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'Every Plant That Exists Has Meaning': Traditional Ecological Medicine

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Sage LaPena with Artemisia
On the banks of the American River, Sage LaPena explains the uses of the sprig of Artemisia she's holding. | Photo: KCET

Watch our documentary Tending The Wild on KCET TV, February 7 at 9:00 p.m. 

This article includes discussion of Native Californian peoples' use of plants as traditional medicine. It is intended for cultural and environmental education purposes only, and should not be taken as medical advice.  

California Native peoples, for the most part, were not nomadic. The peoples of pre-Gold Rush California had everything necessary for a good livelihood within a day’s journey. Any desired items not available locally were obtained through trade. Because the people were not nomadic, many generations have lived where their ancestors did before them. These ancestors handed down, and continue to hand down, ways of living with the land, harvesting animal and plant allies alike, and cleaning and protecting the land with controlled or prescribed burning.

This Tribal Environmental Knowledge (TEK) is the science of environmental culture, and the backbone of the life breath of sustainable nations across the globe. It is a science of place. It encompasses all that is natural in our surroundings. Its protocol is observations made over many generations.

Living with the land means being a keen observer more than anything else. The protocol of harvest — including how and when to harvest and how much to take — are rules that come into being from countless years of observing the movement of stars and animals and the springing forth of green.

TEK teaches us to observe changes in weather patterns and the stars of the night sky. Walking the land with patience and wonder as the first ice freezes, or the first greens appear in spring, offers guidance to students of TEK. TEK cannot truly be found in the pages of a book. The knowledge of the land is generational and stored in nature’s notebook, the land herself waiting to be read.

There are many patterns, mosaics and niches in our environmental homelands. The beginning observer does not see or feel nuance; changes are often overlooked. But someone walking the same trail at the same time every morning will notice fallen twigs and leaves or coyote scat, left as a signpost. Small changes such as these can often mean something much bigger.

Climate change has become increasingly obvious to me. Medicinal and food plants shared with me by my ancestors are breaking bud and going to seed at different times than they did before.

Nothing in nature works alone. Instead, everything is part of a much larger symphony. Whenever I venture out to see the coming and going of birds, I often also scan for my plant allies. After 40 short years of observation, climate change has become increasingly obvious to me. The medicinal and food plants shared with me by my ancestors are breaking bud and going to seed at different times than they did before.

Phenology — the timing of cyclical changes in nature —plays an important part in TEK, as first flower, strawberry and salmon all have observances in ceremony. The ceremonies themselves play key roles in the continuance of culture, as they indicate the importance of those beings. First flower symbolizes new beginnings and fertility. Salmon ceremony symbolizes sustainability, abundance and giving thanks for those sacred things. Plants, animals, humans and fire have an inseparable symbiotic relationship here on earth. We each have a job to do within that relationship.

Sage LaPena and her daughter
Intergenerational transfer of Tribal Environmental Knowledge: LaPena and her daughter prepare herbal medicines | Photo: KCET 

Humans have helped form the mosaic landscape of what is California. Before the coming of the missions, one of humans’ most significant jobs was the practice of annual cultural burning to keep down brush, clear trails, open meadows, lower insect infestations, keep ladder fuels down and keep animals such deer moving. This ancient practice of prescribed burning is once again in a growth cycle. Many of our basketry plants require burning or coppicing for optimal growth. Even our seed crops, from grasses to wildflowers, were burned off after harvest to keep ground open. The hills of golden poppies seen from ships at contact were the outcome of human-set fires and tillage.

The numerous tribes, landscapes and changing geography of California means that California TEK has many different voices. All of the different tribal areas sustained a people who lived in accordance with their particular landscape’s own rules and way of living. Although some of these ways have been modified, much of the place-based knowledge of TEK remains as important today.

Map: Timarah Lotah Link

More people today realize synthetic foods and medicines are detrimental to environmental and human well-being. Many are returning to earth-based, real food and plant medicines. I find this rather exciting, and at the same time it makes me grit my teeth a little. There are many more tribes in California than anywhere on the rest of Turtle Island for such a small space. There are places where we have been gathering for generations. As we see our tribal lands crisscrossed with fences and pollution we come to value and hold sacred the small spaces left. Every gathering place across California is connected to a tribal nation. As an herbalist I have been gathering from specific plants for many years. I have a relationship with every place I harvest, and I give thanks to those ancestors whose places I visit. Every plant that exists has meaning and wonder and gifts to share.

