Wild Spring herbs in Tehachapi?
Many herbs grow naturally and go unnoticed in Tehachapi because they blend into the landscape and we have become accustomed to their subtle beauty. We are unacquainted with their history and myriad uses. I hope to correct that and encourage you to take a fresh look at several of these delightful and beneficial plants. "Use" is the key word when it comes to defining an herb. Webster states that an herb is a plant that is "valued for its medicinal properties, flavor or scent". Let us look at some of those that grow in our own backyard.
Miner's lettuce (Claytonia pefoliata or Monitia perfoliata) has an interesting history of past utilization and present neglect. You likely have some on your property that have gone unnoticed or been a cause for puzzlement. The leaves are initially shaped like a snake's head, but as it matures the foliage completely encircles the stem. The term for this is perfoliate from which the botanical name is derived. The small white flowers occur in groups on short stalks (racemes) growing from the center of the succulent leaf.
The common name is attributed to the fact the miner's used the plant as a salad green. It was a welcome spring sight to those hard working folks who relied on this wild vegetation to provide the vitamin C that would prevent scurvy and heal their sore gums and loose teeth. It is an early blooming annual that grows in moist, shady places from March until summer when the heat causes it to wilt.
The growth of Spring Gold (Lomatium utriculatum) begins in the early spring when tiny carrot-like leaves appear. They are followed by bright yellow flower clusters growing to about a foot tall. It is an annual that thrives in the sun with little water. By June the green seeds start the cycle again by taking off on the tiny wings that nature has provided.
It was an important food source for the Kawaiisu people of the Tehachapis who ate the young leaves and flower heads raw and cooked. The plant's taproots grow like a carrot and may have been one of the "wild carrots" of local First Nations. It is often called wild parsley but to me the flavor is more to the tune of lovage or celery.
Look for wild roses (R. rugosa) in areas with an adequate water source and sun exposure. The flowers of these perennials are single, delicate and magenta-colored. The bush is very prickly and expands by suckering, thus creating a natural fence. This trait made these roses very popular with the Colonists who used them to border their gardens.
They have been a constant source of food for the people of the Americas. Many Native Americans ate the flower petals and made a syrup and wine from the hips (fruit) of roses. They would eat this vitamin C rich fruit for nourishment when food was scarce. The American colonialists used both parts of roses to make wine, teas, dyes and medicines. Flower petals were used to make potpourris, pomanders and other scented arrangements.
Horehound (Marrubium vulgare) is a bushy perennial with wooly stems and leaves that are round to oval with serrated edges. The small white flowers grow in dense whorls (circular pattern) along the stem. You will find it in sunny, dry locations where it self- sows. It will take over an area if the flowers are not removed.
Those who do not know of its virtues consider it a weed. The leaves have a menthol-like taste and are used in confections and throat lozenges. The syrup and cough drops were popular in England as early as the 1600s and later found favor in this country.
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is an erect perennial with silky, green, fernlike foliage. The tiny white clustered flowers stand atop a broad, flat terminal stem. You will find it growing in a variety of dry soils in bright sunshine. Fossils of this herb have been found in Neanderthal caves, which takes it back some sixty thousand years. Let us give this elderly plant the respect it deserves!
The leaves are used in compresses to stop bleeding and increase circulation to bruised areas of the body. An infusion (tea) made from the flowers has been utilized as a fever reducer throughout history. The plant can cause an allergic reaction (dermatitis) in sensitive folks.
Dandelions (Taraxacum Officinalis) are an underappreciated perennial herb with a multi pedaled yellow flower and serrated leaves at the stem base. Harvest plants that are NOT exposed to pesticides, fertilizers or roadside car fumes.
Spring picking is best because the young leaves are not as bitter. They can be boiled, steamed, fried, and eaten raw. Season as you would any vegetable. For an herb often considered an innocuous weed, it is chock full of nutrition. Dandelions are rich in,Vitamins A,D,C, folic acid, potassium, minerals, magnesium, phosphorous, iron and copper. All parts are edible. The roots can be dried, ground and used as a coffee substitute.
I hope you enjoy your wild herb adventure. If you are in an area where picking is permitted be sure it is the correct plant before sampling. There are some impersonators out there! Thanks to Molly McNally for her spring herb column request. Contact me at http://www.herbbasket.net with your ideas and suggestions. Enjoy a wild herbal month.