Medicinal and Edible California Natives

Medicinal and Edible California Natives

My husband and I often test berries from native plants that we know are safe, especially after seeing birds and other wildlife eat them. Some of the past grazings have included native currant berries or hollyleaf cherry berries – both bright red and pretty good tasting. Sometimes it’s non-natives, such as strawberries from a neighbor’s 40 feet row of strawberry trees (the Arbutus unedo version have the best fruit), although the plan backfired a bit when our 3 year old granddaughter threw herself into the fun with a little too much gusto, and threw up after eating about a dozen of them.

A couple weeks ago I attended a very interesting walk at the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden (RSABG), led by William Broen, an ethnobotanist who has studied medicinal, edible and other folklore about native plants.  (Note: he conducts another one July 22. Also, see info on their RSABG summer discount plan below)

I can get overwhelmed with too many examples but he kept his discussion to 28 plants that the group came across on our walk. In this write-up  I’ll focus on the better tasting and more common ones. All these were used by Native Americans and early settlers. Most plants have relatives in other parts of the nation with similar benefits.

Some photo — all these are taken on the June walk to show how they appear at that time — and what I learned:


I would hope to remember these if I was lost:

Manzanita (Archostaphylos)- In January/February the flowers are edible, as are the later berries (some say not too many)

Desert Wolfberry – (Lycium brevipes) or Baja Desert Thorn – its red berries are edible. I love this plant for habitat value – there are always so many birds on them, using for food or shelter.

California Bay – usually found around moister areas, streams. The nuts “when roasted taste good,” according to Broen.

Currants: the red berries are good tasting (high in antioxidants and vitamin C)

Pinyon pine – the nuts and inner bark are edible and nutritious. The tips of the branches if soaked make a pine water that is high in vitamin C.

Chia (Salvia columbariae) – usually found in higher elevations but this is the very popular seed these days, high in omega 3

Nice teas:

Yerba Buena (Sautereja douglasii) – Yerba Buena means holy herb, was named by the Spanish missionaries after they discovered its many properties from the native people.  Broen said it was common in pharmacopeia until the 40s and 50s when it was knocked out by modern medicine practitioners. He cites a relaxing, uplifting effect, good for headaches. Has many, many other medicinal uses (including infections, poison oak remedy.)

Hummingbird Sage – leaves or flowers make a pleasing tea. Also has decongestant, antimicobrial properties – good for sore throat

Sycamore: one woman said the Southern California tribes use the bark at the bottom of the tree to make a pleasing tea.

Wooly blue curls (Trichostema lanatum)- the leaves, flowers and stems make a nice tea, supposedly has a positive effect on mood, stomachache, memory.

Other Medicinal:

Gumweed (Grindelia) – I likes this one, you can put white sap on cuts for antibacterial and soothing, will also dry them up. “You can rub directly on poisonous oak and its an anti-inflammatory, antibacterial and antispasmodic,” says Broen.

Common yarrow (the native has the white flowers) – flower is the strongest part and has many uses as a tea or tincture. mild pain, toothache or headache; can also put on wounds.

White sage (Salvia apiana)- Sometimes called the “Native American clorox” because of its many uses, a tea offers antibacterial and anti fungal properties. The high-nutrient seeds are edible.

Others include oregon grape and nevin’s barberry, which have antimicrobial and antiamoebic properties. Of course, for medicinal purposes it’s best to consult someone with expertise for proper use.

Note: Special at RSABG — FYI, Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden has a great special going on. For the price of an admission this month, you can get a summer pass, which includes discounts on some great classes. And the butterfly exhibit is open a couple more weeks. See their website

About Linda Richards

My goal is to educate about the science of nature in layperson speak, through my writing, science and education background. I grew up in the Chicago area, loved living in Minneapolis before gravitating to the West, which is now home.


  1. recently learned that Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden is going to print a version of my article in their upcoming member’s newsletter. Broen leads a good walk – anyone in the area should consider the July 22 walk – Linda

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