By Scott Clay-Poole, PhD
Allium acuminatum - Hooker's Onion
Liliaceae (Lily Family)
Perennial herb to 12" tall, from a small, deeply-buried egg-shaped bulb with a fibrous network on the surface. Leaves 1-2, all basal, long and narrow, grass-like, withering before the flowers appear. Rose-colored flowers, though sometimes white, with 6 stamens, 3-chambered ovary, later to become a 3-chambered capsule (fruit); tepals (6) turn back at the tips, in upright umbels with 7-25 flowers subtended by 2 bracts under the umbel.
Habitat: Usually in open, rocky sites, occasionally in dry to moist open forest; at low elevations.
Use: Onion bulbs, as a group, were eaten fresh or steamed in pits. Some gatherers would mark the growing plants in spring and come back in late summer to dig the bulbs.
[Pojar & McKinnon, 1994; Turner, 1995]; [Montana Natural Heritage Web Pages] top
Apocynum cannabinum - Indian Hemp
Apocynaceae (Dogbane Family)
Perennial herb with stems ascending to erect. Leaves opposite, with petiole < 5-8 cm blade. Flower small; corolla cylindric to urn-shaped, 5-lobed, with 5 triangular appendages alternate with the stamens; stamens attached at base of tube, filaments short, wide, anthers forming adherent cone around stigma, each partly steile, sharply arrow-shaped; nectaries 5, around the ovaries; style none; stigma massive. Fruit slender, cylindric, pointed follicle generally greater than 12 cm. Seed with tuft of long hairs. Fragrant flowers in bloom from May to July due to the successive development of new clusters. Bees produce a very fine grade of honey from these. The seed pod (follicle) is an amazing affair being shaped like a smooth, curved green bean. This brownish husk splits open to allow silky seeds to escape. A thick milky juice exudes from any broken portion of the plant, and might be considered poisonous.
Habitat: Throughout eastern Washington in Sagebrush, Bunchgrass, and Yellow Pine Zones.
Use: The stems were harvested in October, just as the leaves were turning yellow. Damp areas produce the tallest, thickest plants; those on the sidehills are bushier and not as good. The harvested plants were bundled by the lower ends for carrying. The branches and leaves were cleaned off, and the stems were flattened by pulling them over a pole tied to a tree. They were then split open from bottom to top with a sharp stick. The woody, outer skin was pulled off by hand after rubbing the stems. The the fibrous parts just under the skin were bundled together and hung by the tops in the wind to dry. When dry they were brittle. The process of rubbing the hemp helps to separate the fibers. The fibers were made into twine by twisting and rolling them with the hand on the bare thigh. The hands were kept damp to increase the friction. The stem fibers were joined together by splicing; the thick (lower) end of one fiber bundle and the thin (upper) end of another were each split about one half of the length of the stem, and the pieces placed together as an interlocking "V", then rolled together until they were intertwined. An average plant yields about 2-1/2 feet of fiber, but half of this is lost in the splicing process. By splicing the stems together, a continuous length of twine could be produced. A finer twine was made by splitting the stems in two along the entire length and using the halves as one would a whole stem. A strong rope could be made by twisting several lengths of twine together. A good Indian hemp rope is said to have the equivalent strength of a modern hemp rope with a breaking point of several hundred pounds. The twine would keep for many years if stored in a dry place.
Indian hemp twine was excellent for making fishing lines and nets because it keeps its strength under water and does not shrink. It was also used in the manufacture of many other items, including deer nets, slings for hunting small game, nooses for snaring grouse and other game birds, hide stretchers, moccasins, clothing, woven bedding for baby cradles, wheels used in a type of dart game, tump lines, and cat-tail mats. For making garments, the fiber was sometimes mixed with deer hair before spinning.
[Turner et al., 1980]
Asarum caudatum - Wild Ginger
Aristolochiaceae (Pipevine Family)
Evergreen, low-growing, aromatic perennial. Leaves heart- to kidney-shaped, emerge in pairs along the rhizome and are held on leaf stalks 2-6" long. Flowers purplish-brown to greenish-yellow, solitary, bell-shaped, petals 0 with 3 flaring lobes (sepals) that taper to long points, surrounding 12 stamens. Sepals white inside with single median stripe. The flowers are often concealed by the leaves. Fruits fleshy capsules, with several egg-shaped seeds bearing a fleshy appendage. Seeds dispersed by ants. It has been reported that fungus gnats deposit eggs in the throats of the flowers, but when the larvae eat the flowers, they are poisoned and die (Meeuse & Morris, 1984).
Habitat: Wild ginger grows in moist, deeply shaded forests, rich bottomlands, frequently lost in heavy leaf litter because of its slow growth, and often under western red-cedar. Common from low to middle elevations.
Use: The whole plant, when crushed, has a strong smell of lemon-ginger. The roots were once eaten fresh or dried and ground as the tropical ginger substitute. A tea has been made from the roots and was sipped for stomach pains by some First Peoples. Substances within the plant have been known to have antibiotic properties.
Based upon new information, the Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is advising consumers of Aristolochic acid, a chemical component in the plant, to discontinue use. Consumption of products (including over-the-counter botanicals) containing aristolochic acid has been associated with permanent kidney damage, sometimes resulting in kidney failure that has required kidney dialysis or kidney transplantation. In addition, some patients have developed certain types of cancers, most often occurring in the urinary tract.
This plant is one of our pretty woodland natives to be seen, enjoyed and admired, with perhaps just a sniff of a crushed aromatic leaf between finger and thumb (gingerly, he said...).
Hashimoto, K., et al. 1999. Quantitative analysis of aristolochic acids, toxic compounds, contained in some medicinal plants. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 64(2): 185-189.
[Pojar & McKinnon, 1994]top
Meeuse, B.J.D. & S. Morris. 1984. The Sex Life of Flowers. Facts on Life. New York, New York.
