Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Plants Gone Wild: a look at "Nuts and Berries of California."

about my "Nuts and Berries of California" book 
[Nyerges is the author of “Nuts and Berries of California,” and several other foraging books. Information about his books and classes is available at www.SchoolofSelf-Reliance, or Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041.]

In my “Nuts and Berries of California” book, I describe native nuts and berries that have long histories of use by Native Americans throughout California and North America. 

Many generations of rural Americans grew up collecting nuts and berries as a family tradition: going out to collect black walnuts, hickory nuts, pine nuts, blackberries, wild strawberries, and other foods from the forest.  These are some of the foods that people from just a few generations ago took for granted.
I also include many of the introduced ornamental plants in my book which  seem to have firmly established themselves in California.  They are not natives, but they are everywhere anyway.
I wondered, what should we call these plants?  We thought of calling them FUN  plants, for “Feral Urban Neighborhood” plants, but that seemed to convey a misleading message, that introducing non-natives is somehow fun or good or desirable. 

HIP VS. “hip”
HIP seems to be the best term, for Horticulturally Introduced Plants.  The thing is, when these introduced exotics were planted, it was often because the gurus of horticulture of the day were pronouncing them as the greatest new thing since sliced bread.  Grow these bushes and  trees and you too will be hip!  Really!  And lots of people fell for that idea. This is the “in” plant to grow this season, and then yards and backyards fill up with new “hip” plants with great colors and much to talk about at dinner parties. Sometimes the new hip and HIP plants are edible and useful, sometimes not – as in the case of oleanders.

And just like the idol-worshippers who adore the newest rock star of the season, when a new one comes around, the old one is forgotten. Maybe forgotten, but all the HIP “hip” plants are still here, hip or not, and often they expand their habitat into wild areas.

And since we’re calling these plants HIP, it’s worth commenting on the “rose hip,” which is the common way of referring to the fruit of a rose. I am not sure how the term “hip” came to mean fruit, but one theory is that the ovary of the flower become the fruit, and the enlarged fruit might seem visually similar to a woman’s hips.  Hmmmm.  If that were the case, why isn’t every fruit called a hip?

Regardless, the rose is one of the unique plants in this book since there is a native rose (and so we included it with the native plants) but there are also many HIP roses.  HIP roses are probably in everyone’s yard, which are the commercial hybrids with multiple petals of all  hues of the rainbow.  Our wild rose is not a HIP!

The plants in the HIP section of my book are not what we’d call “wild” plants.  These are bushes and trees that have been widely planted for landscaping, street, or yard trees, which sometimes survive well when they are no longer tended.  All of these are commonly used as ornamentals, though the fruits are typically allowed to fall to the grown and then discarded as if they were just trash. 

I have observed every one of these plants in wilderness areas where cabins once existed. After the cabins were destroyed by  fires or floods, these plants survived for years and decades with no human intervention.  These are survivors. And, that means that if we grow these plants, they can provide us with food with very little work and care.  Furthermore, they are probably already growing in or near your neighborhood, just waiting for you to discover and to appreciate them.

Some cultivated plants, which can also survive on their own, are just so common that we decided not to try to include all of them.  Such as citrus, for example.

Rather, we’re including many of the ornamentals which are common, but are either not commonly known, and not commonly used for food.  They are HIP, but not necessarily hip…….
 Some of the very common HIP plants included in the book are ficus trees (figs), loquats, mulberries, pyracantha, olives, ginkgo, and others. 
Watch this space in the coming weeks, and I’ll talk about many of these individually.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

NETTLES: all about this valuable herb


An excellent food, medicine, and fibre source

[Nyerges is the author of “Guide to Wild Foods,” “How to Survive Anywhere,” “Foraging California” and others.  He has led Wild Food Outings since 1974, and he lectures and writes on natural sciences and ethno-botany widely. His website is, or he can be reached at School of Self-Reliance, Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041]

This year, our rains came late, and many of the early spring natives and exotics hardly grew up at all. There was an abundance of chickweed, various mustards, mallow, and nettles this year, all non-natives and all very nutritious.

