Living with the Lockdown – Treasure Hunt #15


elderberry-coverAbout Elderberry

elder flowerThere are several species of Elderberry in the U.S., with the most common in the West being the Blue Elderberry; a deciduous shrub that can grow up to 30 feet high. Its leaves, 4 inches long and 2 inches wide, are arranged in opposite pairs with 5-9 serrated leaflets. In late spring and summer, the shrub bears tiny white elderflower clusters that can form into a group as large as 12 inches in diameter.
Flowers are pollinated by insects, and as the season progresses, the flowers fruit into drooping clusters of hundreds of dark purple to black berries.

Cluster of Elderberries
Cluster of Elderberries

Then, in order to preserve moisture and nutrients, Elderberry will lose their leaves in late summer and turn green again with early winter rains.

Having said all of the above, I realized that the Elderberry I have been following the past three weeks is just now starting to flower … at a time when it is supposed to be bearing fruit! This realization caused me to have a genuine “crisis of confidence” and I began to think I was following another species and had definitely “blown it”. After several hours of scrutinizing pictures of the leaves on “my Elderberry,” I was positive that “my Elderberry” was indeed an Elderberry. That left another question, “What was going on with my Elderberry?” After consulting two experts on this issue, I learned that because of our variable and unpredictable California climate, Elderberries sometimes flower and fruit more than once a year. I guess this means that mine will be bearing fruit around Halloween!

Elderberry Provides Food

The berries of the Elderberry are edible, but only when cooked! Other parts of the plant, leaves, stems, roots, seeds and unripe fruits, are toxic … more on this later.

In the Past – The elderberry was extremely important to many native people for its numerous and varied uses, including food. Native inland groups harvested the berries in very large quantities throughout the summer and then carefully dried and preserved them for use in the winter. The berries were cooked into a rich sauce that needed no sweetening. Frequently, native families subsisted on Elderberry exclusively during long periods of the winter.

Although elderberry was not important as a food source for the Chumash, it was key to acquiring and preparing much of the protein in their diets. Why was that? Because elderberry wood is extremely hard, it is an excellent source of wood for tools. In particular, its branches were of prime importance in the making of bows and arrows for hunting. Chumash straight bows, called “self bows” were about 4 feet long and made of a single piece of elderberry wood. Unlike composite bows made of wood and sinew, these self bows could be taken on sea voyages, and did not become useless when they got wet. Because of this hunters could cross the Channel in their Tomols and were able to hunt on the Channel Islands, as well on the mainland.

Stems have pith
Stems have pith
Bow, Arrows and quiver
Bow, Arrows and quiver

Shoots and branches of elderberries are filled with a soft tissue called pith, tissue that can be easily removed to leave a hollow tube. These tubes are well suited to serve as arrow shafts, that handily complete the bow/arrow pair for hunting. Other uses for the hard wood of Elderberry included squirt guns, blow guns, combs, spindles and pegs.*

What About Cooking?  When it was time to cook, elderberry branches were made into “fire sticks”. Remember the old boy scout trick for starting fires … twirl a pointed hardwood stick until you get sparks and ignite some soft material (like dried pith)?  Voila … fire!  And yet another hollow stem could be used as bellows to blow air into the center of the fire.
After dinner … or any other time as well, might be time for a “smoke” … although much of the smoking was done before dinner. Hollow tubes made great pipes. And the tobacco? It was carried in those hollow tubes that had been converted into containers by plugging up one or two ends.
Today – Traditional methods of enjoying Elderberry include jams, jellies, syrups and pies, all of which are made by cooking down the fruit and straining out the seeds. (The elderberry jelly that I ordered from New Jersey just arrived and while its principal ingredient is sugar, it has a lovely, subtle flavor that I really liked.) And if you need a beverage for a really big celebration, you can serve elderberry wine or liqueur made from fermented berries.

elderberry birdThe importance of Elderberry for wildlife in various areas has been widely recognized. Numerous species of mammals and birds are known to consume its fruit or foliage, and apparently, they don’t have to cook the fruit first. For example, Elderberry is an important food source for native songbirds including western bluebird, ash-throated flycatcher, white-crowned sparrow and California thrasher.