Balsamorhiza sagittata - Balsamroot
Compositae/Asteraceae (Sunflower Family)
Herbaceous perennial up to 20" or more tall growing from a large, deep taproot. The basal leaves are large, numerous, stalked and broadly triangular or arrowhead-shaped. Stem leaves are few, and much reduced. The entire plant is grayish due to a thick covering of fine white hairs. The bright yellow flowerheads, usually many per plant, are borne on individual stems and are large and sunflower-like, with about 25 petal-like ray flowers per head. The single-seeded fruits (achenes), which shake loose easily from the dried mature heads, are like miniature sunflower seeds. Blooming season is from April to July, depending on elevation, and these flowers provide a striking display of top
Habitat: Open hillsides and prairies (Sagebrush and Bunchgrass Zones into the Yellow Pine Zone) at low to moderate elevations east of the Cascade Mountains
Use: The large taproots, root crowns, young shoots, young leafstalks and leaves, the flower budstalks, and the "seeds" (actually the fruits....the seeds are inside) were all eaten by one group or another, and the large leaves were sometimes used in food preparation.
The taproots can grow large, and are difficult to dig. They were generally obtained in spring, although some First Peoples dug them in summer or fall. The roots contain inulin as a major carbohydrate. They also have a tendency to be woody. Cooking them, then was a challenge. The roots were peeled by pounding them to remove the "bark", then pit-cooked overnight, usually for 24 hours or longer. They could be eaten fresh or dried for storing or trade. Sometimes they were strung on skewers. Properly cooked, they are very sweet and brownish, due to conversion of inulin to fructose, and they were eaten as a treat or "sort of dessert."
The young shoots, before they emerged from the ground in early spring, were sought by many and eaten raw, or sometimes pit-cooked. After they emerge they become green and bitter.
The flower budstalks were, a favorite springtime food. They were broken off while the buds were still tightly closed, then peeled and eaten raw or sometimes cooked as a green vegetable. They have a pleasant nutty flavor, like sunflower seeds.
The "seeds" (actually achenes, the fruits with a single seed inside) were harvested from the dried heads, being shaken out into bags or baskets and spread onto mats for drying for two or three days. Sometimes they were browned by toasting on a hot rock. The chaff could be removed by winnowing - pouring from one basket to another in the wind. The seeds could be eaten whole, but more often, they were ground to a powdery meal (shells and all) with a stone mortar and eaten alone without further preparation or mixed with other foods such as deer grease, white-bark pine kernels, pounded, dried saskatoon berries, or Douglas-fir sugar. Sometimes they were formed into small cakes, and sometimes they were boiled in soup, or cooked with oil, water or broth and eaten as a porridge. Some First Peoples purportedly smoked the leaves as a tobacco substitute and for this purpose were mixed with kinnikinnick.
[(Kuhnlein & Turner, 1991; Turner et al., 1980]
Camassia quamash - Blue camas, Common camas
Liliaceae (Lily Family)
Herbaceous perennial with large underground bulbs up to 1-1/2" thick and almost 2" long, covered by a membranous brown skin. The grass-like leaves are basal 3'4" wide and up to 15" long. The flower stems are up to 20" high bearing a loose terminal cluster of showy blue blossoms in late spring (sometimes odd white flowers occur). top
Habitat: Meadows and grassy bluffs in soil pockets on rock outcrops, and prairies.
Use: Bulbs used for food. They were most often steamed. When cooked the bulbs taste sweet. The bulbs contain a complex sugar called inulin. Slow cooking (up to three days) promotes the conversion of inulin to its individualized components of the sweet tasting and more
digestible fructose. The concentration of fructose in cooked camas is as high as 33% of the wet weight or 43% of the dry weight (Turner et al., 1980).
Blue camas is commonly called "black" camas because the bulbs turn black when pit-cooked.
After pit-cooking, the "black" camas (now soft, dark, and sweet) is either dried, ground and mixed with flour, water and a bit of butter to make a "gravy," or boiled before being eaten. Some tribes preferred to store the bulbs in the rafters of their homes. This was considered a
better tasting bulb from those stored underground all winter. The larger "black" camas bulbs were reserved for elderly people; if young people ate them, it was believed that they would later marry an old person.
[Turner et al., 1980]
Calochortus macrocarpa - Mariposa Lily, Sagebrush Lily, Desert Lily
Liliaceae (Lily Family)
Perennial herb from a deep-seated bulb. Leaves few, to 4", the basal leaf generally much the largest, narrow and grasslike, and curl and wither before the plant flowers in early to mid summer. Flower petals 3, white to deep lavender, with a median greenish stripe, and a pointed tip (picture shown is the closely related C. venustus). Sepals 3, long-acuminate, mostly longer than the petals and alternate with them; gland at base of petals, bordered with a more or less continuous, fringed membrane, the surface covered with elongate, generally freely branching, thick hairs; anthers longer than the filaments; fls 1-3 on a stalk. Ovary 3-celled, superior; fruit an erect, angled and narrowly winged capsule. [Most species of Calochortus propagate freely from seeds, but it takes 3-5 years for seedlings to flower; on the other hand, collected bulbs are apt not to survive]. top
Habitat: Dry, sandy soils on plains and hillsides east of the Cascade Mountain range of Washington (and north to British Columbia and south to California).
Use: This plant is often called "sweet onion" by First Peoples. The bulbs were dug in the spring before the plants flowered and were eaten raw or pit-cooked with other roots to add flavoring. They have a sweetish, starchy taste. Some tribes mashed the bulbs and applied the mash directly to the skin as an antidote for poison ivy.
[Kuhnlein & Turner, 1991]
Claytonia lanceolata - Western Spring Beauty
Portulacaceae (Purslane Family)
Herbaceous perennial up to 6" tall, growing from a fleshy, globular corm which may be walnut-sized, but is usually smaller. The corm is brown-skinned and white inside. Each corm produces one to several basal leaves, which usually die back by flowering time. About midpoint on the flower stems is borne an opposite pair of lance-shaped to oval, pointed leaves. The flowers are borne in loose, terminal clusters of 3 to 20. Each flower, up to 1 cm across, has two broad sepals and five petals (which are white to pink, or white with pink veins), 5 epipetalous stamens, and 3 stigmas. The fruit is a 3-chambered capsule, with margins rolling inward and forcibly expelling the small, black and shiny seeds. top
Habitat: Found in rich woods, thickets, and moist slopes and subalpine meadows.