At one of my hiking spots, I noticed last week that there were contract city workers around our parks with their weed whackers beginning their annual decimation of the useful foods and herbs that have sustained millennia of people, just for the picking.  This is part of our culture’s current schitzophrenia – we talk “green” and how we want to be healthy and save ourselves and save the earth, yet, the very plants that can save us are weed-whacked, sprayed with Roundup, and tossed into the trashcans.  I can’t change the world, but I did tell my friends to collect all the herbs they are able to get before they are all cut down. 
city workers weed-whacking chickweed and nettle

Of course, I understand the other side – city officials don’t want nettles growing around parks where children might sting themselves.  Never mind that the sting can actually be a benefit to offset future arthritis --- the city doesn’t want the liability.  So, at this time of the year, vast acreages of nettles and other useful wild plants are cut down and unceremoniously poisoned and killed. Did I also mention that these very plants can be purchased in decorative boxes in the herb section of Whole Foods and other such markets?

This year, I have collected large volumes of chickweed, mallow, hedge mustard, and nettle.  Most of it I dry.  I used the powdered chickweed in an insect repellent, the mallow for a mild cough remedy, and the hedge mustard makes a spicey powder to add to other dishes.  But the nettle is the one that I can never get enough of.
nettle in the field
washing the nettle
drying racks

some chickweed too!

Often during this time of the year, I get an allergic reaction when I’ve been under and around the trees that produces lots of pollen and cottony-fluff, like willows, and cottonwoods, and cattail, and oak.  I’ve tried numerous remedies over the  years to combat the allergy, but all with limited success. It just won’t work to stay out of the woods.

Here are some of the many ways I used the nettle greens:   I make an infusion of the nettle leaves (dried or fresh) for allergy, and I drink it pretty regularly in the evenings.  It has helped to relieve congestion and improve my ability to breathe.  It seems to work even better than my old standby, Mormon tea.

I also add the fresh, dried, or frozen nettle greens into my evening soup.   The soup is  enjoyable and tasty.  In fact, nettle is one of the tastiest wild greens out there, and widely under-rated.

Sometimes I just cook nettle greens like spinach, and I even drink the water because it is so flavorful. I add it to various soups and stews, egg dishes and omelettes, and even burritos.

Sometimes, if I want a quick meal, I’ll make a package of ramen noodles, and add lots of nettle and onion greens.  I’ve also added the dried or fresh leaves of nettle to spaghetti sauce.  Powdered, I’ve added nettles to pancake batter to increase the protein content and improve the flavor or the pancakes.  I’ve not yet tried making pasta with nettles, but a friend of mine routinely dries and powders various wild greens, mixes it 50/50 with flour, and runs it through a pasta machine to make some unique pastas.

Years ago, I would periodically meet people who survived the hardships of World War II, and among other things, they spoke of how nettles saved their lives.  Usually, they would say that nettles and cattails, two widespread common plants, had enabled them to make meals. Until recently, I thought they were exaggerating because I hadn’t been aware of the versatility of nettles, and how it’s really a nutritional powerhouse.



Stinging nettle (Urtica dioeca) is a fairly common plant throughout most of North America, as well most of the rest of the world.  It is one of the plants that you always see on the charts of “noxious weeds” published by companies such as Ortho and others, letting you know that their product will effectively wipe out these “worthless plants” in your gardens.

The reason why so many people dislike stinging nettles is because when you brush up against it, you break off the tips of tiny hollow needles that are filled with formic acid, and you get a stinging reaction. This reaction is short-lived, and can be remedied by rubbing the skin  with chickweed or curly dock, or even wild grasses.

Nutritionally, nettles is a good source of Vitamin C and A.  According to the USDA’s Composition of Foods, 100 grams of nettle contains 6,500 I.U. of Vitamin A, and 76 mg. of Vitamin C.  This amount contains 481 mg. of calcium, 71 mg. of phosphorus, and 334 mg. of potassium. This amount also contains 5.5 grams of protein, a lot for greens, though not complete protein.

Herbalist Michael Moore, author of Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West, describes nettles as a diuretic and astringent, and he advices the tea for use in cases of internal bleeding. 

In general, nettles are found growing in the wild near streams, in moist soil, in rich soil, and often near raspberries and blackberry vines.  And in the urban areas, it seems to grow everywhere: along roads, in fields, backyards, gardens, and at the Highland Park Farmers Market, I’ve found it growing in the cracks of the sidewalk.

If you cannot yet recognize the wild nettle plant, most gardeners or landscapers should be able to show you one. Or go to a nursery, where nettles are often growing in their pots and soil.  

