Plants of the Morongo Basin
When it comes to Wilderness Living and Bushcraft plant knowledge is very important. Plants can offer food, medicine, water, building materials, fire, tools and so much more! With that being said some plants can kill. A few years ago when I was taking my ethnobotany classes with Daniel McCarthy he brought up something I will never forget; and that is- ” one can not learn the properties every plant in a lifetime, Native peoples passed plant knowledge down from generation to generation for many years “. That my friends is absolutely true. In this blog I want to discuss with you some useful plants I have found locally in the Morongo Basin. So here we go. For larger pictures simply click the image.
Yerba Santa is a plant I use each and every year around October through the cold winter. I also make an effort to show my students this plant because it has so many medicinal uses. Before I get into that I want to give you an idea in how to identify this shrub. If you take a look at each leaf it looks like there is a heavy coat of oil on it; almost like Poison Oak- this plant has zero relation to Poison Oak. The leafs are very sticky and the best way to identify this plant is the smell! Thats right the distinct smell. Crush the leaves up and smell your hands and the leaf. You will notice it smells exactly identical to a cherry cough drop – its very pleasant in smell. So that brings me on to the uses regarding this plant. I use this as an air freshener. I will gather 6 to 10 leaves place them into a ziplock bag and force the plant to sweat. Once I see moisture I poke a hole in the bag and set in in my Jeep. This gives off a strong; yet pleasing smell. Now I want to discuss the traditional uses. The Cahuilla Natives along with other tribes made a tea using the leaves-they would boil the leaves. This tea is excellent for colds, coughs, sore throat, rheumatism, asthma and tuberculosis. The Cahuilla in particular also used the tea as a blood purifier. This next use I do not recommend, and that is smoking the leaves to cleanse the lungs. However, this last and final use can be extremely useful in the Mojave desert. Take the fresh leaves and chew them!! I find they help tremendously in quenching ones thirst. Please note – chewing the leaves does not replace much needed water in the desert.
The Mojave Yucca was the single most important plant used by Native peoples here locally in the Morongo Basin. I use this plant just about every single day. If you are a student of mine or have been out in the field with me you probably know by now how important this can be. The Mojave Yucca plant can save your life and make desert living so much easier. However, I do have some unfortunate news regarding this California Native plant. Due to the drought and lack of moisture for the past several years this plant is starting to die off along with the Joshua Tree. This year ( spring / summer 2013 ) Almost every single Mojave Yucca plant went into full bloom. Yes it is a good thing for the outdoorsman and harvester; but it is not good for the plant itself. I have talked to many Botanist’s, Park Rangers, and Archaeologist they all say the same thing. ” Due to the lack of moisture this plant seems as if it is producing the last of its fruit “. So what does that mean exactly? Well, it means when the plant is about to die off it will produce its final bloom and die. I can tell you this seems to be correct. While I was scouting around yesterday I could not help to notice the leaves are starting to yellow and many of the plants are starting to slouch over and fall. It is very unfortunate. So now that we got the bad news out of the way Lets discuss the uses regarding this plant. The Chemehuevi, Cahuilla, and Serrano used this for so many things; as many of us do today.
The first use is rope- when gathering the leaves we can pound them down and separate the fibers. Once that is complete we can now use a method called reverse wrap two ply cordage. Yucca cordage has the highest tensile strength compared to any other plant in the Mojave – it is extremely strong! The Native peoples would use the fibers for baskets, footwear, hats, clothing, fishing line, traps, and so much more. Moving on to the second use for Mojave Yucca, the root and leaves contain saponin so we can use it as a natural soap. I find it works great as a shampoo and body was too. Finally lets discuss edibility. There are four stages of development with the Mojave Yucca: heart stage, flowering stage, fruit stage and seed stage. All stages were used in traditional cooking and are still in current day. Here is what I do: the heart stage – I will gather the enclosed heart and pit roast it on top of a hot bed of coals once soft we can consume. Flowering stage – I eat the flowers raw and mixed with other edible wild plants or steam them. Fruit stage – this is my favorite stage. I will gather the fruits and boil them. Once I boil them I will roast them over the fire. They taste AMAZING! Just like eating a sweet Banana. Seed stage – once fruits are dry you can open them up and find black seeds. Pound the seed down to a flour and bake. I find its not a pleasant taste; so I avoid it.
