Pioneer Use of Native Plants

by Richard T. Haard, Ph.D., Propagation Manager, Fourth Corner Nurseries

Adapting to the challenges we face in the future includes bringing native plants closer to our everyday lives. Looking at native plants and how we used them in a historical context is important because we need to preserve and recover traditional uses of plants and invent new ways to use them in order to promote their preservation.

Use of Native Plants in the Pacific Northwest

This pertains to the northwestern corner of the United States and adjacent islands of the San Juan Archipelago. Prior to 1859, this area was sparsely inhabited with people of European heritage. Through the 1870s, movement around the area was only possible by canoe or pack train and it was not until the 1890s that wagon roads for freight and stage were in place.

Pioneer European homesteaders were set into the backdrop of the original peoples, the First Nations. These newcomers displaced the original peoples when disease and smallpox epidemics weakened and essentially depopulated the area of a thriving culture. Only until recent years were we able to appreciate how these original peoples sustained themselves. The earlier explorers of the Pacific Northwest and the settlers that followed were largely unaware of the effects their predecessors had on our landscape.

This narrative describing the Nooksack Valley of Whatcom County Washington in 1872 and 1873 is an example of conditions at  that time:

“Here and there, were a few acres of prairie, where great quantities of fern, lackimus, (Camas), and other roots grew. These plants together with fish and wild meat, provided about the only food the Indians knew, until the white man came, bringing grain and vegetables. The new foods were gladly accepted by the Indians.”

Some of the settlers had lives insulated from native peoples, and what they made of themselves reflected their European agricultural or urban roots. Others absorbed local knowledge as best they could, learning to use native plants to help them adapt to this new country.

The waves of European settlers, adventurers and gold miners that appeared in the Pacific Northwest during the 19th century brought with them domesticated plants, animals and a way of managing the land that was completely different from the local native peoples. Agriculture, as a way of life, was not unique to these settlers but was also practiced by peoples of the Eastern Hardwood Forest and Mesoamerica. Each culture arose independently from the others as they went through a series of innovations over long periods of time, moving from a hunting and gathering mode of existence to more sedentary societies.

These early Whatcom County settlers literally used the backs of Indians to carry them to the banks of the Nooksack River from dugout canoes. Nearby, across the Georgia Straits at present-day Victoria, Vancouver Island, English settlers were building their homesteads and villages on natural clearings that were created and maintained for centuries by the original peoples. The original peoples toiled for centuries deriving their sustenance from a wide range of environments with continued use and management of wild species.

These prairie and wet meadow formations were widespread and frequently a dominant landscape feature from the Columbia River to the Northern tip of Vancouver Island, and were recorded on the maps of the first Eastern visitors. Other places, from the Owens River valley of California, seasonal Colorado River mudflats to estuarine river deltas, were fields of plenty created by the hands and cultural practices of original peoples yet invisible to the settlers.

The practices of these original peoples cannot be classified as agriculture or some other road mark in a transition from hunting and gathering. Through modern ethnobotanical study, these practices are now considered a unique way of subsisting on the land, a ‘lifestyle strategy’ that allowed them to achieve ‘qualitatively distinctive cultural endpoints’ and not a mere intermediate in the emergence of agriculture.

Local native peoples used systematic management of perennial, herbaceous and woody crop plants in a setting where a stable seral stage was established, thereby utilizing a natural system that was self-sustaining. These people were a compatible component of the natural ecosystem. Agriculture, on the other hand, depends on clearing, tilling the land and typically planting annual crops that need to be continuously replanted and maintained.

Even though we have seen the displacement of Camas meadows by homes and highways, and the now abandoned estuary Spring Bank Clover and Pacific Silverweed gardens sit unused by humans, there is presently a cultural resurgence among native peoples to recapture their own ancient way of life. There is also a process of discovery underway by the heirs of the pioneers to bring native plants back to our ‘civilized world’ and to appreciate the importance of woody and perennial crop plants in making a sustainable agriculture for our future.

