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Native plant uses class

This Saturday from one to two in the afternoon, I attended a native plant uses class, led by city naturalist Eric Nicholas. The class took place at our city’s new historic park, the Alviso Adobe Community Park. Located where Ohlone Indians once lived, where a dairy farm once ran, and displaying the Californio period of adobe brick, a historic building from 1854 and a newly built hall sit upon seven acres of land in the foothills. Old oak trees and a multitude of newly planted native plants are being naturally propagated and harvested under the expert guidance of Eric.

I walked up to the main building and met Eric, a City of Pleasanton baseball cap on his head and a braid falling onto his back. No one else had arrived for the class, so Eric suggested I look at the Pleasanton Art League art show going on in the main building while we waited for more people to arrive.

A few minutes later, I walked back to where Eric stood, talking with a mother and two elementary school boys. So the class wasn’t going to be a one-on-one lesson, after all—but it’d still be a pretty small group. We sat on some log stump seats while another mom walked up and sat with her son, who was enthused about what Eric was talking about. Both boys seemed to have an avid interest in nature and had apparently just been learning about the Ohlone Indians and the landscape. They had met Eric before when he spoke at a field trip.

In the Bay Area, Eric said, there are only three city naturalists. In the entire country, perhaps only 400. But, he continued, that number will continue to increase because the population is opening their eyes to the importance of habitat and the environment. “Naturalists are continually researching,” he said. “Try and stump me so I can do some more research.”

We walked over to a small deck near the entrance to the park. The two boys looked over the railing to where a boulder had been worn into various mortars, with pestle rocks sitting upon them. A plaque on the deck talked about the Ohlone Indians in 3240 B.C using the mortars to grind acorns, seeds, and various other plants. Eric told us that the particular mortars we were looking at were probably not used to crush acorns; they’re too shallow and there isn’t a continual flow of water nearby. Rather, he said, they may have been used to crush small seeds, medicinal plants, or in some sort of ceremony.

Eric then made the distinction that the Ohlone Indians who occupied the land were not hunter-gatherers as is commonly thought. They were "landscapers," knowing the land well and helping to maintain it. They didn't go around gathering whatever they could find; they knew where everything was and what it was used for. They'd have controlled burns to keep underbrush down so they could utilize the various plants and trees they needed. They'd propagate various plants, though it wasn't quite agriculture. Rather, they allowed the plants to be spread about and grow. They pruned willow stems so they'd grow long and straight to be used for baskets. When settles arrived, they said that the area was "reminiscent of English gardens" because of the controlled, though not unnatural, habitat. Though humans were controlling what plants flourished, they were a part of the ecosystem, rather than outside of it as we often are today. Eric made a metaphor for the land: just as we go to the store to purchase our food, the Native Americans utilized their "store" of useful plants for their various needs, be it medicinal, for food, or for creating tools. Tribes also "attached themselves" to different trees and knew their seasons, knew when they would bear the necessary parts the Indians utilized.

When they were building the park, there were tight restrictions on protecting the trees. Oftentimes, construction sites remove or damage the trees nearby. Because the trees are native, integral aspects of the park, extra precaution was taken to see they were not harmed. All of the new plants are either native, medicinal or from the Mission era.

Eric then went into how acorns are harvested. It's not as simple as you think. They are gathered in the fall and set aside in a dry place for 6 months to a year. (They can safely be stored for 4 to 5 years if they don't mold.) They are stored in upside-down baskets on stilts in a granary. Once they are cured, they are cracked open (possibly with a mortar and pestle). The seeds of the acorn are then separated into their different components (similar to a walnut's two parts). The thin skin on the acorn is very sour, so the seed is soaked in water to separate it from the nut meat. They are again set aside.

Once ready, the acorn is finally ground, as we traditionally imagine when we think about acorns and harvesting them for meal. The Native Americans traditionally created a sand hill, firmly packed. They would remove the top to create a rounded bowl depression in the sand. Leaves were set into the sand bowl and then the crushed acorn was placed on top of the leaves. Water was then poured over the ground acorn and leaves to leach out the acids and chemicals inside the acorn nut. (Almost all nuts have acidic chemicals in them. The chemicals create a protection from invaders or predators who would otherwise eat the nut so that the nut can eventually germinate into another tree. That's why you shouldn't eat apple seeds!)

After the chemicals have been leached from the meat, you can cook the acorn. It's a well-rounded, nutritious source of protein, Eric says, and will probably eventually become a big part of our diets once we realize its benefits. It helps to fight diabetes as well as help with circulation.

