Native Uses of Vernal Pool Prairie Plants

Part 1

Mather Field is home to a large variety of vernal pool and prairie plants.  At the peak of the spring flowering phase the fields are carpeted with colorful wild flowers, most of which grow only in California vernal pools. The pools and the surrounding upland prairie attract all kinds of wildlife – creatures that have adapted to live in and utilize these plants over hundreds of thousands and sometimes millions of years. 

Hundreds of plant and animal species depend on the resources provided by vernal pool habitats.  Over 200 species of plants grow in California vernal pool prairies.  The fields also attract human visitors, who come to appreciate this beautiful and unique California landscape.  But some people have been appreciating and using the plants of this ecosystem since long before the first Europeans set eyes on it. 

Most medicinal drugs used in the world today originated from chemical compounds naturally produced by plants.  Many plant species have been important to the culture and survival of the people who have lived here the longest – the indigenous tribes of the Sacramento Valley region. 

Local tribes included the Nisenan (part of the Maidu group) who gathered and utilized many of the plants that grow in vernal pool grasslands for both food and medicine.  Ancestors taught the next generation and the traditions were carried onward to the present day.  Although we might speak of these traditional uses as if they were historical, members of these tribes continue to live in California and individuals still practice traditional ways of gathering and using native plants.

Starting in the late 1700s the early European settlers of the Central Valley and, later, subsequent migrations of newcomers, brought with them their favorite edible and medicinal plants and introduced them to the region.  Some remain in the remnant vernal pool prairies, as domesticated visitors or aggressive weeds of the natural landscape.


Tips for Foraging

For plant identification it is important to remember that certainty in positive identification is required before foraging is safe.  Drawings or photos of plants may not always look the same as the real thing when it is encountered.  Some edible plants closely resemble other deadly poisonous plants.  For this reason do not put your trust in only one plant guide, try to cross-reference your plant in as many sources as you can.  The safest way is to have a trained and experienced forager show you hands-on how to identify and use the plant.  The information provided in this blog is going to fit into the historical ethno-botanical fun fact category and is not meant to be used as a foraging guide.


Most vernal pool native plants are annual, or have a life cycle that is completed within a single season or year. Knowing what time of year certain plants grow will be important when looking for a particular plant.  Another thing to consider when searching out vernal pool plants is that many species no longer grow as prolifically as they did when native peoples ruled this domain. Some of the native vernal pool plants are now in danger of being wiped out as a result of habitat loss and invasive non-native plant species.  Preservation of the existing plant life and their surroundings is vital to ensure the future existence of this beautiful and unique ecosystem. 


Apiaceae – Carrot Family

Caraway-leaved Lomatium
Lomatium caruifolium
Feb-Mar, 6-12 inches, Native








A perennial grassland herb, it is also known as biscuit root.  It is named for a type of biscuit some Native American tribes were known to make from flour derived grinding the dried roots.  This biscuit was a staple food in the diet for many western tribes.  A poultice was also made from the boiled crushed root as a topical treatment for cuts and wounds and a tea could be made from the dried root to treat sore throat and colds.  The dried root and leaves would also commonly be smoked or burned as incense for ceremonial purposes.  The properties of this herb made it one of the most widely used plant species by North American native cultures.  Similar Lomatium species are still popular as modern natural herb medicine with anti-viral and antibiotic properties.  

Purple Sanicle
Sanicula bipinnatifida
Mar-May, 1-3 ft. Native









A member of the carrot family, Purple Sanicle occurs in grasslands. It is also known as Purple Snakeroot.  Some California native groups made a poultice from the root for use  as a topical treatment for snake bites.  This remedy however has not been verified by modern medical research.  A root tea was also traditionally used to treat sore throat and reduce fevers.   


For more information on edible and medicinal plants here are some great websites to reference:


 USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service

California Native Plant Society

 To learn more about California Native American history and their uses of native plants here are a few more interesting sites to explore: