Friday, May 15, 2015

Book Review: Nuts and Berries of California

[Joe A. Hall showing the HIP section of book]

Christopher's latest book:

NUTS AND BERRIES OF CALIFORNIA: Tips and Recipes for Gatherers. A Falcon Field Guide by Christopher Nyerges, 2015.  [Available from Amazon, or the Store at]

[Nyerges has been leading wild food identification classes since 1974.  Information about his classes and books is available from]

Last year, my “Foraging California” book was released, a full-color guide to the most common and widespread wild foods of California.

This month, a sequel to that book has been released, “Nuts and Berries of California,” another full color guide to just nuts and berries.  The foraging of nuts and berries has long been a family tradition, even by those who are just a bit too timid to collect wild greens or wild mushrooms. This is partly because there really aren’t that many toxic nuts or berries in North America, and the edible ones are fairly widespread and easy to

Had my father lived to see this book, he would have loved it, and would have used it for one of his jokes, saying that I wrote about the “fruits and nuts” of Washington, or Hollywood. 

In my new book, I first discuss native nuts, then native berries, and then the introduced ornamental plants which produce edible nuts or berries.  I wrote the book with advice from Paul Campbell, author of “Survival Skills of Native California,” who kept giving me suggestions about what to include in the book. I used many of Campbell’s suggestions in the book, but not all. Some of his suggestions of nuts or berries to include were marginal foods, or were rare, or were found only in very localized areas.  So when I outlined my book, I included those plants which had the broadest distribution, and which were relatively easy to identify.

The wild nuts include the acorn, which every child can recognize, and which every Indian tribe in California once used in their daily diet.  Wild walnuts are included, and when most people think of wild nuts, they think of walnuts.

Bay, pine, chinquapin, jojoba, and mesquite are all included in the native nut section. There is unique information about how to process the California buckeye nuts, which were widely used by the Pomo people for food. Dr. James Adams of USC shared some of the latest information about buckeyes toxins and how they can be removed before eating the seeds.

All the common wild berries are included, such as blackberries and its many kin, wild cherries, elderberries, strawberries, grapes, manzanita, rose hips, toyon and many others.

The last section is called HIP, a term coined by my wife Helen, meaning horticulturally introduced plants.  These are plants that were brought here from somewhere else for ornamental purposes and can now be found surviving in the wild as well as in the urban landscape. There are many HIP plants, but I only include some of the most common, like figs, loquat, mulberries, olives, and pyracantha.

The book is beautifully illustrated with color photos and contains many recipes for how to use these nuts and berries.

When I was first introduced to the world of ethno-botany many decades ago, it appealed to me on a deep subconscious level. Food is every where, not just on farms!  The native peoples from around the world actually ate, and often ate well, and this is at least partly because they had no other choice.

There was a mystery surrounding this field when I was first learning about it in the late 1960s.  Though there were books on the subjects, many of the authors obviously wrote about it in a very detached second-hand nature, like talking about something that doesn’t exist anymore. I saw the very pragmatic aspects of learning about the uses of plants, and I realized that so many of the food-related fears which mankind suffers are not necessary, assuming we educate ourselves and live in accord with the natural world. Yes, there is a trend in that direction, slow but sure…

My involvement with wild foods has included sampling everything that I learn about, and including many in my regular diet. I have also written about how these plants are used in books, and teaching classes. I led my first wild food outing in 1974, and published my first book, “Guide to Wild Foods,” in 1978.   Nearly every one of my books since then has included some information about wild foods and wild plant uses.

Friday, May 01, 2015

Walking in the Woods with Dr. James Adams

A walk in the woods with the co-author of “Healing With Medicinal Plants,” Dr. James Adams.
The book is available from, from Amazon, and from Abedus Press (see end of article)

[Nyerges is the author of “Foraging California,” “Guide to Wild Foods,” and other books. He has been leading plant identification outings since 1974. Information about his books and classes is available from School of Self-Reliance, Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041, or]

The three of us drove for about an hour and finally exited onto a dusty trail in the Santa Monica Mountains to learn about the healing properties of plants.