Stinging Nettle is another useful plant. Although it is a valuable food resource it also can be somewhat dangerous. If you are someone who has brushed against this plant or touched it you obviously know how irritate your skin can get when in contact. Stinging Nettle has hundreds of fine hairs that release proteins and acids into the skin therefor causing short term irritation; when I say short term, the irritation can last anywhere for one to three hours depending on how you handled the plant. It is also very common for folks to search their skin for spine- they will not find them. The first time I brushed against Stinging nettle was about 6 years ago; I searched my arms for hours looking for the spines…nothing. I always recommend wearing gloves when handling Stinging Nettle; I know I do. With that being said lets discuss the uses of the plant. The leaves are completely edible when boiled and cooked – like a spinach. Not only do the leaves taste very delicious but they are good for you! Nettle leaves are high in Vitamin- A, B, K, and D. Stinging nettles have a long history of use as a diuretic and joint pain treatment. Incorporating nettles into your diet helps to promote healthy adrenal glands and kidneys, encouraging your body to expel toxins and react to stress in positive ways. Eating nettles may also offer you relief from season allergies, according to a May 2006 article in the “New Life Journal.” Many people use stinging nettle to make tea, taking it for a variety of maladies, including respiratory and urinary problems, diabetes and protection against kidney stones, as well as to speed wound healing. Every season I harvest trash bags full of Nettles to consume. Now lets talk about rope. When I harvest the plant I use just about everything. Of corse the leaves for food, but I will also remove the hairs from the stalk; using a stone and pound the stalk down. Then I will proceed by separating the fibers and making reverse wrap two ply cordage.
By now everyone should be familiar with Honey Mesquite. When go to a BBQ or a store that carries Mesquite wood; this is the tree they use. Native people such as the Cahuilla used the wood too. The main reason stores and restaurants carry Mesquite wood is because it burns very hot and it adds a beautiful smokey flavor to the meat we purchase at the store. Me personally I never use mesquite wood. You are probably asking why? The main reason is because I do not want to harm or kill the tree. Here in the Mojave Desert our resources are limited so I figure let it live and continue to develop. However, I do harvest the fruits ( pods ) when young and green I like to boil it and consume like a string bean. Once the pod develops and turns a yellow color I will open it up and eat the pea inside; I find it is very sweet in taste. In the Autumn months I will gather the pods when they harden and pound the seed into flour. 100 pounds of Mesquite flour – 52.2 lbs of carbohydrate, 8.34 lbs of protein and 2.4 lbs of fat! You can see the benefits of eating Mesquite. My favorite recipe is to make a Mesquite flour and mix it with Wheat flour and make a pancake. Honey Mesquite is also medicinal- helping control diabetes. Now I want to discuss some of the construction and other miscellaneous uses. The Cahuilla People used the limbs for granary posts, rafters, and corner posts for their homes. The Mesquite sap was used to glue feathers to arrow shafts. In Southern California you can find Honey Mesquite along stream banks, canyons, washes, sandy flat-lands, mesas, and alkali soils. One last thing I must add, be careful when harvesting and gathering any components of this tree; there are very large spines that can penetrate two inches into the skin.
Lambsquarters: also known as Pig Weed, Wild Spinach, or Goose foot. The best way to identify this plant is by the shape of the leaf, the purple joints where the stem and stalk meet, and the underside of the leaf- you will see a white mealiness. DO NOT get this plant confused by the highly toxic Jimson Weed; they can look very similar. Jimson Weed was a complete purple stalk, and the leaf will smell like peanut butter. When it comes to Lambs Quarters I do not recommend harvesting unless you have taken a few ethnobotany field classes- this relates to all plants and harvesting. Getting out there and doing the dirt time is critical. Once you have positivly identified Lambsquarters you can harvest the leaves and consume raw or cooked. I love to mix the raw leaves with other greens such as: Black Mustard, Cattail roots, Watercress, Wild Radish, and Wood Sorrel. That folks makes a delicious wild salad! When cooking Lambsquarters like a spinach you can drink the water you used to cook it it and I find it is also very good in taste. Lambsquarter leaves are also good for the body. They are low in fat, cholesterol free, high in vitamins A, B2, C, manganese, and calcium. Lambsquarter is also a good source of fiber, potassium, copper, and Vitamin B6. In the hot summer months you can find Lambsquarter seeds. Simply gather seeds and blow top layer off; on the bottom you will se small black seeds. They can be eaten as is- not much flavor. I would recommend adding the seeds into a soup. Now for a few miscellaneous facts, lambsquarter is a relative of the Quinoa- a South American grain crop people used to grow in the old days when things were not so convenient as they are in todays day and age. Lambsquarter is a European Native plant.