Friday, April 13, 2018

Life on the Navajo Reservation During the Depression


A book by Shiyowin Miller

One of the books that came out of my family was “The Winds Erase Your Footprints,” written by my wife Dolores’ mother, Shiyowin Miller.  Shiyowin, who was part Osage, was immersed in Native American culture. I remember visiting her home in Temple City, which seemed like an Indian museum with a full library, drums, pots, and artifacts from all over the country.  Shiyowin had been a music and dance teacher, and was a professional dancer. She knew Iron Eyes Cody, and worked with Luther Standing Bear, a Lakota Sioux who wrote “My People the Sioux” and other books. Luther adopted Shiyowin, and let her act as his agent for his various books and other legal matters. It brought the past alive to me when I was able to see and feel the pipes, sandals, robe, and other materials that Standing Bear had given to Shiyowin.

Shiyowin also had many friends from the Navajo lands. In the 1930’s, Shiyowin’s best friend, Juanita, fell in love with a Navajo man, Luciano, who’d been working as an extra in Hollywood.  Juanita and Luciano got married, and moved back to Luciano’s Navajo lands in New Mexico. Shiyowin kept in touch with Juanita, and wrote about the experiences that Luciano and Juanita underwent on the reservation, during the Depression when there was so little work.

To write the book, Shiyowin had interviewed her best friend to write this true story of the harsh life in the Navajo lands during the 1930s. It's a wonderfully-told story, written mostly during the 1950s and ‘60s. Shiyowin died in 1983, and when Shiyo’s daughter, Dolores (my wife) showed me the manuscript in the late 1990s, I was amazed at the quality and depth of the story, and could barely believe it had not been published. To me, it was like reading a Tony Hillerman novel, except it was true!

Everyone said that the book accurately depicted life on the Rez during that time, mixed in with some accounts of Navajo witchcraft.  With some editing, Dolores and I got the book published in 2002 by Naturegraph Press, which features many Native American titles.  If you do an internet search with the book's title, you'll see some of the reviews that have been published about this book. 

The story was descriptive, compelling, and you feel as if you are re-experiencing the harsh winds, the life in the Hogan making coffee, the search for work, and all the ceremonies and gatherings that were a part of the Navajo way of life.  The books, which was 335 pages when published, also contained hints and clues in the backdrop about Navajo witchcraft, and the ma-itso, the wolf clan which was feared by most.

The freak death of Luciano was generally attributed to the work of the ma-itso, and Shiyowin gives the clues in bits and pieces, in the way that Tony Hillerman so masterfully slowly revealed his mysteries.

The following excerpts from THE WINDS ERASE YOUR FOOTPRINTS are Copyright  and may not be re-printed without permission of the publisher.

from chapter 7: The Sing

And then Shimah was telling him about the yellow pollen. Juanita could almost follow the story by her mother-in-law's excited gestures. Shimah's face was strong and tense, no room for gentleness, and her voice carried a new undertone--like fear. Only her hands seemed natural, although excited, as she gestured. Strange that Shimah should tell about the yellow pollen, rather than ask the rider about himself, about news which he was surely carrying. Of what interest could the yellow pollen be to him?

But he was interested. He leaned forward as though better to hear her words; his eyes narrowed and his face looked very grave. He asked many questions. Shimah answered and sometimes Yee-ke-nes-bah. Through their conversation one word seemed to repeat itself until it began to echo and re-echo in Juanita's mind: ma-itso . . . ma-itso.

...And then Lorencito began to talk seriously to Luciano; Juanita heard the work ma-itso repeated

again and again. Shimah sat nodding her head as her oldest son talked, occasionally adding a word to what he was saying. Luciano turned to Juanita; his face was marked with gravity as was his older

brother's. "Lorencito says that it is not safe to keep this from you any longer; I should tell you now."

Juanita waited. Her mouth and throat felt suddenly dry. She could not have spoken. Her thoughts

raced: this is in some way connected, ma-itso and yellow pollen. Perhaps it's all connected, all of the puzzling and unexplained things that have happened. And somehow, the looks on their faces, Shimah's and Lu's, Yee-ke-nes-bah's and Lorencito's, are a little bit frightening.

"Before we came here," her husband began, "when I tried to tell you about everything which might seem strange to you, I didn't tell you about ma-itso--the wolf clan. One reason, it no longer seemed as believable to me as it once had; perhaps all the years in school did that; anyhow, in Hollywood I seldom thought of it. When we came here, my mother told me the wolf clan was still strong in CaƱoncito. I didn't tell you then because I could see no reason why they would try to harm us. But to be sure you were safe, my mother and sisters watched you every minute.

