Juana shakes the oak tree with her sisters until acorns drop from the branches. In this way, the Tongva Women harvest acorns together. It is Autumn, and the acorns are plentiful. Once collected, the acorns are laid out in the sun to dry. Later Juana and her sisters will store them in a large grain basket, taking care to place it on a platform raised above the earth and out of reach of rodents.
When Juana prepares acorns for eating, she cracks them out of their shells and peels the kernels out of their paper-like skin. Using a stone mortar, she grinds them to flour. The next and very important step is to leach out the bitter tasting tannins by pouring water over them in a leaching basin made of layers of fine and coarse sand. She knows this could take most the morning, but it is very important to be done completely, and so she is patient. When done, the bitter taste will have been removed from the flour. The Tongva Women can then prepare the acorns as a mush, soup or “bread.”
Acorns have been a staple of Native Americans’ diet for 4,000 years or more. They were the most important plant food for many tribes, as they are very nutritious. In this case, Juana and her Tongva sisters would have been collecting acorns from the Coast Live Oak (Quercus agrifolia) in Topanga Canyon, Santa Monica Mtns, where the Tongva people lived. (Their territory abutted that of the Chumash tribe of Malibu. Tongva were also known as Gabrieleños.) Besides the Coast Live Oak, the acorns from many other oak tree species, such as Black Oak and Valley Oak, can be harvested.
The Hollyleaf Cherry (Prunus ilicifolia): Besides making flour from acorns, Native Californians would also make flour from the pit of the Hollyleaf Cherry fruit. After removing the pit’s poisonous outer layer, the kernels were crushed and then leached, like the acorns, before being turned into flour meal. Though the flesh of the fruit can also be eaten straight off the tree, or fermented into an intoxicating drink, the Native Californians’ main use for the Hollyleaf Cherry was making flour.
When it came to foraging for wild edible plants, the Native American peoples knew what to eat and what not to eat. They had extensive knowledge about the resources that were available in the land in which they lived, and they passed this knowledge down to their children. They were also aware of medicinal values of the plants around them. Most of this information has been lost to us, and makes it difficult to know what is safe to pick or eat of the wild bounty that grows around us.
The Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia littoralis) would have provided sustenance to the Tongva people of the Santa Monica Mtns. Meaty and nutritious, Juana and her sisters would have harvested the fleshy pads called “nopales” of Prickly Pear Cactus. The fruit that forms at the very ends of the pads is called “Tuna.” When ripe (deep red color), they make a delicious jelly or a sweet raw dessert.
One of the nice things about Prickly Pear is you can harvest both the pads and the fruit without destroying the plant. That way there is always more Prickly Pear for tomorrow! You can gently pull the fruit (Tuna) off. Pads can be removed by snapping a pad at the joint. It is wise to pick young tender pads, but not the youngest, as they have more spines. But what about those spines? Native Californians mastered a good system for removing them, and you could, too. Some people recommend wearing heavy work gloves. But my trick works better: use a paper bag. Seriously! Put a paper bag on your hand like a glove when touching prickly pear and the spines cannot get to you! Next, to prepare for cooking, you can remove the spines by scraping with a knife.
Nopales pads are high in iron, beta carotene, vitamin C, and calcium. The deep red color of the fruit (tuna) means it is high in antioxidants. Nopales and Tuna would have a very nutritious choice for the Tongva people, as it is for us. Prickly Pear has many uses: raw cut up in salads, sautéed, breaded and fried, boiled, tossed in soup, or pickled. I myself have harvested Prickly Pear often from my chaparral garden, and like to make Nopales Tacos.
Lamb’s Quarters (Chenopodium californiacum or album) are one of the best-known wild edible greens, with a taste like spinach. Archeological evidence suggests its been foraged for some 9000 years and cultivated for 4000 years. Before the Europeans came, this was another one of the many plants that would have sustained the indigenous peoples of California. Lamb’s Quarters are high in protein, iron and vitamins A & C. The wild plant makes prolific seeds, which can also be ground into a dark flour for making bread, “mush” or tortillas.
Long before the arrival of Europeans, Native Americans lived well off California’s edible flora, which was bountiful. They lived in a balanced way, maintaining the land. Edible landscapes were everywhere!
Autumn is harvest time, and at Thanksgiving we are thankful for the bounty of food on our table. But, I want to take a moment to be thankful for the bounty of knowledge about edible native plants left to us by the Native Americans who came before us. In California edible native plants still thrive in wild places. Nature gave them to us, free for the taking. Each of us can add edible native plants to our native plant gardens, and enjoy the Autumn harvest season, sharing our bounty with our wildlife friends.
~Check the local native nurseries in your area and see what they have for your edible native garden~
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