Remember when you were a kit playing in the grass and used to find this plant and you ate it because if the smell and leaf shape? Well in fact Wood Sorrel is edible. When growing up I always referred to this plant as Sweet Clover- due to its sweet taste and clove shape leaf. Do not misunderstand me; Wood Sorrel is not a true Sweet Clover plant. That brings up my next point and that is plant identification. The best way to identify Wood Sorrel is the very unique leaf shape; you will see three heart shaped leaves on each stem. Also, when you crush the leaves up you will immediately notice a lemon smell. So this now brings me onto the uses regarding this unique plant. The leaves are completely edible; bringing on a very sweet lemon taste. As a matter of fact Wood Sorrel is easily one of my favorite plants to harvest in the field. Some folks will say, ” most edible greens do not have a good flavor “. With some plants I tend to agree. However, Wood Sorrel takes care of that problem. Its best to mix Wood Sorrel with other edible greens to brighten up your wild salad. With this being said, I must caution you; Wood Sorrel contains Oxalic Acid- therefor causing stomach pain and irritation. So only eat this plant in small amounts. eating 6 – 10 leaves will not bother you, but any more then that I have noticed can upset ones stomach. Medicinally Wood Sorrel has a cooling effect; so consuming this in the hot summer months can lower core temperature.
Palo Verde was not just used by the Chemehuevi, Cahuilla, and the Serrano. This tree was used by Native Americans across the West coast and Southwest. The first use of palo Verde is it’s edible uses You can harvest the fresh green pods in the months of: June – July and the dry pods : August – September. This is all depending on the climate and location. When the pods are green I like to split them open and harvest the bean raw; the bean is very sweet and smoky in taste. Every season I will harvest Green palo Verde pods by the bucket full and mix them with other foods; I am surprised how the Palo Verde beans can add so much needed flavor to a dish. At this point you can probably see how much I enjoy this stage of development. As the pods dry out in the hot August month the bean will become rock hard- like the Mesquite bean. On rare occasionI will pound the bean down into a flour using a metate. Once I have a thin flour I will mix it with wheat flour and bake it into a pancake. I say rare occasion because usually I will harvest the pods when Green. Yellow Palo Verde has a large seed that can weigh an average 0.005 ounce, and contains 733.3 Calories per seed! Now you can see why Native Peoples ate the seeds. When harvesting Palo Verde be careful; just like the Honey Mesquite large two – three inch spines grow all over this tree that will cause a severe injury in the field. I recommend wearing a long sleeve shirt, pants and glasses when handling this tree. Eye protection is critical when handling this tree- you loose your eye sight you are done. Another use with the Palo Verde is finding direction. We sell a great book here on my web-store called ” Arizona Bushman, The Complete Survival in the Southwest ” that explains exactly how to find North, East, South and West using this tree. So as you can see once again the Palo verde is a excellent tree to learn about. The best thing is, it can grow using very little moisture. I have two Palo Verde trees in my yard and I have not watered it in over 20 years. Every year it produces pods.
Yerba Mansa grows like grass in the Big Morongo Canyon Preserve. It is wide and abundant; so every season I harvest. Native peoples used this for hundreds of years Medicinally. I always harvest it in the mid Spring – Summer months here in the high desert. You can find it in saline or alkaline soil, wet/ moist areas, seeps, springs; Channel Islands, Mojave Desert, Peninsular Ranges, South Coast Ranges : 75 – 100 meters. Natives used the leaf as a tea for asthma, sore throat, stomach aches, colds, and respiratory problems. Me personally, I use it for stomach pain; by making a heavy tea I find it relieves cramping and heavy irritation. Natives would make a decoction for venereal disease and cough. Once the plant has gone to seed I will collect the seeds and make a flour with it. When looking for Yerba Mansa lots of new students can get it mixed up with Broad Leaf Plantain. The best way to identify Yerba Mansa is the leaf and flower head. Taking a close look at the leaf; the veins grow opposite- Broad Leaf Plantain they grow with the leaf. The Yerba Mansa leaf is a hairy leaf that does not irritate ones skin. Also, notice the beautiful White flower. The flour petals grow below the seeding head.
In this photo you can see wilderness living skills instructor Christopher Nyerges and I making a film discussing the many uses of Mugwort. Mugwort is a plant I use about as much as the Mojave Yucca plant. I was first introduced to this plant when scouting with Christopher in the LA mountains. So it is well worth mentioning. Mugwort has a fiber content so when collecting the dry leaves it makes an excellent tinder bundle; and binds itself together. Once I dump the ember in the tinder bundle it smolders like a punk wood. However, I have noticed when collecting a large amount of Mugwort it will blow into flame; and since the leaves have a fiber content it works as a flame extender. When burning the leaves you will notice a very pleasant smell. In modern day burning Mugwort will relax the mind and body. That brings me to a personal note, when I go camping I like to build a natural shelter instead of setting up a tent- there is much more insulation value in a natural shelter if constructed correctly. Every now and then when sleeping in a natural shelter it will be difficult to sleep; and that is common with most folks- we are so used to our comfortable beds. So in order to help aid my sleep I will in fact burn Mugwort. Its clean, non addictive and natural; unlike pharmaceutical pills. When it comes to edibility, Mugwort leaves can also be eaten fresh in small amounts however they are very bitter. Mugwort is a California Native.
