Native Uses of Plants in the Sacramento Region
There are many local native plants that were used by the indigenous people of the Sacramento Valley. Some members of those tribes continue to use these plants today in their traditional ways. This is Part 2 of a five-part series describing more about these plants and their uses as food and/or medicine. We’ll just pick up where we left off last time (Part 1) and take a look at some plants in the Millkweed and Sunflower families traditionally used by native tribes.
Perennial, 3-4 ft. Native
Milkweed also provides a tough fiber that was used for making rope and weaving cloth. The stems would be collected when they became dry in the late fall. The dried stalk would be split open to release the fibers.
Asteraceae – Sunflower Family
Mar-May, 4-6 inches. Non-native
Pineapple weed is often found in disturbed areas of grassland, in or along trampled paths with disturbed soil. If you pick up one of the flower heads and smoosh it between your fingers, it will give off a sweet pineapple aroma. The flower heads even look kind of like little pineapples. Some Native tribes were known to use it as a perfume. Rubbing the dried flower heads on your skin was also a traditional insect repellant. Young flower heads are edible and are also known to be added in salads. Pineapple weed is often mistaken for chamomile, a close relative. It can also be made into a tea by steeping the dry flower heads in hot water. Like chamomile, Pineapple weed tea is mildly sedative. I have heard it described as a more mild, fruitier version of chamomile.
May-Jul, 1-2 ft. Native
This native biennial species grows well in disturbed areas of grassland, and blooms during the dry phase of summer, long after most other plants have dried. Gum plant has a very sticky or shiny appearance. It was valued medicinally by Native Americans as a treatment for bronchitis and asthma. The dried leaves and flowering tops contain anti-asthmatic, anti-inflammatory, and expectorant qualities that were effectively used in a tea. Large doses of ingested gum plant however can cause kidney irritation. In addition to treating bronchial afflictions, gum plant was also used externally in a poultice to treat skin irritations such as rash from poison oak and eczema.
Apr-Jul, 2-5 ft, Non-native
Originally a native of Mediterranean climates in southern Europe, milk thistle can be highly invasive in disturbed waste areas and along roadsides in grasslands. There are sharp leaf spines that need to be removed, but the root and leaves and stem of milk thistle are edible raw or cooked. Milk thistle has a long history as a remedy for liver problems including cirrhosis, jaundice, hepatitis, and gallbladder disorders. Silymarin is the main active ingredient in milk thistle. Silymarin is both an anti-inflammatory and antioxidant and has been known to also be helpful in repairing liver cells damaged by alcohol and other toxic substances. Milk thistle is still widely used as a natural herbal supplement for aiding liver health.