Pink flowers of Opuntia basilaris.

Pink flowers of Opuntia basilaris.

Also Called:

Beavertail cactus, Tuna, Kwukwu, Indian Fig

Varieties include O. occidentalis, O. ficus-indica, O. megacantha and O. littoralis. O. basilaris is historically cited for being the most common variety used by the natives though other reports include O. littoralis as being mainly used by the Chumash natives of the Santa Barbara area[1].



Distribution and Habitat:

Common in the Mojave and Colorado deserts and is located below 6,000 ft. elevation. Various varieties of Opuntia can be located in valley grassland, chaparral, coastal sage, juniper pinyon pine woodlands and in urban areas where overgrazing and disturbed soils have left little support for other less hardy plants. Opuntia can grow in both very wet and dry areas.

This plant can also be found in areas where native tribes once lived as it was a food crop. It may have also been planted as a defensive measure to protect the tribe.

Varieties are found in California, Utah, Arizona, Nevada and Mexico. Other varieties have been introduced worldwide and are commonly seen in the Mediterranean.

O. basilaris var. treleasei (Bakersfield cactus) is considered an endangered species[2].

The red fruits of Opuntia littoralis.

The red fruits of Opuntia littoralis.

Description of Plant

This cactus is found throughout the west (see above). It can be identified by its flat and fleshy pads which grow in clumps. Large flowers, which are also fleshy, appear in the spring and are followed by red fruits.

Smaller varieties (such as O. basilaris) grow in clumps of three to four feet in diameter and about two feet tall. Other larger varieties (such as O. littoralis) can grow up to 25 ft. in diameter and up to 8 feet tall.

O. basilaris has few spines but many bristles. The bristles can penetrate the skin even through they are very small. This plant has dark pink flowers which are about 4 inches wide and have magenta filaments.

O. littoralis grows in flat eliptical segments and has many spines. Spines can reach one and a half inches long. Flowers are up to four inches wide and can be either yellow or red. Fruit can be red or purple and resembles the taste of guava.

Flowers can range from pink to yellow and fruits can be green, purple, tan and red.

Description of Plant Uses

Perhaps all varieties of Opuntia were used as a food source by the Native Americans.

The fruit was sometimes crushed and made into a drink which was boiled allowed to ferment and was consumed as an alcoholic beverage.

The young fruits (which were still green) were usually picked in the early morning when still covered in dew and then rubbed in the sand to remove its tiny spines. These were then boiled or baked to the consistency of applesauce.

Ripe fruits were gathered, dried and stored for future use.

Make sure to remove bristles and spines before eating. Pads should be boiled and fried before eating.

Many sources state that Prickly Pear fruit should be consumed in moderation.[3] This is due to what the Pima Indians believed to be poison in the purple fruit which affected a person who consumed to much of it.

If consumed in moderation (not eaten as a primary food source) the Prickly Pear fruit (known as Tuna) can actually be a healthy supplement to a diet due to high amounts of calcium[3].

The pulp of its pads (known as nopales) contain glucose, fructose, some vitamin C, 5% protein, some starch, pectin and other constituents[1].

During drought this plant was fed to cattle after singing off its thorns. Cattle also seemed to like the Prickly Pear’s fruit.

Plant Legends and Myths

An old Navajo legend states that a single piece of a persons hair must be pulled out and given to the cactus to prevent its heart from twisting. [3] Another story tells of a group of Aztecs in 1325 were being pursued by hostile people. They came upon a eagle strangling a snake on top of a prickly pear. This was taken as a sign of good fortune and they settled down in the spot of present day Mexico City and the symbol is now on the state flag and the coat of arms of the Republic.[4]

Medicinal Uses

The following is a list of medicinal uses of Prickly Pear which the natives used the plant. This information is for research only and should not be taken at home. Please see your health care provider before concidering using the Prickly Pear as a alternative remedy.

  • Wounds: The natives used the soaked pads of the Prickly Pear with which they bound their wounds.
  • Lactation: The pads were heated and placed on the breasts of new mothers to encourage the flow of milk.
  • Mumps: Roasted split pads were placed around the neck and chin to reduce the swelling caused by mumps.
  • Rheumatism: In Baja California the heated pads were used to aid in the swelling caused by rheumatism.
  • Mortar/Adhesives: The sap from the pads of Opuntia was used to make an adhesive that was also used for mortar.
  • Burns:

Active Compounds [1]

Opuntia’s contain beta-sitosterol which is an anti-inflammatory agent. Extracts of this plant have shown to promote healing and also to be analgesic. As a food source the pads have shown to decrease and help control glucose levels and cholesterol. Extracts have also shown to have some antiviral activity.