Birds also utilize larger elderberry shrubs for nesting sites. And happily, we have an example, right here on our very own More Mesa. Many of you know the significance of our signature bird, the White-tailed Kite because of its designation as a “California Bird of Special Concern”. In good rain years (lots of food) we have up to three nesting pairs on More Mesa. However, even in poor rain years we consistently have at least one nest at the most important, and historic, eastern nest site. Where is that nest … in a patch of Elderberries! Learn more about raising kite babies on the “Birds” section of our website.

Baby Kites on More Mesa
Baby Kites on More Mesa

Elderberry Creates Music, Dancing and Ceremony

For the Chumash, musical instruments were also one of the major uses for elderberry wood. The hollow stems were fashioned into flutes and whistles. Holes to create the various notes were drilled with hot sticks. The elderberry flute, played for enjoyment and courtship, has 2 voices, and sounds different from each end. Unlike most flutes, which are played at the side of the mouth or straight down, this is played at a diagonal. And instead of a blow, it will just take the tiniest puffs, puffs that are very subtle.

Bullroarer Ojai Museum
Ojai Museum

The Chumash also used Elderberry to make a split stick rattle that could be played by striking it on the hand or body, bringing it to a sudden stop or rapidly shaking it to produce clapping sounds. A third instrument, a bullroarer, was a piece of flat elderberry with a fiber string attached to one end … played by whirling it overhead to create a scary, whirring sound.*

The Elderberry is a Pharmacy

Berries of the Elderberry are one of the richest sources of vitamin C and also boast a high content of vitamin A, calcium, phosphorus and iron. Along with the flowers, they are packed with antioxidants and vitamins that may boost your immune system. Through the ages it has been extremely useful to people all over the world and to this day, is still widely considered one of the world’s most healing plants in alternative medicine.

In the Past: The written history of Elderberry dates as far back as 400 BC and Hippocrates, the “Father of Medicine”. He called the Elder Tree his

Sacred Irish Tree
Sacred Irish Tree

“medicine chest.” In the middle ages, Elderberry was considered a Holy Tree capable of restoring and maintaining good health, and as an aid to longevity. Native People in California used different preparations of flowers and leaves for various reasons; to treat colds, sore throats, fever, and also to induce sweating and relieve aches and inflammation. Poultices made from the flowers were used to treat wounds, improve the complexion, tone and soften the skin, and lighten freckles or spots.
It is well documented that the use of Elderberry as a pharmaceutical was as
important to the Chumash as its use for tools.*
Today: Today Elderberry continues to be lauded for its medicinal values. Modern compounds of Elderberry are used for many of the same reasons Elderberry was used by Native People and to aid in treating additional modern medical problems as well.

* To read more about Chumash tools, instruments and medicines, see pages 196-198 of “CHUMASH ETHNOBOTANY, PLANT KNOWLEDGE AMONG THE CHUMASH PEOPLE OF SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA” by Dr. Jan Timbrook.

Use With Care, There are Risks

The leaves, stems and roots of the Elderberry, as well as the seeds in the berries, have chemical compounds in them that metabolize into cyanide. Simply put, they are poisonous and can make you very ill! The only part of the plant that can be eaten is the fruit … but only after it is cooked.

Lots of Folklore and Magic Surround the Elderberry

Elder Mother
Elder Mother

It was believed in medieval times that the most likely time to encounter fairies was on Midsummer’s Eve, and under an Elder Tree. They also contended that chopping down an Elder Tree could release a spirit called the Elder Mother, who would take her revenge unless you had asked her permission first, and chanted her song. During various pagan festivals, people wore elderflowers to protect against witches and elderberry was planted to banish witches in various parts of the world. The wood of choice for making flutes used to summon spirits was, of course, Elderwood.

elder wandAnd finally, we will end this Treasure Hunt with the “Elder Wand”, the most powerful wand in the wizarding world of Harry Potter … the one wand to rule them all. Wizards think Elderberry is pretty great too!