Use: The fleshy, succulent corms of spring-beauty, often called "Indian potato," "wild potato," or "mountain potato," were an important "root vegetable" for many tribes. The round, fleshy corms are ready to be dug just as bitter-root is finished, around April or May. This is just after they have bloomed, when the leaves "start to turn a little different." They could also be dug later in summer or fall, but since the stems die down quickly after flowering, the corms are sometimes difficult to locate later in the season. The Okanogan-Colville used to have a "First Roots" ceremony for these corms, around the first of June. The corms are quite shallow, and are dug with a digging stick. The more stems a plant has, the larger its root will be; one with two or tree stems might have a corm 2.5 cm across; one with 10 stems might have a 5 cm corm, while one with 15 stems might yield a 7.5 cm corm. Indian potatoes were generally eaten when they were dug, but sometimes they were stored for a short time by burying them in a hole lined with pine needles and cottonwood bark to prevent them from freezing and to keep out rodents. More often they were steamed like bitter-roots or boiled in a little water, as one would cook potatoes. Sometimes, the corms were kept fresh until the Saskatoon berries were ripe, then cooked and mixed with mashed Saskatoons and dried in cakes for later use. Other times the cooked corms were flattened with the hand before being dried; the drying process was said to take about five days. Before use, the dried corms were simply boiled, or might be soaked for a short time. They are crisp and pleasant-tasting.
During the root-digging season, entire families and sometimes small groups of families often camped for two or more weeks in the subalpine meadow areas to dig these corms, and the bulbs of yellow avalanche lily. Women and children usually dig the corms, prying them up with a pointed, T-shaped digging stick made from a mule deer antler, or from Saskatoon (serviceberry) or some other hard wood. Often, the corms were sought from the caches of small rodents. Each family might obtain two or more large sacks (each about 10-kg size) of the corms to last them over the winter.
The dried corms were formerly an important trading item. Since the introduction of pack-horses, the job of carrying the sacks of corms from the digging sites to the permanent winter homes has been much easier.
[Hickman, 1993; Kuhnlein & Turner, 1991; Turner et al., 1980]
Clintonia uniflora - Queen's Cup, Beadlily, Bride's Bonnet, Blue-Bead
Liliaceae (Lily Family)
Perennial from slender, creeping rhizomes (underground stems). Leaves 2-3 in a basal rosette generally 7-15 cm long, oblong or elliptic with sheathing base, slightly fleshy and shiny with a noticeably hairy margin. Flowers large, white, cup-shaped, erect and solitary on a long stalk bearing 6 tepals, 6 stamens, and 3-lobed stigma. Fruit is a single, bright metallic blue berry.
Habitat: Moist forest, forest openings, clearings; widely distributed and often abundant at low to subalpine elevations.
Use: This plant was not widely recognized by coastal First Peoples, but one tribe called it "wolf's berry", believing it edible only by wolves.
[Pojar & MacKinnon, 1994; Turner, 1995]
Cornus canadensis - Bunchberry, Dwarf dogwood, Pigeonberry
Cornaceae (Dogwood Family)
Low perennial to 8" tall, with creeping rhizomes. The leaves are elliptical 1-3-1/2" long, with prominent longitudinal veins. These leaves form a terminal whorl in groups of five to seven. The flowers consist of four white petal-like bracts and a central cluster of small true flowers with tiny greenish-white petals. The true flowers produce a tight cluster of bright red-orange berries the size of small peas. When ripe, they are soft with a yellowish pulp and a hard central seed.
Habitat: Commonly forms large mats in moist coniferous woods and clearcuts, especially on rotten logs and stumps.
Use: Bunchberries are slightly pulpy but sweet and flavorful and eaten raw in early autumn with Grease, or in recent times with sugar. Some First Peoples have steamed them and preserved them for winter in water and Grease (Turner, 95). The leaves have
been known to be burned and powdered, then applied to topical sores.
[Lombardi, 1996] top
Empetrum nigrum - Crowberry, Curlewberry
Empetraceae (Crowberry Family)
Low growing, shrubby evergreen up to 12" high, resembling a miniature fir tree, with short, needle-like leaves (grooved underneath), which are turned under at the margins, and stems with long woolly hairs. The flowers are small (3 mm), pinkish and inconspicuous, in loose clusters in leaf axils bearing 3 stamens, and 6-9 short-lobed stigma. The fruits are black to dark purple drupes, juicy and berry-like, containing up to 9 white, hard seeds. top
Habitat: Low, exposed coastal heathlands and bogs; rocky mountian slopes, subalpine parkland, and alpine tundra; dry to wet sites, sea level to alpine.
Use: Crowberries ripen in August, but remain on the plants through the winter, and are available fresh or frozen into the early spring, and could be gathered even from under the snow. They are eaten raw or cooked. They are said to "contain lots of water" and have been used to slake the thirst of folks on the mountain slopes when no water was available. Some First Peoples mixed the berries with bear grease, cooked and mashed them, then dried them in the sun into cakes. Other tribes ate them plain with oil and sugar, or mixed them with cloudberries, blueberries, or whipped fat.
[Kuhnlein & Turner, 1991; Pojar & MacKinnon, 1994]
Epilobium angustifolium - Fireweed
Onagraceae (Evening Primrose Family)
Herbaceous perennial with spreading rhizomes and alternate, smooth-edged, lance-shaped leaves. The flowers are red-purple with four petals growing in long, showy, terminal clusters. Bloom occurs in summer. The seed capsules are long and narrow, splitting longitudinally on all four sides to reveal rows of small parachuted seeds. The seeds can travel on the wind for long distances.
Habitat: Disturbed areas in open areas, burns, roadsides.
Use: The inner part of the stem, especially in young plants, is sweet and succulent. Some coastal First Peoples ate Fireweed raw as a green vegetable. The fibrous outer part of the stem (after inner portion eaten) was twisted into twine for fish-nets. The shoots are said to be a good laxative, but should not be taken on an empty stomach. Other uses include steeping the young leaves to make a tea.