Additional Resources

[1]Healing with Medicinal Plants of The West
[3]American Indian Food and Lore
[4]Edible and Useful Plants of California

Lycoperdon perlatum – Gem Studded Puffball

Gem Stuffed Puffballs. Image released under the GNU Free Documentation License.

Gem Stuffed Puffballs. Image released under the GNU Free Documentation License.

Plant Description

The gem studded puffball has a fruiting body that is 3-7.5 centimetres wide. It is ovoid to top-shaped with the outer layer covered in soft spines or scales. The ’studs’ are white or grey turning brown when aged. The spines leave spots when removed or fallen off. The spore mass inside of the fruiting body is yellow and turns olive when mature.

The puffball is only edible when the fruiting body is entirely white in its cross-section.

If gills are present it is a POISONOUS mushroom.

Common in spring.

Distribution and Habitat

Found throughout the state of California. Found singularly or in patches on decayed wood or humus. Also common in Urban areas where the soil is moist and heavily organic.

A single Gem Stuffed Puffball, Lycoperdon perlatum. Image released under the GNU Public Documentation License.

A single Gem Stuffed Puffball, Lycoperdon perlatum. Image released under the GNU Public Documentation License.

Plant Uses

All white meated puffballs are edible. The rule is that any puffball that is entirely white and uniformly smooth in texture of its meat is edible. Slice in half to make sure no gills are present. If any gills have formed it is NOT edible and it poisonous.

Medicinal Uses

Spores were sprinkled on wounds to stop bleeding.

Urtica dioica – Stinging Nettle

Stinging Nettle. Image released under the GNU Public Documentation License.

Stinging Nettle. Image released under the GNU Public Documentation License.

Description of Plant

Stinging Nettle is a perennial herb which is stout with un-branched stems. The stems bear stinging hairs. The stems are from 1-2.5 meters tall with lanceolate leaves that are from 5-12 centimetres tall and are opposite of each other on the stem. They are grayish on the undersides.

Flowers hang loosely in clusters at the base of the leaves. The flowers a small and green. Plants are either male or female.

Blooms in Summer.

Distribution and Habitat

Common in damp places below 9000 feet in most of California. All four species found in California are edible and tasty. Found in places with rich moist soils.

A Female Stinging Nettle. Image released under the GNU Public Documentation License.

A Female Stinging Nettle. Image released under the GNU Public Documentation License.

Uses of Stinging Nettle

The leaves of Stinging Nettle were eaten raw of cooked. Fibers from the stem were used to make bowstrings and in baskets.

Nettles are both delicious and healty boasting high amounts of both vitamin C and A as well as a good amount of protein.

The boiled roots were used to make a yellow dye.

Juice from nettle can be used as rennet.

The sting that nettle bears is short and is because the plant contains formic acid, similar to the bites from ants. Cooking removes this.

Best steamed or boiled. Can be cooked as a substitute to spinach and chard.

Medicinal Uses of Stinging Nettle

Rheumatism: Nettles were applied to aching areas such as those ailed by Rheumatism.

Taraxacum officinale – Dandelion

Dandelion Parts. Image released by GNU Public Documentation License.

Dandelion Parts. Image released by GNU Public Documentation License.

Habitat and Description

Flowers are bright yellow and borne on single hollow stems. This plant is originally from Europe but is widespread through the west in lawns and roadsides.

Description of Plant Uses

The dandelion is a common “weed” that was used thoroughly by Native Americans for both food and medicine. The scientific name “officinale” translates to official remedy because of its medicinal purposes.

The young leaves of the dandelion are both delicious and nutritious because of their high vitamin content. During the Great Depression people were commonly seen on the roadside picking dandelions for the days meal.

All parts of the dandelion (the roots, leaves, crown, and blossoms) were eaten both cooked and raw.

Leaves should be picked when they are very young. When the plant has flowered the leaves become bitter.

When young the leaves make a great addition to salads. When older they should be boiled or steamed. To season add salt, butter or vinegar.

Dandelion Flower. Image released under the GNU Public Release License.

Dandelion Flower. Image released under the GNU Public Release License.

Dandelions were also used to make wine.

Dandelions were also used to make a yellow dye.

Medicinal Uses of Dandelions

  • Fractures: Fractures were treated with ground leaves and water which was applied as a paste. Whole leaves were then bound to the afflicted area.
  • Bruising: The leaves were ground and mixed with dough and applied to bad bruising.
  • Heart Trouble: A tonic made from the blossoms of Dandelions was boiled down until the water turned a strong yellow for heart trouble. A glass of this tonic was consumed before breakfast every morning for one month.
  • Laxative: The green root was considered a laxative.

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