Living With the Lockdown – Treasure Hunt #12

edgeIn the beginning there were reeds and sedges

This Treasure Hunt came to mind from a simple mantra I learned at a water plant class I took many years ago. I though it would be “safe” to start there. The mantra … “Reeds are round and sedges have edges.” But it didn’t take long to figure out I could not have been more wrong!

As I went from source to source I realized I had ventured into a morass of terminology. For starters, the terms reed and sedge were used interchangeably, the mantra above repeatedly replaced “reeds” with “rushes”, and just to make things a little more confusing, some of them threw a catchy addition about “grasses”. Next, literally each of the water plants I researched was, in one reference or another, called a “Bulrush”. “Rush” is the name given to a water plant but no one seems to know where the “bul” came from. (One source offered that bulrush is a biblical word for papyrus.) In many references there was contradiction after contradiction from both extremely reliable sources and amateurs alike. Finally, I decided I would differentiate by using two scientific names. Then found out that one of these had recently been split into 6 or 7 different genera!

stemsBottom Line

For purposes of this Treasure Hunt I will refer to a duo of water plants often found together, as Tule (g.Actus) and Cattail (g.Typha). From the stems in the photo you can tell that Tules are round and Cattails have edges. It doesn’t rhyme … but, it is anatomically correct.

Two Special Water Plants


Tule Flowers
Tule Flowers

TULES: Local species of Tule are native to freshwater settings all over North America and in California as well. These plants prefer full sun and grow in standing water as well as mud. Their thick, rounded gray-green stems can grow as high as 10 feet, with three long, grass-like leaves surrounding the stems. The seed head that emerges from the side of the stem near the tip is made up of tiny, pale brownish flowers that bloom and ripen between June and August. Tule has both male and female organs in its flowers and is pollinated by wind. Many species of birds, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals make use of Tule for food, and shelter. Tules also play an important ecological role as they are especially good for stream-bank stabilization, restoring disturbed or degraded areas, reducing erosion and slope control.

Tules on Lake Los Carneros
Tules on Lake Los Carneros

CATTAILS: Since Cattails thrive in the same environments as Tules, they often cohabit in many places in Santa Barbara. Like Tules, they can grow to about 10 feet, and they also have long, green, grassy leaves. But it is the male and female flowers that mark the principal distinction between Tules and Cattails. Toward the top of the Cattail stem is a cattail partslarge diameter, brown, cylindrical female flower with a “fuzzy” appearance. This feature is responsible for the plant’s name and makes it easily identifiable as a “Cattail” … although it really looks more like a “corn dog!”

Atop the female “cattail” is a set of male seeds in a smaller diameter cylinder, and also fuzzy. The seeds are minute, 0.008 inches long, and attached to fine hairs. When ripe, both the heads disintegrate into a cottony fluff from which the seeds are dispersed by wind.

redwing blackbirdCattails are important to tiny fish, waterfowl and animals alike. Birds make use of these marshy plants for food and shelter, as well as a source for nesting material. During nesting season, one of my favorite birds, the Redwing Blackbird often makes its home in thick Cattail patches.

Cattails on Lakeside
Cattails on Lakeside

Water Plants in History

baby in the riverTules: I’m guessing the whole “Bulrush” thing started with the story of “Moses in the Bulrushes”. However, this “baby in the river” tale is not unique to Moses. It may have originated in the legend of Romulus and Remus who were left in the Tiber, or that of Sumerian King Sargon I, who was  abandoned in a caulked basket in the Euphrates.

From these tales and others, it is clear that Tule has been used for millennia in several areas of the world. In fact, the name “Tule” is derived from a Nahuatl word that was first applied by early Spanish settlers who recognized these plants as similar to those in the marshes around Mexico City.

