Native Uses of Plants in the Sacramento Region
This is Part 4 in a five-part series describing more about these plants and their uses. We’ll just pick up where we left off last time and take a look at Soap Plant and Cattails. Many local native plants sustained the indigenous people of the Sacramento Valley as food and/or medicine. Some members of those tribes continue to use these plants today in their traditional ways.
Apr-Jun, 3-5 feet, Native
The Soap Root plant was highly valued by Native Americans for its many versatile uses, most notably for what it is now named for – soap. Soap Root bulbs contain saponins, an active ingredient with antiseptic properties. The root bulbs can be pounded to release the saponins; the bulb would then be mixed with water to be used as a body wash and shampoo. The antiseptic wash was also effectively used to treat skin irritations from poison oak.
The bulb could also be eaten after being baked in an earthen oven to destroy the saponins and remove the soapy taste. Remarkably, Soap Root bulbs were also used as an effective method of fishing. Mashed bulbs would be placed in streams or pools of water; the saponins released into the water would interfere the gills of fish, causing them to float to the surface to be scooped out. The fibrous bristle-like bulbs of the Soap Root plant were also ideal for making hand brushes.
Typhaceae – Cattail Family
Apr-Jun, 3-6 ft, Native
The Cattail might be the most recognizable wetland plant in America. It is found in almost every wetland environment, including the creeks and marshy areas around Mather field. It is not found in vernal pools, however, because they dry out and Cattails need a perennial water supply.
The Cattail is another winner for versatility. In the spring the young shoots just above the water line are edible raw, after peeling away the outer layer. Sometimes referred to as “Cossack asparagus,” the young shoots taste something like cucumber. The tough rhizomes of cattail are rich in starch and can be pulled up in the fall and boiled to be made more palatable. The core of the thick root stock just below the mud can also be cooked and eaten like potatoes.
Young green Cattail flower heads (the corn-dog looking things near the top of the plant), can be roasted and eaten like corn on the cob. By late summer the pollen on the flower heads turns brown and fluffy and can easily be pulled from the stalk. The Cattail pollen is also rich in starch and can be used as a flour substitute. Many Native tribes and even some pioneers used the pollen flour from Cattails to bake delicious yellow pollen colored bread, biscuits, and pancakes.
There are even more uses for the fluffy dry pollen of the flower heads. They made excellent tinder for starting fires. Some Native American tribes were also known to use the pollen fluff or down to cushion baby cradle boards, fill pillows and line moccasins. The long leaves of cattail were also known to be peeled and woven to make cordage, baskets, floor mats and build shelter.
For more information on edible and medicinal plants here are some great websites to reference: