Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Not All Plants Can Be Eaten


I have noted that most of the very common “weeds” can now be found worldwide.  These are typically found in the disturbed soils of farms, backyards, and throughout urban areas. This means, among other things, that you could learn a dozen or so of these very common urban weeds, and use them in your meals as you travel the world.

But what about the poisonous plants, I am often asked.  Shouldn’t I be able to identify all the poisonous plants?  Certainly, the more you know the better. On the other hand, if you know that you have positively identified the plant you are about to eat as an known edible species, then it really doesn’t matter if you can identify any poisonous plants. Just know what you are eating, and “if in doubt, do without.”

In his book “Participating in Nature,” Thomas Elpel has created a unique chart [above] to give a perspective on the sheer numbers of edible, medicinal, and poisonous plants.

First, almost every plant with known ethno-botanical uses can be used medicinally, even some otherwise toxic plants can be used medicinally if you know the right doses and proper application. So, yes, medicine is everywhere.  But nearly two-thirds of these plants are neither poisonous, nor used for food for various reasons.

The extremely poisonous plants that will outright kill you are rare.  And since there are so few of these deadly plants, it is not all that difficult to learn to identify them.  In Southern California, for example, there is poison hemlock, and castor bean which are readily recognizable. Others that could cause death are various mushrooms, oleander, and tree tobacco, though we rarely hear about this happening.

Though there are only a few that are deadly poisonous, there are many more – perhaps five times as many plants as the very deadly ones – that would make you very sick, but would not normally  kill you.

Still, all the poisonous and toxic plants combined are perhaps 1/20th  (if that) of all the known ethnobotanicals.

Edible plants comprise about ¼ of the known edible-medicinal-poisonous plants.
Of the plants that we normally think of as “food plants,” the overwhelming majority – maybe 70% or so – is primarily providing us with greens. That is, throughout most of the year, most of the food that you’ll obtain from wild foods consists of greens, food to make salads, and  stir fries, and add to soups and vegetable dishes. These are plants which will not by themselves create a filling and balanced meal, but which will add vitamins and minerals to your dried beans, MREs, freeze-dried camping food, and your other foods. In general, greens are not high sources of protein, or fats, or carbohyrdrates.

Berries and fruits comprise another category of wild foods. Maybe 10 to 15% of the wild foods you find will provide you with berries or fruits, but timing is everything. Unlike greens, which you can usually find year-round, fruits and berries are typically available only seasonally, so if you want some during other parts of the years,you’ll need to dry them, or make jams or preserves. This includes blackberries, elderberries, toyon, mulberries, and many others. They provide sugar and flavor, but like greens, you would not make a meal entirely from fruits and berries.

Then, an even smaller category of wild foods,. Perhaps 5 to 7%, consists of starchy roots, such as cattails, Jerusalem artichokes, and others. These are great for energy, though they may not be available year round.  This is why these foods have traditionally been dried, and even powdered, and stored for use later in the years.

Another small category of wild foods consists of the seeds and nuts. This includes grass seeds, pine nuts, mesquite, screwbean, carob, acorns, and many others. It is in this small category, maybe 5% of wild foods, where you obtain the carbohydrates, oils, and sometimes proteins that constitute the “staff of life.”  Though these are not available all year, some have a longer harvest time than others. Some may have a harvest period of as short as two weeks.  Many grass seeds simply fall to the ground and are eaten by animals. Fortunately, most of these can be harvested in season and stored for later use.

Tom’s chart is based on years of observation and analysis, and can be found in his “Participating in Nature” book, available from Hops Press, www.hopspress.com.  Elpel is also the author of “Botany in a Day,” now in color, available from the Store at the School of Self-reliance, www.ChristopherNyerges.com.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Link to Interview with Dr. Adams (of "Healing with Medicinal Plants of the West")

Here is the link to an interview I did with Dr. Adams.  There will be a part two in a month or more.


Tuesday, July 23, 2013


A book by Dr. James Adams and Cecilia Garcia

[An interview with Dr. Adams can be heard on Nyerges’ weekly podcast at Preparedness Radio Network.]