But while the new settlers were baptizing the plant they knew as “Tule”, Native American groups, including the Chumash, had been using dyed and woven leaves and stalks of Tule for millennia*. From this readily available material, they made baskets, bowls, mats, hats, clothing and houses and boats. Raw young sprouts and shoots and boiled unripe flower heads were also part of the vegetable plate of early people in our area. And a very special and unique use was made of the pith (very inside layer) of the Tule stem to caulk Chumash redwood Tomols; the large and famous canoes that were built to enable brisk commerce between the mainland and the Channel Islands. With all this history, we can see that this readily available plant was both extremely versatile and extremely important.

"Tomol Travel" by John Iwerks from "Stories of Arroyo Hondo" by Chris Chapman
“Tomol Travel” by John Iwerks from “Stories of Arroyo Hondo” by Chris Chapman

The term “Tule” is still alive in our culture today. Several places in California recall the Tule; the city of Tulare, Lake Tule, Tule River and Tule Elk. Also, having been trapped in it several times, I am acutely aware of the infamous, ground hugging, impenetrable Tule fog. Also, still with us, is the expression “out in the tules” coming down from the dialect of old Californian families. It implies a place where no self-respecting person would want to live. They should see these locations now … tens of thousands of people live there … and love it!

Cattails: The Cattail is similar to the Tule in habitat, appearance and uses, but has wider leaves. Although the Chumash clearly differentiated the two plants, they used Cattails for many of the same things as they used Tules; for example, the framework and thatch for houses, baskets and mats*. Cattail heads and seeds were eaten and pollen used for medicinal purposes. Parts of leaves, roots and flowers were used to treat various common ailments.
Moreover, the fluff of the Cattail flower was a real boon to Native American moms. It could pad a baby’s cradleboard, function as a diaper, stuff a pillow or mattress, insulate footwear in cold weather and be part of the dressing of a wound. (Johnson and Johnson watch out!)
In more recent history, Cattail leaves were used for rush bottom furniture, baskets and mats and the downy seeds were still used to fill pillows and mattresses. There is also some evidence that Cattail down was used to stuff life jackets as well as the fluff from kapok trees.

Where Can You Find Them?

Both Cattails and Tules can be found in many places in Santa Barbara. My two favorite spots are Lake Los Carneros and Atascadero Creek (beside the bike path). Atascadero Creek is extremely important as it carries flows from four different, watersheds; Atascadero, Cieneguitas, Maria Ygnacio and San Antonio. It is imperative that the flows from these watersheds to the ocean are unimpeded. Therefore, the County periodically removes vegetation from Atascadero Creek before the rainy season to assure that water flowing down the creek can easily reach the Pacific at the Goleta Slough. But you can almost always see these plants at Lake Los Carneros. And if you are a golfer, you can see them at Laguna Blanca Lake at the La Cumbre Country Club.

* For in depth information on the water plants used by the Chumash, consult “Chumash Ethnobotany, Plant Knowledge Among the Chumash People of Southern California” by Dr. Jan Timbrook.

Living with the Lockdown – Treasure Hunt #6

A Tiny, but Powerful Member of the Animal Kingdom

Prologue: When I sat down to write this week’s Treasure Hunt I had planned to introduce one of my favorite and hard-working little plants, Deerweed. But as I got deeper into the research about certain aspects of Deerweed, I discovered a world of mind-boggling information on the major pollinator of Deerweed; Bees. Because of this, I added a section on bees that I thought was fascinating. As I have been doing, I passed the text off to a good friend and colleague to get his comments, edits etc. He, replied … nicely of course … “You got it all wrong, it should be all about the bees“.

When I thought about it, he was absolutely right! And here’s the reason … if you have been following our Treasure Hunts you will remember that 4 of the 5 of the “Hunts” published so far have discussed reproduction. After all … it is Spring, reproduction is in the air, and bees are a major player in this vital process. And happily, while bees are gathering nectar to raise their own young, they are simultaneously pollinating the plants they visit, thereby helping produce the next generation of that plant.