Erythronium grandiflorum - Yellow Glacier Lily, Yellow Dogtooth Violet
Liliaceae (Lily Family)
Perennial herb to 13" in height developing from an underground corm. Leaves are basal, bright yellow green to 8" in length clasping the flowering stem base. Flowers are golden-yellow, the 6 tepals strongly recurved about 6 stamens and typically single on a leafless, unbranched stem. Fruits are capsules a little over an inch in length. top
Habitat: Moist open (snowmelt) areas (meadows, avalanche tracks, subalpine parkland), middle to alpine elevations.
Use: The corms were eaten raw, though it is purported that it has a bad smell. They were not eaten raw often as the corms contain the carbohydrate inulin and require cooking to modify the carbohydrate into more edible and sweet tasting fructose. The corms are reportedly as big as one's fist, and were described as "white clear tubes with the root coming out of the side". They were boiled and then either eaten fresh or dried for later use. Drying took up to two weeks. The dried corms were dried in such materials as tule sacks. Before they were eaten they were softened by soaking in water and the outer covering was removed. The dried bulbs were cooked in soups and stews with fish or meat, or in special "puddings" (including dried black tree lichen, Saskatoon berries, deer fat, salmon eggs, and tiger lily bulbs. As well as being a good food the corms were said to be a good medicine for a bad cold.
[Turner et al., 1980]
Notes: The Erythroniums are beautiful wild flowers and are seldom abundant. Harvesting the bulbs destroys the entire plant. They should not be used today except in an emergency.
|Fragaria chiloensis -|
|Fragaria vesca -|
|Fragaria virginiana -|
Fragaria chiloensis - Beach strawberry
Fragaria vesca - Woodland strawberry
Fragaria virginiana- Wild strawberry
Rosaceae (Rose Family)
Perennial herb bearing short, thick rootstalks connecting other strawberry plants by hairy runners. Leaves bearing 3 leaflets. Flowers white, up to 1-1/2" wide with 5-7 petals, 5 sepals, multiple stamens. Fruits are multiple achenes spread about the surface of and expanded floral receptacle (what we commonly refer to as the fruit).
- F. chiloensis: Coastal, deep green thick leaves that are strongly reticulate-veiny beneath, rugose above.
- F. vesca: Not coastal, leaves yellow-green, relatively thin and pilose-silky above; terminal tooth of leaflets well developed.
- F. virginiana: Not coastal, leaves bluish-green, and glaucous above;terminal tooth of leaflets generally adjacent teeth.
- F. chiloensis: Common on sand dunes and sea bluffs, never far from sea.
- F. vesca: Openings and open forests, at low to subalpine elevations.
- F. virginiana: Similar habitats as F. vesca.
Use: Typically the fruits are eaten fresh, being too juicy to dry like other berries. The fresh leaves are used to make a clear, sweet tea. Often thimbleberry and trailing wild blackberry leaves are added to this tea. Some First Peoples chewed the leaves and applied them as a poultice on burns. Strawberry leaves are well known for their use in anti-diarrhea medicines, especially for children (Pojar & McKinnon, 1994). top
Some tribes took the leaves of strawberries and dried them by a fire until brown, powdered these leaves in a buckskin bag, and applied the powder to the navel of a newborn baby to heal it and keep it from becoming infected. It was used several days in succession, until the navel had healed. Strawberry leaf powder was also dusted into a baby's mouth when it was sore and was applied to any open sore as a disinfectant. The sore was washed, the powder was applied and deer fat was smeared on over it.
[Hitchcock & Cronquist, 1990; Turner, 1980]
Heracleum lanatum - Cow Parsnip
Umbelliferae (Apiaceae) (Celery/Carrot Family)A robust, hollow-stemmed hairy perennial growing 1-3 meters tall, from a stout taproot or root cluster. The leaves are broad and compound in three large segments (one terminal and two lateral), coarsely toothed and lobed; the leaf stems are conspicuously winged at the base. The flowers are small, white and numerous, arranged in large, flat-topped umbrella-like clusters (typical of the family) up to 4-10" across its top. Fruits are egg- to heart-shaped, 7-12 mm long, flattened, with or without hairs, 1-seeded, aromatic, sunflower-seed-like, with lateral ribs and broadly winged. The plants have a pungent odor, especially when mature.
Habitat: Throughout Washington in moist, open areas, roadsides and meadows, from sea-level to above tree-line in the mountains, often in large patches. top
Use: Virtually all First Peoples used Cow Parsnip as a green vegetable. They peeled and ate raw, or boiled, the young stalks and leaf stems before the flowers matured. The outer skin, actually considered to be poisonous by some groups, contains a chemical that sensitizes the skin to light, which can cause blistering of the lips. The stalks were often dipped in Grease. Despite the strong odor of the leaves and outer skin, the peeled young stems are mild and sweet, resembling celery in taste (Pojar & MacKinnon, 1994; Turner, 1995).
According to Turner et al. (1980), in mid-May, before these large plants start to bloom, the flower stalks and leaf stems were harvested, peeled, and eaten fresh. One has to be careful not to confuse this plant with similar species such as water hemlock, which are poisonous. The roots were washed, sliced, pounded, usually heated, and put in a cheesecloth to use as a poultice for sore backs, sore eyes, and other painful areas including boils. They were also boiled with red willow and chokecherry branches to make a strong cleansing medicine for the scalp. When first applied, it burns the skin, it is so strong, but it is said to be very effective by killing the "germs" and "little worms" in the scalp.
Notes: Several members of the celery family, including water hemlock (Cicuta douglasii) and poison hemlock (Conium maculatum), are violently poisonous. These plants are more slender than the Cow Parsnip, with smaller flower heads and finely divided leaves. Still, it is possible to confuse these species with Cow Parsnip, especially for inexperienced observers.