"There were times when I almost told you, those times when you were upset about things you didn't understand. And yet I hated to frighten you needlessly. Already there was so much for you to worry about. It seemed better to wait until I had a job, until we were living in town and then tell you. "But now two things have happened which make me sure the ma-itso is for some reason after us. I found yellow pollen in an X mark on my hat brim, and today my mother found pollen on our clothes. That is their warning. Lorencito thinks you will be safer if you know about this evil thing."    A hundred questions sprang to Juanita's lips, but her husband went on talking, interrupted now and then by Lorencito or his mother.

"The wolf clan is as old as the Navajo tribe. From the beginning some men turned certain powers, which should have been used for good, toward evil things. Corn pollen, used for blessing, is used by the ma-itso as a warning to a person marked for death. And death does not come in a usual manner; it comes in a round-about way which cannot be easily traced. The victim sickens suddenly; sometimes his mind leaves him. No Medicine Man can cure him. Sometimes the victim meets with a mysterious and fatal accident.       

from chapter 13: Wolf Tracks

Juanita had hung up two diapers when she became suddenly aware of something across the arroyo. When she looked carefully nothing seemed unusual; in the dim light she could see the sharp banks of the arroyo, the clumps of juniper in dark patches on the other side. Then gradually, two of the dark juniper patches began to take on the indistinct forms of dogs sitting on their haunches.

That was what imagination would do for you. She even thought now that she could see the large

pointed ears. Juanita smiled to herself. This must be what Lu had seen, the queer-shaped juniper

bushes. They looked surprisingly like coyotes, only larger. The likeness had even startled her for a

moment and her mind had certainly not been on wolves or wolf tracks. She pulled her eyes away and began resolutely to hang up more diapers.

A sudden movement, one dark figure detaching itself from the other and moving farther down the arroyo, a third form appearing almost directly across from her on the opposite bank. Juanita stood absolutely still. There was no sound except the flapping of the clothes on the line.

When Juanita reached the kitchen door, she called to her husband to bring the shotgun. "Those

figures that you saw are out there again." This couldn't be her voice, tight and choked.

Two of the dark forms were loping off down the arroyo when Luciano reached the bank, but the

third sat directly across from him like a very large coyote on its haunches. Luciano raised his gun and fired directly at it. The animal seemed to gather itself into a ball and plunge down the bank of the arroyo--across the wide, sandy bed.

"Lu! Watch out! It's coming for you."

He raised the gun to fire again ...      

from chapter 20: The Wolf Hunt

"What do you know about this wolf hunt?" Juanita finally asked.

"Something has been stealing lambs this spring; the dogs bark but when the men get out to the sheep corral there's nothing around." Alice paused to consult Pah-des-bah.

Now that she thought of it, Ginger and Bob had been restless for a few nights. The dogs had

awakened them once, howling, and Luciano had gone outside to look around.

"There's nothing out there," he had said upon returning. "Bob must have started baying at the moon and now Ginger's doing it."

Alice began to cut potatoes into chunks; they fell plop, plop, plop into the pan. "Richard Platero

heard something around his corral last night and took his rifle with him when he left the hoghan. He saw what he thought at first was a shadow. When it moved he fired at it. It got away. He couldn't trail it last night so he started out early this morning. The tracks were wolf tracks. When he met Pah-des-bah's husband, they talked about it and decided to get some of the other men to go with them."

Juanita cut the stew meat into small pieces and dropped them into the boiling water of the stew kettle. Coyotes ran near CaƱoncito. Early mornings she had heard the weird yelping cries of coyotes from the direction of Apache Wash. They could have been stealing lambs. ...

Alice listened for a moment. "They've been following the wolf tracks, and the trail doubled back

several times but always went ahead again. Then they lost it on a ledge of rock on one of the mesas." She pointed north with her lips. "One of the men found a spot of blood below the ledge."

Alice paused to listen again, and then the women began to talk in low voices and move away from the doorway as the men separated and went back to their horses.

"The men said the nearest hoghan was Wounded Head's on that same mesa. They rode up there to ask him if he had seen anything or anyone that morning."

Juanita started back to the washing machine, a frown puckering her forehead.

"Wounded Head's wife met them at the door of the hoghan; her son stood beside her. The men could not see past them. She would not let them in. She said her husband was very sick. A horse had kicked him."

Excitement spread through the whole community. Some of the men began to carry guns--rifles across their saddles or old revolvers in their belts. The women who gathered in the day school kitchen or sat outside around the back door talked together in low voices. But no one rode again to Wounded Head's place on the mesa.

A fascinating glimpse of Navajo life during the depression through the eyes of one woman. The Winds Erase Your Footprints is available from the store at, or from Amazon.