Here are some culturally important plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast with associated traditional management and harvest practices:

Food, Berries +- 50 species –

Fragaria spp. (wild strawberry), Gaultheria shallon (Salal), Rubus spp., (Salmonberry, Thimbleberry), Pyrus fusca ( Pacific Crabapple), Shepherdia canadensis (Soapberry),Vaccinium parvifolium (Red Huckleberry), Vaccinium oxycoccos (Bog Cranberry), Viburnum edule (Highbush Cranberry)

All except wild strawberry are woody perennials; fruit picking generally non-impacting on plants, diversification and use of alternate species, seasonal rounds, some were enhanced by periodic burning, some pruned periodically or when picked as Salal and Red Huckleberry, some were transplanted and fertilized, with productive patches often owned by individuals or families.

Food: Root vegetables +- 25 species –

Camassia spp (edible Blue Camas); Conioselinum pacificum (wild carrot); Fritillaria camschatensis (Rice-root);Lupinus nootkatensis (Nootka lupine); Potentilla anserina ssp. pacifica (Pacific Silverweed); Saggitaria latifolia(Wapato); Trifolium wormskjoldii (Springbank Clover)

All are herbaceous perennials with bulbs, corms, rhizomes, tubers, taproots; all selectively harvested by season, age, size, life cycle stage; part of seasonal harvest cycles; enhanced by periodic landscape burning; propagules often replanted or fragmented during harvest that occurred in annual or several year cycles; patches often owned by individuals or families.

Food: Green Vegetables +- 20 species –

Epilobium angustifolium (Fireweed); Heracleum lanatum (Cow Parsnip); Urtica diocia (Stinging Nettle); Rubus spp. (Thimbleberry, Salmonberry shoots)

All are herbaceous or woody perennials, all harvested as shoots or leaves by season, age, life-cycle stage as part of seasonal round of picking, some enhanced by picking.

Medicines: whole plants, bark tissues, pitch, latex, roots, leaves, flowers; many species –

Achillea millefolium, (Yarrow: leaves and roots for colds, poultices); Abies grandis, Alnus rubra (grand fir, red alder: coughs, many ailments); Populus balsamifera (cottonwood: bud resin as salve); Rhamnus purshiana (Cascara: laxative); Rumex occidentalis (western dock: roots, cuts); Lysichition americanum (skunk-cabbage: leaves for burns); Holodiscus discolor (Ocean spray: fruits for diaharrea); Shepherdia Canadensis (soapberries, indigestion, ulcers); and many, many more.

Materials: wood and fiber for matting, construction, manufacture, baskets, dyes, adhesives, caulking and scents; many species –

Almost all of our trees and shrubs harvested as coppiced branches, planks, house posts; Alnus rubra (Red alder; used for smoking fish, medicine, dye) Prunus emarginata, Thuja plicata (Bitter Cherry, Red Cedar and others: bark and inner bark used for binding material, clothing, baskets and roofing, characteristic of original peoples is that outer bark only used without killing tree; Carex obnupta, Salix spp, Schoenoplectris acutus, Typha latifolia(Slough Sedge, Willows, Tule and Cattail: leaves and stems used for baskets, matting and rope.)

A discussion with Maxine Flaherty on edible native plants and her family experiences:

Maxine is a community elder, who is descended from pre-1870s white settlers (Krumdiack) on Waldron Island, a small island in the San Juan Archipelago of Puget Sound, Washington. Her grandfather and his family learned to appreciate native plants from the Coastal Salish people living on the island at the time. Maxine’s parents and family lived on San Juan Island and eventually came to Bellingham. Her parents and grandparents used many native plants for food and many other purposes. For example, bundles of steamed fern sprouts for food, Mahonia root as a spring tonic were used regularly. During the hard times of the 1930’s depression, there were times when native plants were all they had to eat.

For many years Maxine and her husband Art, an avid outdoorsman, continued to accumulate a vast knowledge base of edible native plants throughout the northwest. She developed her own style of cooking, of making herbal teas, wine, and handicrafts in ways that may indeed be unique to this woman.