Eric then went on to discuss soap root, a plant I remember well from my second grade field trips to the ridge. It's a plant native to the area that grows on hillsides that are damp but that dry quickly in summertime. "What are its uses?" Eric asked. "Besides the obvious." It turns out that there are at least 8 uses for soap root, a record, Eric says, he holds among the naturalist community. The first, of course, being soap. He pulled a soap root plant from his weaved basket, a long root with grass-like fibers coming from the top. With a knife, Eric scraped away from of the root, exposing the moist inner meat of the plant. He walked around to the five of us sitting on the deck and asked us to take a little of the gooey looking substance that had come from within the root. "Press your fingers together," he instructed. After a few seconds, the substance became sticky and made my fingers feel like a light glue was between my fingers. The second use for soap root is glue. The third, he went on, is paste. The fibers of the root can be made into a small brush, and the paste can be applied to the fibers to create a hard brush handle--four. The fibers are flammable, six, and the root can be baked and eaten, seven. And eight was my personal favorite: the root can be smashed into a mush and spread across a creek, creating a toxic zone where fish die from breathing in the chemicals from the root. The fish die and viola--dinner! How genius!

The basket Eric had pulled the soap root from was made from weaved tule grass, another native plant. Before Pleasanton was developed, the land consisted of marshland and rolling hills (and was Grizzly bear territory!). Tule grass thrived in the marshy areas and made for an easily-accessible resource to weave easy-to-make (yet not highly sturdy) baskets. The basket Eric had was a berry-picking basket, but the tule grass can be used to make rope (which when placed in water becomes stronger) as well as homes.

Poison oak has a interesting history among the Natives of the area. Its roots were used to create a black dye--but if you or I tried to extract the roots of poison oak to make dye, we would get itchy and infected. Somehow the Indians were immune to the poisonous oils. One tale, which hasn't been proven because no one is willing to attempt to replicate it, is that the Indians would feed their children small doses of the plant to create an immunity that would stay with them--similar in a sense to vaccinations we use today.

Eric mentioned that fact that historically, whenever one people has invaded another, the first to be killed or ostracized are those with medicinal/plant knowledge. Often these people were considered witches or warlocks, categorized as working for the devil. We're reading The Crucible in English class and earlier this year we read The Scarlet Letter, and what he said reminded me of those two books. In both, there are aspects of superstition, and especially in The Scarlet Letter, the image of witches in the forest signing their names in blood in the Devil's book comes to mind when I think of witches, as though the medicine people were the Devil's followers. But fortunately, Eric remarked, those times have passed and naturalists can be open with their knowledge.

Plants Eric discussed & my notes:

-Mugwort - creek plant, nice-smelling, likes both sun and shade, helps with stomach ailments; if you place in cloth under your pillow at night, when you sleep and move your head around, crushing it up, it makes your dreams more vivid and easier to remember.

-Pine needles contain a lot of vitamin C and can be steeped into a vitamin C-packed tea (which I already knew from reading Backpacker magazine); rose hips (seed pods) as, well.

-Bay laurel - medicinal, helps with blood flow, respiratory infections; used to be rubbed on temples to help blood flow to brain; hikers can place in boots to increase blood flow to feet and reduce pain when hiking.

-White willow - uses similar to aspirin.

-Cactus (from the Californio period) - good for creating walls/fences; spines can be removed by placing pieces of it in a fire - food source; skin protection (antiviral); regenerative, so aids in healing.

-Yerba buena - mint, helps with fever (all mints are refrigerants so help in cooling the body--mint tea can help); aids in digestion (why they give you a mint at restaurants...and also for your breath!); calm, weak sedative.

-Mexican marigold - used to make yellow dye...all dyes used to come from natural they do not :(

-Elderberry bush/tree - used to create arrow shafts, flutes; berries can make wine, jams--important to avoid red berries because they are poisonous!

-Golden poppies - light sedative tea; help rid of lice.

-Eucalyptus - non-native; similar to bay laurel (their distinct aromas means antibacterial/antiviral); can be steeped for tea to protect against skin viruses; because it's non-native, it's bad for California habitats because its chemicals harm natives; they were planted to aid against erosion, but actually do not help with this; the Australian tortoise berry eats its leaves; it's flammable, which is why so many houses burned in Berkeley and Oakland so quickly; Eucalyptus is good for the great horned owl, so Eric is going to try and get one to live there and put up a video to track the owl's life.

The class concluded with the eucalyptus lesson, so we stood around and talked a bit afterward. The class really interested me. Earlier this year, I read The Clan of the Cave Bear and its sequel, The Valley of Horses. Both are about our cave-dwelling ancestors and deal a lot with medicinal plants. I signed up to take a Botany class next year, but unfortunately with the budget cuts, it was canceled. I hope to volunteer at Alviso Adobe this summer to learn more about the plants and take some time to work with nature and get better in tune with how the Natives once lived here. I will be updating with any new information I learn about the park and its plants. Perhaps I have a career as a naturalist in my future!

Green Gal


A tree uses what comes its way to nurture itself. By sinking its roots deeply into the earth, by accepting the rain that flows towards it, by reaching out to the sun, the tree perfects its character and becomes great. Absorb, absorb, absorb. That is the secret of the tree.

-- Deng Ming-Dao


  1. Wow, this is all really cool stuff. I would love to take a class like that. Thanks for sharing this.

  2. Thanks for sharing all this. I learned a lot. We're fortunate to have Eric Nicholas and the Alvsio Adobe in our area. I never knew Grizzly bears roamed these parts, or that pine needles had vitamin C!

    Great post!


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