Bees are Premier Pollinators and Vitally Important

Busy Bee Photo by Chris Brems
Busy Bee
Photo by Chris Brems

Scientists consider bees to be a keystone species and the USDA estimates that 80% of insect crop pollination is accomplished by bees. They are critically important to ecosystems of at least 90 commercially grown crops that depend on bee pollination for survival. Bees are the undisputed champions of the
pollination world. However, bees are in trouble.  Like many in the insect world, bee populations are declining precipitously. While pesticides and climate change, are part of the problem, die-offs are happening largely because bees, like many insects, are losing their habitat to both development and urbanization.

The Superhero Bee

If a bee were a superhero, its sight would be its super power. Bees have two types of eyes, with each type having a separate function. The three smaller eyes in the center-top of a bee’s head are called ocelli; a word from Latin, and meaning “little eye”. These little bee eyes each have a single lens, with the three of them helping the bee maintain stability and navigate.

bee eyeVision is accomplished using two very large compound eyes. These eyes are amazing examples of nature’s engineering. A bee compound eye is made up of thousands of tiny lenses called facets. Each of these facets takes in one small part of the insect’s field of view. The bee’s brain then converts these signals into a mosaic-like picture made of each image. Some bees have up to 8,600 facets.

Bees Cannot See Red: Humans base their color combinations on red, blue and green, while bees base their colors on ultraviolet light, blue and green. This is the reason why bees can’t see the color red. Things that appear “red” to us, look black to bees. On the other hand, bees are able to see ultraviolet patterns on various flowers.

bee vision

About the Deerweed … Never Mind, It’s Done!

Deerweed Stalk-Red and Yellow Flowers Photo by Chris Brems
Deerweed Stalk-Red and Yellow Flowers
Photo by Chris Brems

Bees go mad over the bright-yellow flowers of this California native. And, as mentioned above, they are simultaneously gathering nectar and pollinating. However, once pollinated, the flower gets to work producing seeds for the next generation. Since the bees are no longer needed on the pollinated flower, that flower turns red and a bee can’t “see” it anymore. It is therefore common for us to see both red and yellow flowers on the same stalk of Deerweed. Why does the plant do that? The pollinated flower appears black to the bee, so it is not attracted to it, because it can no longer see it. Bee vision then becomes another “Mother Nature win-win” situation; the bee doesn’t waste time on the pollinated flower and that particular flower is not disturbed while it is busy preparing for the next generation.

You can find Deerweed along the coastal trail of More Mesa and many other habitats in our area. You can find bees everywhere.

A Word in Support of the Bee

Lastly, have you ever noticed when someone mentions bees, the first thing, and most times the only thing, that gets discussed is a stinging incident? Unlike mosquitos and other stinging insects, bees are merely reacting to a perceived threat to the colony or the hive. There is no benefit to the individual bee who stings someone. In fact, it is committing suicide, since the stinger is stuck in the wound (with several other body parts) and the bee can no longer function.

Please Help!

People who love More Mesa have a long tradition of not only carrying out their own trash, but picking up trash left by others. Since the lockdown many more people are visiting More Mesa. These new people don’t know about our More Mesa traditions and therefore do not know that they should be very respectful of this place we love. Also, with the current situation, it is not as easy to pick up after those who are “not in the know”. One way to help would be to educate the newcomers … shouting from six feet away … that More Mesa is a very special place and we need to take care of it. Ask them to PLEASE pick up their trash and carry it out.


Living With the Lockdown – Treasure Hunt #4

A Flower That Blooms for a Single Day … oops a Single Night!

daturaThe plant we are featuring in this hunt, commonly known as Datura, and in the Nightshade family, is unusual in many ways. First it has several names, among them: Devil’s Trumpet, Devil’s Weed and Jimson Weed*. And, unlike the Miner’s Lettuce and Willow of previous Treasure Hunts, Datura thrives in dry, temperate and subtropical regions like the American Southwest and Mexico, which is considered the center of its origin. This amazing Datura photo, was taken by Chris Brems on the eastern coastal trail where the paragliders lift off. (Plaque in the ground at this spot reads “Hook In”.) The photo illustrates the fascinating process described in the story below.