Spearmint is very easy to identify in the field. The Smell alone is how I can positively identify this plant. By now most people should be familiar with spearmint chewing gum you buy at the super market. well, Wild Spearmint smells just like it but much stronger. As a matter of fact Spearmint can get so strong it leaves some people with a headache. That is rare, but some folks have different reactions than others. Another way to identify Spearmint is the leaf shape. Notice each leaf grows opposite from each other on the stalk. Spearmint loves water; so I usually find it growing along side streams, lakes, marsh lands, rivers, and puddles. Now for some of the uses regarding this plant- Some Native and First Nation cultures used the leaves as a blood purifier; simply making a tea with the leaves. Making a strong tea utilizing the leaves will help with stomach irritation, aches and pain. Spearmint is also high in Vitamin- C, and is a excellent antioxidant. Many people will grow and cultivate this plant to extract the oils. It is said the oils relax the body, clear the mind and help with insomnia. So Spearmint was not only used medicinally as you can see, but it is also edible. I like to harvest the leaves and mix it in a wild salad. Due to the strong taste I will chop up very small amounts and mix it with Lambsquarters, Water cress, Wild Radish, Plantain, Bladderpod peas, and Cattail roots. If you want a very sweet and almost sugary tasting wild salad add Wood Sorrel in addition. So by now you can see Spearmint has a good amount of uses. however, in my travels and scouting I have very rarely came across this plant here in the Mojave Desert and surrounding areas. This plant is more of an abundance in areas such as the Higher altitudes of Arizona. If you keep your nose out for it eventually you will come across it. Cant mistake the strong smell.
Purslane is a plant I harvest every summer. You can find it June – September in the Morongo Basin and surrounding areas. Here is what to look for when identifying Purslane: plant lying flat on the ground, stems are smooth, fleshy succulent like leaves,Leaves look shiny- broad near tip. Purslane is not only a great addition to a wild salad; it is healthier than any store bought lettuce! So what parts are edible? Simply harvest the leaves; eat raw or cooked. I do not recommend cooking Purslane, the plant has a very pleasant taste when consumed raw. As mentioned earlier Purslane is good for you. It is high in iron, Calcium, Copper, Magnesium, Maganese, Zinc, Vitamin C, and Vitamin A. Here is a little recipe I like to use with this plant.Gather Purslane, Lambsquarters, Watercress, and cooked Yucca fruits. Dice all Vegetables up very fine. Add olive oil, black pepper, and a small amount of lemon juice; you then have a great tasting wild salad! There is one toxic look alike out there that is a member of the Euphorbia family so be careful. The best way to tell the difference between the two is the larger succulent leaves Purslane has. Like any edible wild plant; I highly recommend taking a few field classes before harvesting.
Mule Fat or commonly known as Seep Willow. Lots of folks will get this plant mixed up with a true willow- due to the strong resemblance. However, it is not a true Willow. Here is how I identify the Mule fat, take a close look at the outer bark of this plant, you will see it has a rough grainy look; Willows in California do not. Then take a close look at the top of the plant you will see a cluster of white flowers at the top of the plant. If you take a close look at the leaves you will see Seep Willow has a very broad leaf unlike the common Coyote Willow that grows in the Morongo Basin. So what do I use this plant for? If you watch my Youtube videos you know by now this is the plant I use for a hand drill and bow drill spindle. Mule fat is a nice soft wood with a corky center running throughout the plants stalk. So it is going to naturally generate much more heat compared to a hard wood such as- Juniper, Pine, or Desert Willow when dry. Seep Willow also grows nice and straight as you can see in this photo. That also makes it great when using primitive fire. I recommend gathering 10 to 15 Mule fat stalks and bind it up with cordage- bank line works best; and let it dry. Binding the stalks together allows the plant to dry faster and keeps the stalk nice and straight in the drying process. Once dry you will now see why I like this plant so much. The best primitive fire combination I have used is- Seep Willow ( spindle ) and California Fan Palm rib ( hearth ) both gathered in the Morongo Basin. Now that we covered primitive fire I want to discuss how this plant can save your life. Here in the desert water is extremely rare as you know. When you find healthy Seep Willows you know there is water in area. So start your search.
Now as you all can see by now there are many useful plants in the Morongo Basin. Most of these plants and trees can be found throughout the west. Remember these are just a few, if I was to list every useful plant common in the West I would have to WRITE A BOOK. There is one last thing I want to leave you off with and that is; if you can not positively identify the plant you have your eyes on do not touch it. There are plants that can kill you. Again, I highly recommend taking field courses and getting the dirt time. Reading about plants or watching Youtube videos does not make one an expert. Getting out in the field and doing it can lead up to an experts knowledge.