I first met Maxine in 1967, while teaching biology at Western Washington University, when she and Donna Sand appeared at my public edible mushroom field trips. During this period we did local television shows on edible wild plants. In our television phase we would have a topical show on edible plants and Maxine would bring in the ingredients for these wonderful dishes that she fixed with all the flair of a “Julia Child” of native-plant gourmet cooking. Generally, I would be on screen with her and wound up eating her cooking as fast as she made it, all of which disappeared as soon as the camera stopped. What is really distinctive about her cooking is that she created modern recipes combining ingredients and techniques that make really good food.

She went on to teach a series of classes on collecting and cooking with native plants for the County Parks department and authored a book on edible native plants in collaboration with Dr. Ron Taylor at Western Washington University (that was never published and she is now working on finishing). She also makes wonderful pine needle baskets that she sells at the North Cascades Community market in Marblemount during the summer.

Recently Maxine and I discussed early settlers who connected with native cultures as opposed to those who maintained a discrete separation. These are some thoughts that came to mind after I attended a lecture by Dr. Nancy Turner on communication between native and settler women in early, English, Victoria. Turned out there is little or no evidence of contact between cultures.

The difference, Maxine feels, between her Waldron Island grandparents and the Vancouver Island English lies in their own origin, Germany. She feels the German settlers were much more curious and receptive of the ways of the original peoples. Thanks for this, because I love her cream of nettle soup and cattail corn and we were able to pass on this shared interest in native plants, through food, while raising our children.

Here are some fun spring and early summer native plant recipes:

Nettles – a first-class spring leafy vegetable. Collect in March, April and later by clipping tender shoots. Protection of all human skin surfaces required. Pick lots of them because they cook down quite a bit and you can make the leftovers into soup. Just cook them like spinach in lightly salted water, maybe some onion and butter.

Cream of Nettle soup – Take some steamed nettles, chicken broth, onion, maybe bacon bits, and milk or half-and-half. Whiz up in the blender and bring to a light boil to thicken with corn starch.

Stir Fried Fireweed sprouts – My favorite, which I made many times during spring while living in the Yukon Territory. Spring melting of snow slowly reveals fireweed that sprout over a considerable period of time. Take the young shoots that look like asparagus and blanch quickly in hot water, put immediately into a frying pan and combine with soy and whatever other ingredients are attractive that day, simmer briefly and serve.

Cattails, a plant of many uses – Early spring , late March and April, when the leaves begin to show, wade out into the bog (in clean water, of course) and pull the shoot from the attached root, this will reveal a white piece of stem. Maxine calls them Cossack asparagus and they are very good sliced like cucumber, raw in salads or cooked as a vegetable.

There is more – Cattail corn. By May, when the plants are flowering, a corn-cob like male inflorescence sits on top of the female bloom. Before the anthers break open, but not too early, clip these tips and steam for a few minutes before serving with melted butter these are wonderful.

Cattail pollen flour – a little later collect the mature heads and let dry on a piece of paper. Sieve the pollen and save for cooking as an ingredient to pancakes and breads. Maxine recommends about 2 tablespoons in a batch of pancakes or perhaps a pullapart loaf.

Hiking treats – Salmonberry and Thimbleberry shoots – In spring, young shoots are abundant and always are a great trail snack. Snap off the soft ones and peel the outer rind with your finger. Also on those days when you are hiking and parched, peel a small piece of licorice fern root and pop in your mouth for a mouth freshening treat.

Teas – are too numerous to mention. Especially good are Strawberry leaves, dried Rose petals, and Labrador tea.

Candied Nootka Rose Hips – Here are some native plant treats that are Maxine’s specialty; they’re great with rhubarb and other fruits and nuts.

1 One of several references on history in Whatcom County is Skqee Mus or Pioneer Days on the Nooksack by Robert Emmett Hawley, who was a member of the second white family to settle in the Lynden district of the Nooksack River 1872

2 This writing is inspired by a series of articles on the topic published in book form; Keeping It Living: Traditions of Plant Use and Cultivation on the Pacific Coast of North America, ed by Douglas Deur and Nancy J. Turner, UW Press 2005