A Colorado River Tale

I became aware of this beautiful and interesting plant on a Colorado River trip decades ago. At the end of an exciting day of rapids and magnificent scenery, and while waiting for dinner, a guide pointed to a greenish, unimposing plant in our camp. He urged us to “watch that plant”. Since this guide was quite the joker, we laughed a lot and then told him we would follow orders, and “watch the plant”.
datura-partsWhat we saw … as we giggled at the idea of watching a plant … was a furled bud sticking up in the air. It looked like it was bound up with some tiny “hooks”. Then, within a few minutes, the bud began to unfurl, one hook at a time. We were stunned! You could almost hear it going click, click, click as it unfolded into a beautiful trumpet-like flower. It was the Sacred Datura, also called Moonflower, because it blooms late in the afternoon, is pollinized at night, and closes by noon of the following day. While each individual flower lasts only a single night, during any given summer season, one Sacred Datura plant produces dozens of large (6-8 inches), fragrant, whitish (sometimes purple edged) flowers, each with five of the slender hooks that are called “teeth”.

What Happens During the Night?

Sphinx Moth
Sphinx Moth

As you might expect, night-blooming plants must be pollinated by nocturnal visitors, so Datura are pollinated by Sphinx Moths. These evening visitors can be seen feeding on the opened (and short-lived) flowers using a long proboscis that unfurls to reach to the nectar at the base of the bloom. On rare occasions, when Sphinx Moths are not present, pollination can be achieved at dusk and dawn by Honeybees. However, the bees have to work a lot harder, since they don’t have the moth’s long proboscis. As moths and bees gather nectar, they inadvertently assist in pollinating the flowers they visit. This process has something for everyone …

Thorn Apple
Thorn Apple

Mother Nature’s win-win! By noon, about 18 hours after it bloomed, the pollinated flower turns over, closes up and forms a spiny, globe-shaped seed pod called a Thorn Apple. When ripe, the Thorn Apple splits to release seeds and begin the process again.

Datura can be found in several places around More Mesa, on Hope Ranch and on trails and paths all over the Goleta Valley.
*The name “Jimson weed” is said to have originated form the presence of a similar species in Jamestown, Virginia. The name “Jamestown” was corrupted to “Jimson” at some point in time.


Datura species have been revered as sacred visionary plants among almost all cultures around the world that have encountered it. Archeological evidence shows that Datura has been in use for at least 3,000 years in the southwestern United States and even longer in other parts of the world. Datura was an integral part of daily life for the Native American Chumash of our region, used both as a sacred and medicinal plant.
Indeed, the Chumash were known to have used this plant more than any other native culture in California. Use of Datura was so ubiquitous that it appears to have worked its way into the famous pictographs of the Chumash. For example, archeologists have interpreted the spiny silhouette around the circles in this pictograph to be Datura fruit; the Thorn Apple. Where is this famous pictograph?  Right here in Santa Barbara at Painted Cave Historic Park!
Rock Paintings of the Chumash ... Campbell Grant
Rock Paintings of the Chumash … Campbell Grant
Epilogue on Pictograph: To ensure that this Treasure Hunt was accurate and responsibly presented, I consulted two of the most eminent Chumash scholars; Dr. Jan Timbrook and Dr. John Johnson, both of the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. I asked them to comment on the interpretation of the pictograph. Neither of them had ever heard of the Thorn Apple interpretation. Moral of the story … The Internet is not a scholarly journal. (Go see the pictograph anyway. It’s very cool!)
Also while researching this Treasure Hunt, I discovered that Datura was associated with witches, devils, flying, shape-shifting and transformation. And I also remembered a book that achieved great notoriety in the late 1960s. It was called “The Teachings of Don Juan” and written by an anthropology student named Carlos Casteneda. There was a lot of flying and shape shifting in that book too. Why? Most likely because Datura is a serious hallucinogen and one must take the caution below seriously … very seriously!


While Datura is an interesting plant to observe, observing is all one should do with it! All species of Datura and all parts of the plant are highly poisonous!
In her acclaimed recent book, Chumash Ethnobotany, Dr. Jan Timbrook warns
 “Every year people die from ingesting Datura through foolhardiness or misidentification. The dangerous compounds can also be absorbed through the skin.”

Lastly …

Although we are encouraging you to go outside and find these treasures, you do not have to leave anything in exchange. Please carry out all your trash. The onslaught of people onto More Mesa is heartening in that “new to more Mesa” folks will learn to appreciate it, and those who were familiar with More Mesa will cherish it even more. But trash is both unsightly and takes away from its spectacular beauty of More Mesa. Most importantly, please, please pick up after your dogs. The “Poop Fairy” is on Lockdown and cannot clean up after absent-minded dog owners.

Living with the Lockdown Treasure Hunt #2

Welcome to the second of our treasure hunts. The plant we bring you now, Miner’s Lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata), can be found in shady places on More Mesa, along creeks and in parks everywhere around Santa Barbara. Remember to keep your 6 foot distance and have fun!!

The Surprising Truth About Miner’s Lettuce

Miner’s Lettuce got its name during the California gold rush when fresh vegetables were hard to come by. Gold seekers learned the value of Miner’s Lettuce from local native people. Indeed, on our Central Coast, this plant was a traditional food of the Chumash … usually served fresh … like a salad. We know now, that a single salad of miner’s lettuce can provide up to a 1/3 of our daily suggested amount of vitamin C, 1/5 of vitamin A, and a 1/10 of iron. While the miners were not privy to all this data, they knew that eating Miner’s Lettuce would prevent several diseases, but especially scurvy! For them, it was a smart thing to have for dinner.
Gold Rush Miners Name Salad Green
Gold Rush Miners Name Salad Green

What is It?

Miner's Lettuce (Purple Fiesta Flowers on left)
Miner’s Lettuce (Purple Fiesta Flowers on left)

Miner’s Lettuce is a small, herb-like, slightly succulent, light green annual plant. It has round, disk-like leaves, which surround its smooth, tender stem; a single stem which passes directly through the round leaf and makes identification easy. The bloom consists of small, whitish or pink blossoms (see photo). During the bloom, there can be a single flower in the exact center of the leaf, or a stem consisting of several flowers above the leaf. This year’s blossoms seem to have many flowers along the stem … perhaps the abundant recent rainfall?

Where do you find it?

We are particularly blessed here in California since, this small plant is native to the West Coast of the U.S. and Canada. Indeed, old world explorers of North America were so taken with the flavor of Miner’s Lettuce that, at the end of the 18th century, they brought seeds back to Europe and planted them in Kew Gardens, London. Miner’s Lettuce is most often found in the wild, more than it is cultivated, and grows prolifically in shady areas in coastal sage, fields, gardens, woodlands, and forests. Cool temperatures and moist growing conditions encourage a lush, juicy growth.
A Bank of Miner's Lettuce
A Bank of Miner’s Lettuce


All the parts of Miner’s Lettuce; the leaves, the flowers and the stems may be eaten … either raw (in a salad) or cooked. Gourmet chefs are prone to wax eloquent about Miner’s Lettuce salads describing them as “one of the best wild greens you’ll ever taste”, “mild and sweet with juicy leaves”, and “tasting quite a bit like spinach with a nice refreshing crunch to it”. But most importantly, and for a very reliable and unbiased assessment, I consulted some backpacking friends. They report they are always greatly appreciative of having fresh greens available, and describe Miner’s Lettuce as tasting a little like spinach with a “neutral” flavor. I had some for breakfast this morning and pretty much agree with their assessment.