James Adams, who is a doctor of pharmacology at USC, got very interested in the medicinal uses of native plants back in 1994.   He had been  taking his son out on Boy Scout walks and began to realize that all the local plants had been used by the Native Americans who once exclusively resided here. Adams then set out to find a Native American herbalist to learn from.

He talked with people from the Chumash tribe, but made no progress in finding a skilled herbalist for about two years.

Then he heard about Cecilia Garcia and arranged to meet her in the Santa Monica Mountains  Adams brought his wife along, and when he met Garcia, Adams was a bit taken aback by Garcia’s request that he sing a song.  “I sang a Ponca Indian song,” said Adams, “and she told me that it wasn’t a very good song, but that I sang it well!”

Then Garcia spent the next two hours talking with Adams’ wife, and when it was over, Garcia agreed to work with Adams. “She had to be sure that I wasn’t just trying to take advantage of her and exploit her knowledge,” explains Adams.

Adams and Garcia then collaborated to produce the book “Healing with Medicinal Plants of the West,” which was published in 2005.  It’s a fully illustrated book which describes the chemistry and uses of the plants that were used by the Chumash for medicine, and generally used throughout the west.
“Cecilia and I got together to decide what plants to include in the book, and which to not include.  We  agreed generally, but we did have a few plants that she said must be included.”

The book is now in its third printing, which includes many of Garcia’s recipes for how to use the herbs. 
Unlike many books on medicinal plants, this one attempts to present the full picture of what it means to be healthy, including the spiritual aspect.  There are some prefatory chapters on what’s wrong with modern medicine, and how the body must be allowed to heal itself.

Each plant is discussed by identification characteristics, distribution, primary and secondary uses, active compounds, and recommendations for use. Specific commentary by Garcia on the Chumash perspective is scattered throughout the book.

 Adams pointed out that there were six top herbs used by the Chumash in healing: Mugwort, sagebrush, white sage, black sage, bay and yerba santa.  These are described in detail in their book.

 Since their collaboration, Adams and Garcia have led nearly 100 walks and workshops to teach about the Native use of healing herbs.

Unfortunately, in early 2012, Garcia was hit by a vehicle while riding a bicycle, and died a month later on May 15, 2012 at her home in Ensenada, Mexico.  Garcia learned as a child from her paternal and maternal  grand parents, who were Chumash healers. Her Chumash religion was integral to her healing practice.  "Spirituality helps keep us healthy," she would often say.  Garcia  was often described as a very intense healer.

Adams earned his PhD in Pharmacology in 1981 at UC San Francisco in comparative pharmacology and toxicology, and is now an Associate Professor of Pharmacology and Pharmaceutical Sciences at USC.  He’s written over 200 articles. His family came to Virginia from England in 1635, and learned healing from the native Americans to stay alive.

 The book is available from Amazon, or from the store at www.ChristopherNyerges.com.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

TUNNEL 16 (an excerpt)

[An excerpt from Tunnel 16, a science fiction novel by Nyerges, available by Kindle, or as a pdf download from Store at www.ChristopherNyerges.com.]


