Sunday, March 6, 2011

Select Native Plants and Their Uses


There are three types of Suaeda (Sea-Blite) that can be found near UCSD: one at the Scripps Coastal Reserve and two at Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve. Suaeda taxifolia (Wolly Sea-Blite, pictured on the right) and Suaeda esteroa (Estuary Sea-Blite), found at Torrey Pines, are endemic to California and Baja California. Suaeda californica (California Sea-Blite, pictured on the left) is endemic to the coast of Southern California. Of these three plants, only Suaeda taxifolia is not endangered. Different species of Suaeda were used by Native Americans in order to make the black pattens in woven baskets. The entire plant was added to boiled water and steeped in order to extract the potent dye. Sea blite can be boiled or steamed; it is known to be a tasty warm salad when hard boiled eggs are added.


There are two types of milkweed species in La Jolla (although seven species of Asclepias are native to San Diego). First, Sarcostemma cynanchoides (climbing milkweed) is native to California and can be found throughout western North America. (Photo shown on the right by Max Licher, taken from In La Jolla, it can be found at Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve. At Scrips Coastal Reserve, Asclepias fascicularis (narrowleaf milkweed) is the host to Monarch caterpillars during the summer. (Shown on left from Asclepias fascicularis, Asclepias erosa, and Ascelpias eriocarpa are species of milkweed found in San Diego that were used by Native Americans for chewing gum. The juice found inside the milkweed stem was heated until it became solid and then animal fat or grease was added so the gum would last longer. Asclepias fascicularis and Ascelpias eriocarpa supplied tough fibers which were used to make cord and rope. Ascelpias eriocarpa was used by natives in Mendocino County (just north of Sonoma County in Northern California) as a lotion to make the patterns for tattoos. The lotion would hold the pigment together was the ink was inserted into the skin.


Agave Shawii, also known as Shaw's Agave, coastal agave, or Coastal Century Plant, only grows in California in San Diego and San Bernardino counties and can be found at Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve. This plant is on the California Native Plant Society's list on endangered species. The common name Coastal Century Plant is a misnomer; at age fifteen or older, the plant will finally bloom. The flower's stalk ranges from fifteen to forty feet tall. The plant then dies leaving vegetative offsets (suckers) after flowering. Clones form colonies that may persist for centuries or longer. Therefore the plant does not live for a century, but its clones can thrive in the same spot for a hundred years if its environment permits. (A clone is a genetically identical individual that originated from a single original seed.) Indian women used Shaw's Agave charcoal for tattoos. And my personal favorite use for this plant... Shaw's Agave flowers are used to make pulque, which is fermented and used to make tequila! Many landscapers use agave, so you may think you recognize the plant pictured to the left in your neighbor's yard. Most landscaping agave plants, however, are agave americana, pictured to the right.

Yucca schidigera, Mohave yucca, can be found at Scripps Coastal Reserve and Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve (see photo, taken from This species is much more widespread than Agave Shawii, thriving in the Mojave and Sonoran deserts, Baja California, southern Nevada, and western Arizona. This plant is pollinated by the species Tegeticula yuccasella. (Photo by Gilbert S. Grant, taken from Science Photo Library.) This specific moth is genetically programmed to pollinate the stigma of each flower on the Mohave yucca. Like fig wasps, the relationship is mutually beneficial. Thus, if either the Yucca schidigera or the Tegeticula yuccasella went extinct, so would its partner. Natives ground its fruits into a meal and also ate it raw and cooked. Fruit was gathered in April or May and roasted. Roots were scraped for their shavings and used as a washing aid. Whole leaves were used to secure beams in homes. Fiber was extracted from dry leaves by beating and from fresh leaves after soaking. The fibers were then used to make rope, baskets, bowstrings, and body paint brushes. Yucca 'wood' has a very low ignition temperature, making it ideal for fire-starting. Today Yucca schidigera extract can be used for fertilizer and has exceptional results for plants in harsh growing conditions. Researchers have decreased human's blood cholesterol and therefore heart disease with Mojave yucca extract. It is also used in animal feed to improve the health conditions of farm animals and pets by reducing the emission of odor and ammonia; an experiment published in Animal Feed Science and Technology (issue 129) proved that Yucca schidigera extract can reduce methane emissions in slaughterhouses up to 42%. This is extremely important because Methane is responsible for nearly as much global warming as all other non-carbon dioxide (CO2) greenhouse gases put together, as it is twenty one times more powerful a greenhouse gas than CO2.

Rhus integrifolia, or lemonade berry, thrives on ocean bluffs and canyons from Santa Barbara to Baja California and inland to western Riverside county. (Photo taken from the San Diego Natural History Museum website.) This bush-like plant can be found at both Scripps Coastal Reserve and Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve. After the flowers bloom (February to March), the berries begins to grow. Indians dried these berries for use during the fall and winter; then they would soak them in water and heat them for a form of hot pink lemonade! The pulp was sucked for its juice and the berries were enjoyed as tart snacks.The Cahuillas, natives living throughout Southern California 2000 years ago, boiled leaves to make a tea for treating coughs and colds. The berries can still be used to make lemonade if soaked in water and strained.


There are two species of Barrel Cacti found near UCSD: Ferocactus viridescens var. viridescens, Coast Barrel Cactus is found near UCSD at Scripps Coastal Reserve and Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve. Ferocactus acanthodes, Compass Barrel Cactus, can be found at Scripps Coastal Reserve. Coast Barrel Cacti (pictured right) are listed on the California Native Plant Society's list of endangered species, mostly because of land development; it is only found on coastal bluffs. The oldest barrel cacti are thought to be thirty years old and can grow up to six feet tall. The Compass Barrel Cactus (pictured left) is appropriately named because mature plants tilt to the south. Compass Barrel Cacti were used as ovens by natives. The top of the cactus was removed and the inside hollowed out (the inside is filled with tissue - not water). The remaining cactus was used as an baking oven by placing hot rocks inside it and replacing the top of the cactus. The Cahuillas removed the base of the flower buds and broiled them before consumption. The spines were used as awls (for making holes in leather).

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