Many people are returning to earth-based, real food and plant medicines. I find this rather exciting, and at the same time it makes me grit my teeth a little.

As I ponder November, and the coming of winter, I see the depth of the red that belongs to the rose: not the rose of spring and summer in her bloom and romance, but the red of the shiny hip, also known as rose haw or fruit of the rose. Rosehips (Rosa californica) are high in vitamin C and other immune stimulating constituents. Currants (Ribes), toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) and madrone berry (Arbutus menziesii) also fit loosely into this category. It is also important to note that toyon berries should be cooked before ingestion.

Wandering around California in November, one has many opportunities to find many different kinds of red berries. Some are native, some are not, but many are useful for colds and flu. Hawthorne (Crataegus) and pyracantha are two more red rose family berries that can be eaten after preparation. Just as the rose family fruit of pear, apple, and plum have poisonous seeds, so do these other fruits.

Another berry, this one ripening earlier in the year, is of the blue elderberry (Sambucus nigra ssp. caerulea). This darkest blue berry is ripe in summer and dried or cooked and canned as syrup or jelly. Elderberry wood is used to make the split stick rattle, whistles and storage boxes for other medicines such as tobacco. The edible flowers are excellent for lowering fever and making emollient skin creams. While the flowers and fruit of blue elderberry are edible and healthful, the leaves, stems, and bark of elderberry are all poisonous and can cause vomiting.

As is true of many plants, traditional stories surrounding elderberry convey important knowledge about harvesting timelines for other plants or animals. Elderberry possesses antioxidant, antiviral and antibacterial qualities, and can speed recovery from flu. Elderberry contains many bioflavonoids, including quercetin. Anthocyanins, powerful antioxidants that protect cells, are abundant in the fruit.

Other dark blue berries include blueberry, salal, bilberry and huckleberry. All of these small smooth round berries are full of antioxidant compounds, which help protect capillaries against degeneration. The need for 100 percent confidence in your plant identification cannot be stressed enough: other dark berries such as nightshades (Solanum) and poke (Phytolacca) are poisonous, and should not be ingested at all.

Pine is another wonderful winter friend. Pine plays a prime role in many winter stories worldwide. Pine, like so many medicinal plants, could be the subject of its own book. The tribes who found the Pilgrims dying of scurvy made medicine with pine resin, needles and twigs and gave it to the Pilgrims to ingest as a cure. The first new tips of growth are gathered each spring to make tea. Pine, fir and spruce needles are all used to make tea for the immune system. Pine is used to make cough syrup, throat gargle, or beverage for rheumatoid arthritis. Pine resin can be used as a wound dressing as it inhibits bacterial growth, and it’s also used to make a drawing salve to remove splinters and such. Mixed with charcoal, it becomes a waterproof glue with a variety of uses. It is also an excellent fire starter when dry wood and tinder are hard to come by.

Wherever you go in California, there are a multitude of food and medicines available. Food and medicine surround us. The lens of Western science and its reductionist view separate food and medicine when in fact, they are one. TEK views the relationship we have with our environment as a holistic one. Living with and eating our medicine as our food is an important facet of TEK.

Of the many distinct ecoregions of California, some of these regions share much of their flora and fauna. Some share just a few species. What we do know is that whether you live on the Pacific coast or Sierra Nevada, desert or temperate rainforest, there is much for the student to discover. California’s diversity of Tribes and how far and wide they are spread proves the availability of food and medicine. These things are still available to us today, ready to be explored and unearthed from memory. As you explore your environment remember that this is tribal land, that tribes deserve respect, that positive identification of plants and other living things is absolutely important. The science of TEK is place-based. The stories of the rocks and trees belong where they sprang from the earth. Learn your land; it is part of you.

Banner: Blue elderberries. Andrey Zharkikh, some rights reserved


Co-produced by KCETLink and the Autry Museum of the American West, the Tending the Wild series is presented in association with the Autry's groundbreaking California Continued exhibition. 

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