Cow parsnip and its relatives must be handled extremely carefully, because they contain phototoxic compounds (furanocoumarins), which make the skin sensitive to ultraviolet light, and therefore, to sunlight. That is why the stalks must be peeled before being eaten, and, especially for light-skinned people, even brushing up against the hairs of the leaves, and then exposing the skin to sunlight can cause severe blistering and discoloration of the skin that may remain for weeks or even months.
[Hithcock & Cronquist, 1990; Turner & Szczawinski, 1991]
Lewisia rediviva - Bitter-root, Sand Rose
Portulacaceae (Purslane Family)
A low herbaceous perennial arising from a stout, branching, fleshy taproot, which is gray-skinned with a white inner core which may turn pink on exposure to the air. The basal leaves are small, narrow and fleshy, borne in a dense cluster at the surface of the ground and usually withering by flowering time. The showy, pink (or whitish) flowers, up to 5 or 6 per plant, grow on short, leafless stalks. When fully out (May), they may grow up to 1.5" across, with up to 18 narrow, elongated petals, 2 sepals, 1 style, 3-8 stigmas, and numerous stamens. The seeds, several per flower, are black and shiny borne from a 3-5 chamber capsule. Strikingly beautiful, they close at night and reopen with the morning sun.
Habitat: Dry, sandy or gravelly sagebrush plains and slopes at low to moderate elevations east of the Cascade Mountain range.
Use: The roots of this important food plant were gathered in April and May, just before the plants were in full bloom. Certain areas, notably at higher elevations, produced larger, better tasting roots than others. Some say that the best plants grow in moist ground, not too sandy, usually among rocks. The roots are pried up with a digging stick made from the wood of the mock-orange. the tops are broken off and the outer covering is stripped off. The top part of the peeled root is split open and a small orange-red structure called the "heart" (apparently the young, developing plant of the next year's growth) is removed. Not every root has a "heart", but when present it will make the root very bitter if it is not extracted. The peeled roots are washed and laid on mats or grass for two or three days to dry. Generally, the roots are stored in sacks, or sometimes stored after being dried, in pits lined with pine needles. Care was taken to pack them tightly to prevent air from circulating, because this would make them hard and dry.
Bitter-roots, fresh or dried, are usually cooked by steaming or boiling or by pit-cooking for about half an hour. In the past, they were steamed in a birch-bark container using hot rocks. Some soaked then overnight and cooked them in soups, boiled together with saskatoon berries and deer fat, black tree lichen and fresh salmon eggs, tiger lily bulbs and ripened salmon eggs, dried gooseberries or other food combinations. They are seldom eaten dried, because they swell up in the stomach and cause discomfort. If stored alone they become very bitter, so are often mixed with dried gooseberries or dried saskatoons.
The bitterroot is the state flower of Montana.
[Kuhnlein & Turner, 1991; Turner et al., 1980]
Lilium columbianum - Tiger lily, Columbia lily, Oregon lily
Liliaceae (Lily Family)
Perennial, up to 4 feet tall, from deep-seated white bulb with thick scales. Leaves narrowly lance-shaped, usually arranged in 6-9 whorls....upper stem leaves may be scattered. Flowers are bright orange tepals (6) with deep red or purple freckles near center. Large, showy and nodding. The tepals are curved backwards. There are 6 stamens and a single style. Fruits are 3-chambered capsules with low ridges, bearing numerous flat seeds.
Habitat: The Tiger lily in Washington state is found in meadows, thickets, open forest and clearings at low to subalpine elevations.
Use: The bulbs can be steamed or boiled. Though because the bulbs are bitter or peppery tasting, they have been utilized more as a flavoring or condiment than as a food by themselves. After cooking, the bulbs were usually dried for winter storage. Some tribes steam-baked the bulbs overnight, then dried them in the sun for three or four days, mashed them and spread them out in thin cakes to dry. In winter, the dried cakes were boiled and put into meat soup as a seasoning.
[Hitchcock & Cronquist, 1990; Kuhnlein & Turner, 1991; Pojar & MacKinnon, 1994]
This photo (Turner et al., 1980) displays the size and shape of the roots of this plant.
Lomatium canbyi - Canby's Lomatium, Biscuit-root, "White Camas"
Umbelliferae (Apiaceae), (Celery/Carrot Family)
An herbaceous perennial with compound umbells with a taproot bearing a globose-thickened base up to 3.5 cm thick, surmounted by a short or rather elongate, more slender and cylindrical upper portion. Leaves mostly basal, greatly dissected, with small and narrow ultimate segments that do not resemble leaflets, ultimate segments of leaves relatively small, rarely any as much as 1 cm. Flowers petals 5 and white, sepals united with 5 teeth, stamens 5, inserted on an epigynous disk, alternate with petals, ovary bicarpellate, 2-celled, each cell 1-ovuled, styles 2, often swollen at base to form a stylopodium. Fruit a strongly dorsally flattened schizocarp, consisting of 2 halves (mericarps) separating at maturity, revealing a slender central carpophore to which they are attached apically; the marginal ribs of the fruit have thin spreading wings at maturity. top
Habitat: Sagebrush Zone east of the Cascade Mountain range.
Use: Roots were typically dug in late April and early May. First Peoples would camp at locations of this plant and pit-cook the roots there. The roots can were eaten raw or cooked. Generally the roots were pit-cooked, the roots which turn brown, must then be boiled first before they can be eaten. "White camas" is pit -cooked the same length of time as black tree lichen, but only rye grass (Elymus cinereus) is used to line the cooking pit. Dried "white camas" can be eaten as is, or boiled.
[Hitchcock & Cronquist, 1990; Kuhnlein & Turner, 1991]
Lysichitum americanum - Skunk Cabbage, Swamp Lantern
Araceae (Arum Family), (Celery/Carrot Family)
Skunk cabbage is a perennial herb with thick, fleshy rhizomes and large, oval, smooth-edged basal leaves, often 1 m (3') or more long. It grows in clumps, with bright green leaves having a lustrous, waxy looking surface. The "flowers" appear in early spring, before the leaves have expanded, and consist of a showy, bright yellow sheath (spathe) up to 20 cm (8") or more long surrounding an elongated, club-like flower spike (spadix). The bisexual flowers consist of a 4-parted, scalelike perianth, with 4 stamens, a 2-celled ovary and a sessile, capitate stigma. At maturity the spike breaks apart to reveal berry-like and pulpy, green to reddish fruits (with 1-2 brown oval seeds) embedded in a white, pulpy tissue. The entire plant, especially when cut or bruised, gives off a sharp, pungent, skunk-like odor.
Habitat: Skunk cabbage is found in swamps and wet woods in all of western Washington at low to middle elevations.
Use: The fleshy rhizomes, which have a strong, peppery taste due to the presence of calcium oxalate crystals, were eaten occasionally by some tribes. They were roasted and eaten in early spring by some, and were steamed and eaten by other groups. These rhizomes were dug up with digging sticks, washed, and boiled or pit-cooked. Another tribe would boil the leaves in two changes of water, then eat them in spring. Also some groups dried and powdered the leaves and mixed them with berries or salmon eggs as a preservative or thickener.
More important and widespread than the actual food use of skunk-cabbage, however, was the use of the large, waxy leaves in various aspects of food preparation. They were employed by virtually all western Washington tribes like waxed paper, for wrapping food, lining cooking pits, separating foods being cooked together, and drying berries on. They were also used as makeshift plates and folded to make temporary dippers and drinking cups.
When used in drying berries, the leaves were prepared by slicing off the thick mid-rib and dipping the leaves in boiling water or holding them over a fire for a short time to "wilt" them. They were then set on a wooden drying rack and the cooked, mashed berries poured onto them, usually into a rectangular wooden frame to contain them. Although most people regarded the leaves as "poisonous," due to their rank smell and their calcium oxalate crystals, their use in food preparation apparently did not cause any tainting of the food. The waxy outer coating of the leaves protected the food.
Warning: Skunk cabbage contains microscopic bundles of needle-like crystals of calcium oxalate in their stems, leaves, and underground parts. These are apparently somewhat dispelled with cooking and/or drying, but if the plants are eaten fresh and unprocessed, they cause severe burning and irritation of the mouth, tongue, and throat. Fortunately, the initial burning almost always prevents a person from ingesting any serious toxic quantities (Kingsbury, 1964).
Notes: "In the ancient days, they say, there was no salmon. The Indians had nothing to eat save roots and leaves. Principal among these was the skunk-cabbage. Finally the spring salmon came for the first time. As they passed up the river, a person stood upon the shore and shouted:
"Here come our relatives whose bodies are full of eggs! If it had not been for me all the people would have starved." "Who speaks to us?" asked the salmon. "Your uncle, Skunk Cabbage," was the reply. Then the salmon went ashore to see him, and as a reward for having fed the people he was given an elk-skin blanket and a war-club, and was set in the rich, soft soil near the river."
Kathlamet story from Pojar & MacKinnon, 1994
[Hitchcock & Cronquist, 1973; Kuhnlein & Turner, 1991; Pojar & MacKinnon, 1994]
Maianthemum dilatatum - Wild Lily-of-the-Valley, Snakeberry
Liliaceae (Lily Family)
Perennial herb with slender, branching rhizomes. The stems are up to 10" tall, usually bearing two waxy leaves. The leaves are smooth, broad and heart-shaped. The small white flowers are borne in a terminal, cylindric cluster in May. Each flower has 4 distinct tepals, and 4 stamens and a delicate scent; the pistil has 2 chambers, with one bilobed style. Fruit is a 1-4 seeded berry that is light green and mottled brown at first, becoming red, to 6 mm in diameter.
Habitat: Shaded or moist streambanks and open to dense woods where usually moist, from sea level up to about 3500' elevation. Near the coast, Maianthemum forms the dominant groundcover in Sitka-spruce forests.
Use: Several coastal tribes ate the berries, but the berries were seldom highly regarded as food. Hunters and berry pickers occasionally ate them on expeditions. If eaten the usual method of preparation was to pick large quantities of green berries and store them in water until they were red and soft. Another method was to dry the green berries in the sun, clean them, and boil them for a few minutes in cedar boiling boxes by lowering baskets of the berries directly into boiling water. The soft-boiled berries could then be mixed with other berries, such as Salal, and dried in cakes. The roots have been pounded and soaked in water to make a topical disinfectant.
[Lombardi, 1996; Pojar & McKinnon, 1994; Turner, 1995]
Mentha arvensis - Common Mint, Field Mint
Labiatae/Lamiaceae (Mint Family)
Erect, herbaceous perennial (15-80 cm), strongly aromatic with a typical "mint" smell, growing from creeping rootstocks. The stems are squarish and the serrate leaves grow in opposite pairs along the stem. Lance-shaped to oval, the leaves are pointed, smooth or hairy, and have toothed margins. The flower petals are small and mauve (occasionally white), sepals fused into a glandular-hairy, 5-lobed tube, stamens 4 (and exserted); flowers are all borne in clusters at the axils of the upper leaves from July to August. The fruits are 4 small nutlets.
Habitat: Streambanks, wet meadows and clearings, springs, seepage areas, lakeshores, beaver wetlands; common at low to middle elevations.
Use: The aromatic leaves, with their strong "peppermint" taste and odor, were widely used by First Peoples as a beverage and flavoring. Tea was made from either fresh or dried leaves and hot water. This tea was also taken as a medicine for colds, fevers, pains, swellings, and colic in children. It was also administered to relieve 'summer complaint', symptomized by headache and bleeding nose (probably sunstroke). Some tribes used the leaves as flavoring when cooking meat. Others tied the leafy stems in bunches and dried them, then used them to flavor soups, meat and pemmican.
[Kuhnlein & Turner, 1991; Pojar & MacKinnon, 1994; Turner et al., 1980]
Penstemon confertus - Blue Penstemon
Scrophulariaceae (Figwort Family)
Perennial herb with opposite leaves, having flowers borne in whorls about the stem. Flowers have a 5-lobed calyx, a funnel-like blue corolla (to 12 mm) with two lips (bilabiate), the upper having 2 lobes and the lower with 3 lobes; there are 5 stamens but only 4 paired anthers leaving one sterile stamen (and in the genus, this sterile stamen is typically bearded...hence the name for this genus - beardtongue). Fruit a capsule with many seeds. [Some members of this species have a light yellow corolla].
Habitat: Widespread east of the Cascade Mountain range in the Bunchgrass Zone to mountain slopes.
Use: The flowers were boiled and rubbed on arrows and other items to give them a blue coloring which is indelible.
[Hickman, 1993; Kuhnlein & Turner, 1991; Turner et al., 1980]
Potentilla pacifica - Pacific Silverweed, Pacific Cinquefoil
Rosaceae (Rose Family)
Perennial hairy herb from long runners (stolons). Pinnately compound, alternate, stipulate leaves to 15" long, that are wooly (silvery) beneath. Flowers single on a stalk, yellow, calyx 5-lobed, petals 5, oval, stamens numerous, pistils numerous. Fruits are flattened oval achenes to 2 mm long.
Habitat: Wet spots (marsh edges, stream sides, estuarine flats), sandy spots (beaches and dunes), usually near the sea, but not restricted to maritime environs (also Sagebrush Zone of the "Scablands" eastern Washington); common at low to middle elevations.
Use: The long, brown-skinned roots were harvested in late fall or early spring. There are two types of roots, short, curly roots near the surface, and long, fleshy taproots. The roots were never eaten raw, because they are bitter. Steam-cooked, they taste like sweet potatoes, though they can still be bitter. The roots were also boiled and drank as a tea. The boiled roots were also mixed with fish oil and applied as a poultice. The roots were also pressed and the juice applied to inflamed eyes.
[Pojar & McKinnon, 1994; Turner, 1991]
Sagittaria latifolia - Arrowhead, Duck Potato, Wapato, Arrow Leaf
Alismataceae (Water-Plantain Family)
Perennial from tuber-producing (egg-shaped) rhizomes; plant to 3 feet tall. Leaves are all basal, with long stalks, leaf blades arrowhead-shaped, to 25 cm long; submerged leaves lance-shaped or even bladeless and linear. Flowers white, 1-2 cm across, often unisexual flowers; 3 greenish sepals, 3 petals, falling off early, ovaries and stamens numerous in several whorls of 3 in a long, terminal cluster. Fruits sharp-beaked, flattened, winged achenes that are numerous in a globular cluster.
Habitat: Marshes, ponds, lakes, wet ditches; usually emergent but often partly submerged; low elevations.
Use: Often First Peoples claimed wapato patches by clearing the area of competing growth to gain access to the tubers. Harvesting usually occurred in October and November. Since the tubers lay under water, the work was done by canoe, pulling the roots from a kneeling position, or as an alternative, by wading in the water and dislodging the tubers with the toes. Wapato tubers kept for several months if left unwashed in the raw state. They were stored and cooked as needed by baking in hot ashes. The tubers provide an excellent source of carbohydrate. The journals of Lewis and Clark relate that their diet while traveling in Oregon was elk meat and wapato bulbs, purchased from the Indians. The wapato resembles the potato in texture, but has a sweeter taste.
[Pojar & McKinnon, 1994; Turner, 1995]
Scirpus acutus - Bulrush
Cyperaceae (Sedge Family)
Herbaceous perennial growing from thick, elongated rhizomes. The stems are green, cylindrical, and leafless (reduced to prominent membranous sheaths at base of stem), with pithy insides, some 6.5' or more tall. They often grow in dense patches in shallow water around lakes. The brownish, inconspicuous flower cluster, or inflorescence is terminal, but appears to be borne at the side of the upper stem, the tip or continuation of which is actually a single, erect bract subtending the inflorescence.
Habitat: Marshes, muddy shores, shallow water (fresh and brackish), at low elevations.
Use: The food use included eating the fleshy rootstalks and rhizomes. In the spring, the inside of the first 10 cm of the rhizome below the base of the stem is eaten. It is white, tender, and rich like fat, some eating it raw, others preferring it cooked.
Bulrush stems, after they had turned brown in November, were gathered from swamps and the edges of lakes, dried, cut into lengths, laid on the ground, alternating top and bottom, and sewed into large mats with Indian hemp twine (see Apocynum). These were used to make "teepees", for temporary shelters, for doors and window-flaps, for drying berries on, and for cutting and drying meat and fish. For teepee coverings they were woven very closely; one could see air spaces between them in dry weather, but when it rained they expanded and the matting became waterproof. They were also woven into storage bags and used to make headdresses for Indian doctors. For bags they were often woven with some other fiber, such as willow bark, or Indian hemp. These bags were used to store dried foods including meat, fish, and berries.
[Kuhnlein, 1991; Pojar & MacKinnon, 1994; Turner et al., 1980]
Sedum divergens - Spreading Stonecrop
Crassulaceae ( (Stonecrop Family)
The spreading stonecrop is a succulent, mat-forming perennial herb with short vegetative stems covered by round or oval shaped, fleshy leaves arranged opposite on the stems. The flowering stems are more erect, up to 10 cm (4") tall, and also leafy, with flat-topped clusters of bright yellow flowers. The stems and leaves are frequently red, especially in exposed localities. The flowers have 5 distinct petals to 9 mm in length and are lance-shaped; the sepals more or less united, 5-parted and a third the length of the petals; stamens 10; there are 5 pistils, with a single carpel (later a follicle) bearing many seeds.
Habitat: Exposed, rocky ledges, ridges, and talus slopes from sea level to alpine elevations, generally but not entirely west of the Cascade Mountains in Washington.
Use: The small, round, fleshy leaves were generally regarded more as berries than greens. The leafy stems were gathered in the spring, before the plants come into bloom, or in the fall. They were generally eaten raw, formerly with eulachon or other animal grease. They are slightly tart (due to the presence of oxalic acid), but drinking water after eating them is said to leave a pleasant taste in the mouth. One group of First Peoples chewed them as a mouth freshener after taking fish-grease laxative. Another group of people chewed them raw as a cough medicine.
[Hitchcock & Cronquist, 1973; Kuhnlein & Turner, 1991; top
Pojar & MacKinnon, 1994]
Smilacina racemosa - False Solomon's-Seal, False Spikenard
Liliaceae (Lily Family)
Tall herbaceous perennial growing from thick, whitish, branching rhizomes; often found in dense clusters. The leafy, arching stems grow to about 3' tall. the leaves are smooth-edged, broad and elliptical, and are borne alternately along the stem in two rows. The are distinctly parallel-veined (monocot) and often clasping. The flowers are small and densely clustered, white, strongly perfumed, in a dense, terminal cluster. The berries are small (5-7 mm diameter) and densely clustered too, at first being green or brown and mottled or striped, ripening to bright red.
Habitat: This plant grows in rich woods, thickets, and moist clearings at low to subalpine elevations all about Washington.
Use: The young greens, fleshy rhizomes, and the ripe berries of this plant were all eaten by First Peoples in various part of Washington. The rhizomes were cooked after being soaked to get rid of their disagreeable taste.....though some have eaten the rhizomes raw. The cooked rhizomes were also utilized as a poultice. The berries were eaten raw, though they are not especially palatable.
[Kuhnlein, 1991; Pojar & MacKinnon, 1994]
Typha latifolia - Cattail, Tule, Reedmace
Typhaceae (Cattail Family)
Tall perennial herb growing from thick, white, fleshy rhizomes. The alternate leaves are tightly clasping at the base, and are long, upright, flat on the inside and rounded on the outside, with a spongy interior (pithy). They are mostly about 2 cm across and up to 2 meters or more tall. The flowers are borne in a compact, terminal spike on a round stalk, familiar to most people as the "cat's tail."
The male, pollen-producing flowers are produced on the thin, upper portion of the spike, the female, seed-producing flowers (persistent) on the lower portion. In fruiting, this part turns a deep brown, bearing tiny ellipsoidal nutlets, about 1 mm long, designed to float in wind or water, and the ripe seeds are eventually released as the head breaks apart into a wooly mass of fluff (numerous long, slender hairs) in late summer.
Habitat: A common plant of shallow marshes, swamps, and lake edges, in slow-flowing or quiet water, low to middle elevations, often forming extensive patches. Cattail is found all over Washington (and North America, and Eurasia, and North Africa).
Use: Cattail is widely known for its edible shoots, rhizomes, and flower spikes (Turner & Szczawinski, 1980). The leaves are used as a mat-making material (Turner, 1979), and in food preparation. They were used as a surface on which to dry berries and "root" foods, and were also used as "plates" for serving food (Turner et al., 1990). Cattail leaves were also used as matting for bedding, sitting or kneeling on in canoes, as insulation for winter homes, or for capes, hats, blankets, or bags. The rhizomes were eaten either raw, fried in animal or fish grease, pit-cooked or roasted. Some groups ate the flowering spikes and pollen (for flour). Cattail seed fluff was used as stuffing for pillows and mattresses, as a wound dressing and for diapers.
[Kuhnlein & Turner, 1991; Pojar & McKinnon, 1994]
Xerophyllum tenax - Beargrass, Indian Basket-Grass, Western Turkey-Beard
Liliaceae (Lily Family)
Beargrass is a large perennial herb (to 1.5 m/4-1/2' tall) that grows from short, stout rhizomes. The basal leaves are grass-like, tough, wiry, evergreen, and numerous. These leaves grow long to about 90 cm (35") and have finely toothed margins. The stem leaves are much shorter, though similar, and become shorter further up towards the inflorescence. The flowers are many in the inflorescence, a terminal raceme on a tall, erect, unbranched peduncle. Each flower is white (creamy), saucer-shaped, long-stalked (2.5 - 5 cm) and fragrant.
Each of the tepals are distinct (6-8 mm long), spreading and persistent. There are 6 stamens that are equal to or longer than the tepals. The ovary is 3-celled. The styles are elongate, and distinct. The fruits are typical of the lily family. Each fruit is a 3-lobed capsule that grows 5-7 mm long, each with a few small seeds. The flowering stems (and all their leaves) die after fruiting.
Habitat: Beargrass is found in open areas (clearings, meadows) and open to fairly dense forest from near sea level (on the Olympic Peninsula) to drier areas in subalpine meadows. Beargrass dominates the forest understorey in many subalpine forests in the Cascade Mountains.
Use: Beargrass is a very important plant to basket makers because of the thick clumps of tough, thin leaves. The leaves are gathered and dried in the sun, which turns them a cream color. Beargrass is used for basket foundations as well as dyed for imbricating designs.
Also, beargrass was useful in the making of hats and capes by the First Peoples.
[Hitchcock & Cronquist, 1973; Lombardi, 1996; Pojar & MacKinnon, 1994]
|Bed of eelgrass|
|Eelgrass plant and roots|
Zostera marina - Eel-grass,
Zosteraceae (Eel-grass Family)
Eel-grass is a grass-like marine, submerged or partially floating perennial with long, bright green, ribbon-like alternate, 2-ranked leaves, about 1 cm wide. Short stems grow up from extensive, white rhizomes that are light green to white, and branching. The flowers are inconspicuous, enclosed in the sheaths of the leaf bases; the male & female flowers sessile and alternate in 2 rows on each spadix; style short with 2 stigmas. Fruits bladdery, 1-seeded achenes, flask-like, ribbed, beaked.
Habitat: Extensive beds in sand, just below the low-tide line, typically sheltered shores usually close to the open ocean, but often within the Puget Sound. Forms large colonies on muddy substrates especially in estuaries, also occurs in spray pools along the exposed outer coast and on sandy substrates where there is weak wave action.
Use: The crisp, sweet rhizomes and leaf-bases of eel-grass was eaten fresh or dried into cakes for winter food. Some placed the rhizomes in steaming pits to flavor deer, seal and porpoise meat. Some tribes preferred eel-grass with herring spawn attached to the leaves.
[Pojar & McKinnon, 1994; Turner, 1995]