Rick stared out at what appeared to be a vast lake, in a tall cavern, lit by some unseen subtle light source. Had Rick walked forward without care, he would have tumbled into this large nearly round lake.  He stood at the edge of his trail, looking out at the unbelievable scene stretched before him.  “How is this possible?” Rick whispered to himself.
It took a while for his eyes to adjust in the dim illumination. The path appeared to go on the entire circumference of the lake, though he could not clearly discern the far end.  Rick shined his flashlight across the lake but his little flashlight was not strong enough to illuminate the distant opposite side.
Rick heard some rocks tumble, and splash into the water.  He shined his flashlight in that direction and saw nothing.  Then  he saw a spark, a flash.  What was that?, thought Rick.  My imagination? 
            Above the water level by about 30 or more feet, there appeared to be another path on a shelf that roughly followed the circumference of the vast lake.  On this upper path, Rick could see as many as 12 – maybe more – openings that led into unknown areas.  Rick could not imagine how such an area could possibly be man-made.
            Though the water’s surface was still, Rick could see that there were objects in the water that stuck out maybe a foot or more.  These were cylindrical objects, not at all like stalagmites or stalactites, but cylindrical, obviously man-made objects with a flat top, sticking out of the water. These cylinders were more or less evenly-spaced in the water. Though Rick could not be certain, the source of the dim illumination in the cave seemed to come from these objects in the water.
            As Rick’s eyes adjusted to the dim light in the cavern, he began to examine the walls of the inside of the cavern. They were not like the tunnel he’d been walking in.  This was more like solid rock, and it was smooth, not rough.  Rick turned on his flashlight to see how tall the ceiling went, and the ceiling seemed incredibly high.  He turned the flashlight off.
How was this possible? thought Rick.  What about earthquake faults?  What about flooding?  How is the water controlled?  Are there fish in here?   Rick thought it was too cold, and too dark for fish, and besides, there was no movement in the water.
            Rick stood up to examine the lintel of the tunnel which led him to the cave.  He turned on his flashlight to see if there was any writing there, as there was in the first fork he encountered early on.
            To his amazement, there was a passage in English, and a longer passage of hieroglyphs similar to the one’s he saw earlier.  Rick felt frustrated that he didn’t have his notebook, but he began to study the images above the tunnel opening.  Most were simple shapes that must have meant something, or could have been some sort of symbolic art. But the English phrase caught Rick by surprise, and confirmed that at least some English-speaking people had come into the cave before Rick. 
            He held his flashlight up to the writing.  It was neatly carved into the upper wall, and had been painted with red and black, and the entire English phrase was circled.
            Rick read it out loud:

TIME IS an undulating
(but cohesive)
F  A  B  R  I  C

A linear flux
(i.e., vibrating sinewave(s))
It enables us to See
All yesterdays
AND all  tomorrows
AND all  dimensions

            “So what on earth is that supposed to mean?” thought Rick.  Why would someone write such an obscure thing deep in a tunnel?  Does it have something to do with time travel, or is this just some nut’s  mumbo-jumbo
Rick was hoping for something more mundane, like “This way to the desert,” or something like that. Rick stared at the phrase.  Who was it meant for?  Why was it put in this particular spot, over this tunnel?  Rick wanted to get out and go home, but he felt compelled to see if there was similar writing over the other openings. 
            He walked to his right on the narrow passageway that led in the direction that Rick believed was eastward, along the eastern edge of the vast cavernous lake.  He reached the next tunnel in about 5 minutes, and shone his flashlight up over the entry when something unseen  knocked him to the ground, along with his flashlight. Rick passed out.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Mayan Ceremony with Miguel Angel Vergara

I participated in a Mayan ceremony Sunday  (July 14) with Miguel Angel Vergara, who came to San Diego County from Mexico to teach. Helen and I and many others have traveled with Vergara in Mexico and Guatemala, learning about the esoteric side of the Mayan culture, in the classroom and in the field at the old archaeological sites, like Mayapan, Chichen Itza, Palenque, etc.  

Vergara was the director at Chichen Itza for many years.  He's written many books, but the one that is a good "starter" is "Sacred Knowledge of the Maya."  It's available at Lulu.com. 

You can also learn about his classes and podcasts at Casakin.org. 

Miguel Angel Vergara is a remarkable, humble man with a very basic message.

After a weekend of classes in San Diego, he led the group of  17 through a Mayan ceremony on a mountaintop in San Diego that Vergara said felt very much like the sacred sites of the Maya.  

I have written many times elsewhere about the teachings of Vergara. If you cannot find those writings, just email and ask.

Christopher [www.ChristopherNyerges.com]

Saturday, July 13, 2013

In Memory of Ron Hood

When I teach certain survival skills -- as I do regularly -- I cannot help but recall how Ron Hood has influenced me. I learned so many things from him -- making snares, figure 4 deadfalls, crossbows, etc.  And I play his videos regularly in my college survival skills course.

Ron passed away almost two years ago now -- June 21, 2011.   I posted a blog about him back then, on June 23, 2011.  You can go into my past blogs and read about Ron. 

I know he influenced many people, and many still miss him!

Friday, July 12, 2013

The Palo Verde tree

The desert tree: PALO VERDE (Parkinsonia microphylla and P. florida)

I recently re-discovered the Palo Verde tree, growing where it shouldn’t be growing near the Pasadena area.  It was probably spread there from a seed spread by a bird.

