Retired Chico State biology professor leads hikes meant to educate locals on the Maidu’s uses of native plants
“My hands have not been so clean in days!” said Wes Dempsey, laughing as he showed me his hands. Dempsey had just completed an elaborate demonstration of peeling, cutting, wetting and lathering up bits of white flesh from a soap-plant bulb. “And feel how soft they are!” he added, flashing his contagious smile.
“The Maidu ate this bulb roasted,” the enthusiastic almost-84-year-old continued. “They used the liquid from the bulbs as glue to adhere feathers to bows, or to add a water-resistant coating to their baskets. Adding a little water to the chopped bulb, they would use the lather as skin conditioner and shampoo. They even used the detergent qualities—the ability of the plant’s natural chemistry to lower the surface tension of water—to remove oxygen from river pools and temporarily stun fish, which would then float to the top to be gathered in.”
Dempsey was introducing me to the many uses of this native plant bulb out of which grows the soap plant (Chlorogalum pomeridianum). It is just one of many plants that Dempsey gives the natural and ethnobotanical history of during his four or five annual public Maidu Medicine Walks in Chico’s Upper Bidwell Park, sponsored by the Mt. Lassen Chapter of the California Native Plant Society. Dempsey—who is renowned for his popular Tree Tours of Chico State’s Arboretum each spring and fall—was taking me on a private sneak-preview of his next Maidu walk on Nov. 14.
Our tour began in the parking lot next to Horseshoe Lake in Upper Park. Dun-colored sweeps of foothill woodland and grassland dotted with oak and pine unfolded to one side of us, rising from the lush riparian corridor of Big Chico Creek on the other side.
Dempsey started off with the soap plant, a relatively inconspicuous plant found in the grasslands of Northern California, marked by long, pointed, wavy green leaves that grow from a central, basal cluster and lie almost flat on the ground. When the leaves begin to die back in mid-summer, a tall, thin, branched flower stalk shoots up with small blue-veined white flowers at the tips of its branches. The plant and its flowers are delicate, and easy to miss among the tall grasses and yellow starthistle.
But Dempsey did not miss it, not even when only the plant’s little rounded black seeds were noticeable from its almost invisible beige branches in acres of wheaten late summer grasses. He does not miss much.
Looking out over the grassland that surrounds Horseshoe Lake, Dempsey told me, “Close to 99 percent of what you see here now are invasive non-natives—like the yellow starthistle, which is believed to have arrived in California in a shipment of alfalfa seed to Fresno in 1865—although there are lots of good stories as to how and why it got here.
“When the Maidu lived here, it would have all been annual native bunch grasses like deer grass and purple needle grass—like those there,” he continued, pointing to some shapely grass clumps beside the trail along the parking lot’s edges. “These grasses would have been filled in by the many annual wildflowers the Maidu—and primarily the women worked with plants—used for food, baskets and medicine. … The native women ‘managed’ these plants for their needs.
“Oh, wait,” he said, turning to get something.
Generally when meeting around town, Dempsey rides his bike, but because of the boxes of plant treasures he brought with him this day, he drove his small car. Dempsey’s car, along with the backpack he carries when walking the trail, bear striking similarity to the sack and sleigh of Saint Nick. Evocative aromas waft from them—mint, bay and sage. Gifts of leaves and nuts and information are offered from them.
Dempsey is as generous with his vast plant, natural-history and biology-based knowledge as he is with his good humor. “Here’s a good book … on native peoples’ uses of plants, from the first-hand perspective of a native Yosemite woman,” he offered. The next time he reached into his pack he produced a lance-shaped California bay leaf. “Crush this,” he suggested. “You can rub it on your skin like liniment to help with soreness or aches.” He peeled the green flesh off the plant’s half-inch-round seed (called a “drupe”), and had me inhale the menthol aroma. “Good for the sinuses,” he explained.
Dempsey, professor emeritus of biology at Chico State, is officially “retired,” but actively serves as the university’s Arboretum field director. Among his many nature-related activities, he also leads tours and maintains the woody-plant maps for the Mendocino National Forest’s Genetic Resource and Conservation Center in south Chico, and for the Chico Creek Nature Center.
This past spring, Dempsey was one of just seven Chico State faculty to be inducted into its newly formed Hall of Honor, organized by the university’s Emeritus and Retired Faculty Association.
When asked about the honor, he replied offhandedly, “It was really nice, but look, there’s a wonderful gray pine cone—now if you are really in need of food along the trail, let me show you this! Open one little pine nut, and I like to show and tell kids that they are eating an entire pine tree!” He pointed with his knife at how the outline of an entire tree—roots, trunk, needles and all—is visible in the embryo curled up in each seed.
After pointing out approximately 30 plants on our slow, easy, two-hour walk, Dempsey remarked, “The Maidu were very careful in managing the plants that were important to them. When they dug one bulb, they left the little bulblets to mature and maintain the stand; they never took more than they needed, and they always gave thanks—to the plants and trees themselves—for the harvest.”