Foraging for local, edible plants with health applications
The 93 acres of riparian habitat that make up the Butte Creek Ecological Preserve are varied and picturesque. With steep canyon walls providing a backdrop, the terrain is lush and green near the creek, rocky above the flood plain—the site used to be a gravel quarry—and overrun with thorny, invasive plants like star thistle and goat’s head.
In that high and dry area, there’s a demonstration garden featuring drought-tolerant manzanita, ceanothus and wild rose plants native to the North State. Jon Aull knows many of the plants on a somewhat personal level, he says, because he helped put them in the ground 15 years ago as a parks and natural resource management student at Chico State.
Now he’s the ecological reserves research and education coordinator for the university’s Research Foundation. During the CN&R’s recent tour of the preserve, Aull, soft-spoken and knowledgeable, produced interesting facts about seemingly every shrub and tree, even scrubby specimens most people wouldn’t look at twice. In particular, he discussed the plants as food—what tastes good, what’s merely edible, what’s poisonous and what can be used as natural health remedies.
“There’s very little out here that will make you sick if you eat just a little bit,” he said. “If you eat a lot of some things, like acorns, you’ll get sick.” He’s even heard of forest workers eating small amounts of poison oak leaves to supposedly build up tolerance, but he would never recommend that: “You can also become hypersensitive to it.”
An exception, he said, is the California buckeye tree—also known as the suicide plant—which is common in Upper Bidwell Park and identifiable by the flowers, which bloom in white or pale pink clusters. The leaves fall off in the summer, leaving the otherwise bare tree with nuts that resemble pears. “Those are actually very poisonous,” he said. “Even animals don’t eat those—only squirrels. They’re somehow resistant to the toxin.”
Foragers should research wild plants before eating anything, Aull says. He recommends referencing Wild Edible Plants of North America by Donald R. Kirk.
Aull is set to lead the similarly titled Wild, Edible and Useful Plant Walk on Saturday, Sept. 10, which will cover traditional Native American and modern uses for plants found along Butte Creek. It’s one of several similar excursions slated this fall at the Butte Creek Ecological Preserve and the Big Chico Creek Ecological Reserve, both of which are properties of the Research Foundation.
Aull supervised as this reporter foraged for and nibbled on stuff he’d never considered eating, such as berries from red-barked manzanita bushes and nuts from giant pine cones. Here are just a few wild plants with surprising health applications:
Ceanothus: Chicoans might know this small tree, also known as the California lilac, by its musty smell. Aull recalls one student commenting that it “‘smells like an old person,’ but I like it,” he said. “It’s the smell of the foothills in the spring.” As for its practical applications, ceanothus blooms produce a lather when rubbed with water that can be used as soap.
Rose hips: The fruit on wild rose plants doesn’t taste good, but can be made into tea, which is a solid source of vitamin C and used as a mild diuretic and laxative, Aull said.
Milkweed: This herbaceous perennial is known mostly for its symbiotic relationship with the Monarch butterfly, Aull said. However, the milky sap in the leaves can be applied to small cuts, providing a latex-like layer of protection after it’s dried. The sap is also used to treat warts. However, it’s mildly poisonous when consumed—so don’t eat it.
Soaproot: Covered in coarse brown fibers that resemble broom bristles, the soaproot is common in Upper Park and Butte Creek Canyon. The bulb inside can be crushed into soap. Traditionally, the Maidu used the soap not only to bathe, but to stupefy fish in the creek as well, Aull said. “They would dam the creek when the salmon were running, trap them in a pool and then take the soaproot, mash it up and toss it in the creek. The soap would get in the fishes’ gills and asphyxiate them, and they’d float to the top.”
California coffeeberry: This flowering plant is common in oak woodlands. The berries, useful as a laxative, can be eaten or mashed up along with the plant’s leaves for brewing tea. Aull shared a theory about the plant’s evolutionary history—that bears are critical for its reproduction. “Bear scat is just full of these berries,” he said. “The bear eats them and doesn’t make it very far, so wherever the bear passes the seeds should be good habitat for the coffeeberry.”
Oak galls: These abnormalities on oak leaves, twigs or branches usually are the trees’ reactions to various insect infestations. The white, bulbous galls caused by wasp eggs are easily split open, and the juice inside has been used as—wait for it—an eyewash to treat infections or inflammation. “Just smash it up and it rub on your eye,” Aull said.
Yerba santa: Not to be confused with the trendy tea ingredient yerba mate, this evergreen shrub’s resinous leaves are traditionally used to treat coughs and rheumatism. The leaves taste bitterly unpleasant but, as Aull explained, they’re good for brewing medicinal teas and don’t necessarily make for a treat. “There’s a difference between something that’s edible and something that actually tastes good,” he said, laughing. “There’s edible, and then there’s choice.”