Myself and Army veteran Mark Tsunokai (Sgt. T.) were in the field with Dr. James Adams, a doctor of pharmacology who also spent years studying from a traditional Chumash healer.  Though we were actually on a quest to find one obscure plant whose buds can help alleviate the symptoms of pneumonia, Sgt. T. and I were also interested in the bigger picture of how to heal.

Dr. Adams is a walking encyclopedia, bringing alive both his western training in pharmacology and his training in the traditional healing ways of the Chumash.

Before we’d gone very far, we encountered the black sage and purple sage plants, both of which are excellent cooking spices. “The purple sage is the best plant to relieve pain,” Dr. Dr. Adams tells us. He explains that one should take two small handfuls of the leaves,  simmer it in sea water, and then soak your feet in the water.  My natural question was “what if you’re not near the sea?”  Ordinary water will do, we were told.  And though Dr. Adams said that this was the best plant for pain, he said that the black sage could also be used as an effective substitute.

What if it’s not your feet that are hurting?, I asked. What about a headache, a toothache, an aching back?  Dr. Adams smiled patiently at my question while Sgt. T. took notes. “I’m saying that you should soak your feet for any pain,” he responded.  “Your brain doesn’t feel pain, but your skin does.”  OK, soak your feet for any pain!

This wasn’t going to be an ordinary hike, I quickly realized, as Sgt. T. continued to scribble notes into his waterproof military notebook.

Further along on the dusty trail we saw a family huddled around a bush, mumbling something to Dr. Adams. Dr. Adams began to tell them the identity of the bush they were standing around – golden currant – but this time they said they weren’t interested in the plants, just the red snake they pointed to under the bush.  We all stopped and looked at the four foot long beautiful snake with its mottled red head sticking up motionless.  It was identified as a red racer, somewhat rare. We took pictures and then it suddenly raced away.

Dr. Adams picked up some small dried plants and shook out some tiny seeds. “Chia!,” he declared. This was the native golden chia, the high-energy seed used by desert Indians for generations.  This was our native chia, not the cultivated chia so commonly sold in the health food stores these days.

“Chia is the best treatment for someone who’s had a stroke,” Dr. Adams explains. “You add one tablespoon of the seeds to 10 tablespoons of water, and the seeds swell up gelatinously.  You give this to the stroke patient once a day for a month.”  Since I eat chia every day in my coffee, I asked Dr. Adams if this would help to prevent a stroke.  “No, not necessarily,” he told me.  OK, but I’ll still eat it because I like it.

As we walk, Dr. Adams speaks of  “his teacher” who he rarely mentions by name. His teacher of many years was Chumash healer Cecilia Garcia, who passed away over a year ago.

On our short journey into the hillside, we see numerous spring wild flowers such as Mariposa lily, blazing star, brodiaea or blue dicks, and Mimulus.  He stops and teaches how the nearly-miraculous mugwort leaves can be used for healing, as well as the California sagebrush, the details and recipes for which are in his book.

Finally, we come across a stand of erect but somewhat inconspicuous plants with little sticky yellow flowers, the object of our search, a plant known as both gum plant and gum weed. Dr. Adams carefully explained that to use this plant to treat pneumonia, you boil one bud in a cup and a half of water in a pot with a lid.  You let the patient drink some each night. I took notes as Sgt. T. took photos, and I picked a few flower heads for experimentation.

Clearly, we’ve lost touch with nature’s pharmacy.  Like so many areas of our lives, we’ve turned over our own critical thinking to “experts.” Dr. Adams the healer is on a mission to change that through his teachings and field trips. His book is highly recommended.

“Healing with Medicinal Plants of the West” was written by Dr. Adams and Cecilia Garcia, published by Abedus Press, P.O. Box 8018, La Crescenta, CA 91214.  The latest (3rd) edition includes the recipes from Cecilia Garcia for how to properly use many of the plants for medicine.