This desert tree is usually very inconspicuous, but when it flowers, it’s very showy and beautiful with its conspicuous flowers divided into five yellow petals.  The bark of the younger branches are green, hence the name.

There are thorns, and long ferny leaves, and pods that hang from the tree.

The tree is not particularly common, but is used more and more for landscaping since it’s drought-tolerant and beautiful when it flowers. In the wild, it’s found in the southeast deserts of California, into Arizona and down into Baja.

For the desert Indians, the seeds were the food from this tree, often eaten green by the  Cahuilla, Yuma, and other people.  Once mature and dried, the seeds were like little rocks, and would need to be ground into a flour, or parched, and then eaten. Sometimes they were sprouted.

Generally, the flour from palo verde would be made into a porridge, or something like cakes or biscuits.
Interestingly, this is often referred to as a “survival food.”  When I hear the word survival food, I think of something that you’d never eat unless you were desperate and starving – things like bark and lichens. It is thought of this way perhaps because the plant is not all that common, and because other tastier seeds – like mesquite -- were usually available to some of the desert people.

I’m curious – does anyone out there have personal experience with this seed?  I’ve eaten some and found  them good, and I don’t think I would classify them as “survival food.”  I’d like to hear from anyone else who has some personal knowledge of this plant.

[Nyerges is author of "Guide to Wild Foods" and other books; see Store at www.ChristopherNyerges.com]

Monday, July 01, 2013

On my book: "The Self-Sufficient Home..."

“The Self-Sufficient Home: Going Green and Saving Money”

Way back in 2000, my wife Dolores and I wrote a book called “Extreme Simplicity: Homesteading in the City,” where we detailed how we grew food, raised animals, generated power, and more, in our average home in the hilly outback of Los Angeles.
The “Self-Sufficient Home” book is a continuation of that work, but in this case, we didn’t strictly write about what we did in our own home. Rather, I interviewed at least two dozen other home-owners and experimenters to discover the ways in which they were practicing urban self-reliance.

 The book begins with the story of Dude McLean, former Marine who was heavily involved in self-reliance, and his experience during the 1971 Sylmar earthquake.  McLean and family survived well when much of their neighborhood was in ruins because they gardened, stored food and water, and had sufficient camping supplies and the know-how to live in the backyard.  Whenever I teach a class about urban preparedness, I begin by reading that chapter and the very real lessons learned by McLean and family.

“Self-Sufficient Home” includes an interview with Altadena architect Steve Lamb, who shares all the ways in which homes should be built to take advantage of natural principles such as sunlight, wind patterns, shade, and other site-specific issues.  Lamb points out that white roofs, and large overhangs helps keep houses naturally cooler.  During the course of writing the book, Lamb took me to a few of the places he’s worked on to show me how it’s also possible to retrofit an “average” house to take advantage of these principles.

The book shares the specific ways in which various local people, with no government aid and with no whining, went about producing their own electricity, and their own solar-heated water.  The reader is guided through the steps of making an electrical use assessment before going out to purchase any solar devices or components.  It’s important to do that assessment if you’re going to be your own power producer, so you build a system that is suitable to your situation.

There are interviews with people who collect rain water, with everything from low-tech to high-tech methods.  In fact, this is now so “mainstream” that all of the building supply companies routinely sell you all the hardware needed to turn a bucket into a rain water catchment system.

The many alternatives to the conventional flush toilet are discussed, from the expensive high-tech to the very simple low-tech methods that have been practiced for millennia.

The book also addresses all the ways in which the average urban back yard can be utilized for food and medicine production.  This begins with an assessment of the resources already on the property, coupled with a list of your specific needs and wants.  Where to get your seeds, how to produce plants from cuttings,  and ways to create your own backyard fertilizers are all included.

I interviewed a La Crescenta resident who makes his own biodiesel fuel from used vegetable oil, and ran his VW diesel rabbit on his own fuel for months. There are enough details in the book for the reader to follow in this man’s footsteps.

And lastly, there are several interviews with individuals whose lifestyles are laudable – a man who bicycles every day, a permaculture practitioner, a woman who lives in a tipi, and more. 

