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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.

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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

Arctostaphylos varieties – Manzanita

Arctostaphylos glauca Manzanita berries

A variety of Manzanita, Arctostaphylos glauca. Image released under GNU Free Documentation License.

  • Name: Manzanita (Arctostaphylos pringlei, A. pungens, A. patula, A. uva-ursis, A. glauca, A. manzanita)
  • Also Called: Bearberry, Bigberry

Distribution and Habitat

Various species grow on dry slopes in Coastal Ranges and Chaparral and is usually found below 5,000 feet elevation in most of California. There are forty-three species of Manzanita throughout California and most of these were used as food sources by natives.

Description of Plant

Manzanita grows in dense thickets 2-4 meters high. It has greyish green leaves that are oval and 2-4.5 centimeters long. It is a large evergreen shrub with crooked branches and a beautiful smooth, mahogany colored bark. Its flowers are white (and sometimes pink) and are urn shaped and 8-9 millimeters long. Manzanita’s fruit is redish-brown when it is ripe.

Manzanita blooms December through March and its fruit appears in Spring.

A great example of the mahogany colored bark of the Arctostaphylos manzanita variety. Picture released under the GNU Free Documentation License.

A great example of the mahogany colored bark of the Arctostaphylos manzanita variety. Picture released under the GNU Free Documentation License.

Description of Plant Uses

A. uva-ursis and possibly another variety of manzanita was smoked as the Indian tobacco known as kinnikinick.

Manzanita is Spanish for “Little Apple”. The name is very appropriate as the red berries look like miniature apples. The Spanish settlers were known to pick the fruit of the manzanita while still green and was used to make a soft drink and/or jelly.

The natives of California used this fruit in many ways. It was usually used when red and ripe and collected by beating the shrub to drop the berries into collecting baskets. They were eaten raw or cooked, crushed for beverages and made into jellies.

The pulp is dry and sweet when ripe and was reduced into a fine powder, separated from the seeds and skins, and mixed with water. This concoction would usually stand for a few hours and made into a favorite drink. Ground berries were also steeped in hot water, the flavor resembling that of cider.

The beautiful flowers of Arctostaphylos patula, a variety of Manzanita. Image released under the GNU Free Documentation License.

The beautiful flowers of Arctostaphylos patula, a variety of Manzanita. Image released under the GNU Free Documentation License.

Dry seeds were ground into a fine flour and was usually made into a mush. The flour was also sometimes shaped into thin cakes and were baked on top of hot ashes. It was also eaten dry as pinole.

The green fruit has a high acidity but was known as a thirst quencher.

The flowers were steeped for tea.

Berries were also collected in large quantities and dried to be used for winter.

Several of the Indian tribes would celebrate the ripening of the manzanita with a harvest feast and dancing.

The wood was also used by the Cahuilla Indians for utensils and pipes.

Sprouts of Manzanita are commonly seen in areas molested by fire.

Many animals eat the foliage and fruit of the Manzanita. Birds, bears, and other animals are known to eat the ripe berries. Goats and some other animals sometimes eat the plants foliage. It was used as an indicator of wild game including deer, coyotes and mountain sheep. Manzanita also provides shelter for birds and other small animals.

A close up of a berry of Arctostaphylos manzanita.

A close up of a berry of Arctostaphylos manzanita. Released under the GNU Free Documentation License.

Medicinal Uses of Manzanita

  • Poison Oak: Manzanita berries were made into a tea and applied as a lotion for relief from poison oak.
  • Dropsy, Bronchitis and Colds: A mixture of both the leaves and the berries was used for relief from dropsy, bronchitis and sever colds. Some sources say that this tonic is too strong to be taken internally.
  • Stomach Problems and Weight Loss: A tea was made from the leaves of the Manzanita for stomach relief. It was also used to reduce fat.
  • Rheumatism: A tea was made from the leaves of Manzanita for a bath to aid in Rheumatism.
  • Headache: Manzanita leaves were boiled down into a yellowish-brown extract which was used as a wash to stop certain types of headaches. A tea was also made for the same purpose.
  • Sores: The Concow Indians chewed the leaves of the manzanita and applied the thick pad produced as a poultice on sores.