“Self-Sufficient Home” can be obtained via Kindle, and hard-copies are available wherever quality books are sold, or on-line.  This is a wonderful book and everyone should have a copy.

[More information about Nyerges’ classes and books is available at www.ChristopherNyerges.com, or via School of Self-reliance, Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041]

Timothy Snider: Man of the Trees

Pasadena resident Timothy Snider is a man of the trees.  When you’re driving around a neighborhood, or driving on the freeway and looking at all the trees in the city, most folks just see green.  Snider glances at a tree and will tell you the Latin name, the common name, and many things about the tree.  He knows how to identify trees better than just about anyone, and he knows the history and uses of the trees as well.

Snider began his study of botany at Riverside City College and continued at CalPoly (Pomona), where he thought he might have a career in the Forest Service.  When he realized they weren’t hiring, he shifted his focus to ornamental horticulture.  At Riverside City College, and learned how to key out plants using the technical botanical books. 

“Everyone was into the ‘back to nature’ thing back then, and I was mostly interested in wild plants that I could use for food,” says Snider.

Snider was a quick learner and seems to have an encylopedic knowledge of trees and plants. He was hired out of college to do street inventory work in Riverside.  This involved walking the streets in Riverside and cataloging the trees in the computer with a number.  Snider smiles and points to the tree next to where we’re standing. “This is a number 83,” he tells me, “a Cupaniopsis anacardioides, a carrotwood tree, and I would record this in my computer as an 83.”  His tree inventory work included noting the exact location, and condition of the tree.

Snider relates that this was pretty straightforward work, with an occasional dog that would chase him.

His tree identification work has taken him near remote Indian sites, from mountain tops to the deserts.  He say that although there is more diversity of trees today than there was in the days when only the Indians lived here, the trees that are here now are not necessarily more useful.  “There was mostly a grass savannah here, with lots of oak trees producing acorns, and lots of open space to hunt game.  Today, the greater diversity of trees does not produce more food, plus much of the open space is taken up by buildings and roads.”

Snider is keenly aware of the health of trees, and how this relates to the general health and wellbeing of the local populace.

For example, Snider points out that the ideal number of trees in the Big Bear area was figured out to be about 40 per acre.  However, before the massive burn 6 years ago where everyone on the mountain had to be evacuated, the ratio was about 300 trees per acre.  “This meant that there was less water per tree, and this allowed the bark beetle to cause devastation. The drought made things even worse,” explains Snider. People were unwilling to thin their trees, and so when the wildfire came, it burned out of control.  Snider was called in after the fact to assist with tagging trees that had to be removed.

Snider is working on a plant identification book using primarily photos.  (He also has a book in the works compiling all known guitar tunings).

Part of the problem of the Big Bear firestorm was convincing residents to thin out the trees. “The residents said the trees were too pretty, and wouldn’t cut them. So the fire came in and forced the issue.”

Snider also has a gripe with tree-pruners who don’t know trees.

“Most tree pruners know nothing about trees or pruning, and some only know how to use a chain saw.  Most do not know how to shape a tree, and they overprune in hopes that they will not need to come back to the tree soon.  But in fact, trees grow twice as fast when they are overpruned, since the tree is trying to compensate for the imbalance between the root system and the leaf system.

“You should never remove more than 20 to 30% of the foliage of a tree in any one season,” says Snider.

If looking for a good tree pruner, Snider suggests talking to the Ornamental Horticulture Department at CalPoly. 

If you ask Snider to name the best tree for your backyard, he’ll tell you that’s the wrong question. “There is no best tree,” he explains, “since we need to take into account the lighting and shade conditions, the soil, the amount of space, the size of the mature tree, and maybe other factors.”  To see some examples of trees and their conditions, Snider suggests going to Rancho Santa Ana Botanical Gardens in Claremont, the Arboretum in Arcadia, or Huntington Gardens in Pasadena.

Another interest of Snider’s is the natural history of the area, especially unique Native American calendric sites.  One such example is Mockingbird Canyon, where the light of the sun makes a dagger through a circle on the winter solstice.  This was a site used by the desert Cahuilla Indians and others.

“These calenders in stone told the people when to find food, when to do the ceremonies, and about the changing of the seasons,” explains Snider.