Adopt a Native Plant

Native plants make good neighbors.

I did not always appreciate the beauty of native plants and how integral they are to the wellbeing of the communities in which they reside, but I do now.

A native plant is a plant or tree that is adapted to live in the soil and climate of a particular region (small or large) and that can co-exist with neighboring plants and animals without being killed off or taking over. Native plants are good for the environment because they do not require extra inputs like water, synthetic fertilizers, or pesticides. They help nourish the soil, prevent erosion, maintain biodiversity, and provide habit and food for local wildlife and people.

It was not as if I woke up one morning thinking “Wow, native plants are beautiful. I need to learn more about them.” The appreciation for native plants just sort of crept up on me after several years of living in the Monterey pine forest of the California Central Coast.

I am originally from Southern California where my spouse and I doggedly defied the hot dry climate by maintaining not one, but two turf grass lawns. We also tended two dozen rose bushes, a few hydrangeas, and a bed of azaleas. The venerable old oak tree in the corner of the backyard might have been the only native plant on the property.

As you can imagine, moving from a manicured yard to a wild one took some getting used to. What you might call a weed, we call grass. Plant and tree seedlings volunteer to live wherever the wind blows their seeds or an animal deposits them. Birds visit daily to avail themselves of our birdbaths and deer cruise through in search of food and sometimes to hang out.

By observing the land surrounding our house and nearby open spaces, I saw that some plants seemed to flourish growing with a variety of different plants, while other plants seemed to be trying to hog a whole area just for themselves. I realized that I did not know much about native and invasive plants and that even our tiny piece of land might need a hand to be at its best.

I set out to educate myself by reading, joining the California Native Plant Society, and participating in events that provide me with opportunities to learn about native plants.

In October, my spouse and I attended the fall session of the Chumash Kitchen series being held at the San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden. The Chumash people have lived in this area for thousands of years so what could be better than learning about native plants from Violet and Jeanette, two Chumash women who live here now. That day it was all about oaks and acorns. I came away informed and inspired to write Thanksgiving – We are All Connected.

We pick up the thread of the Chumash Kitchen story on a cool February morning that quickly turned into a hot day.

The Chumash Kitchen

The winter session of the Chumash Kitchen began with the group gathering outside and forming a rough circle so that Violet could give us a rundown of the morning including a few hints about the native foods we would be enjoying at breakfast and lunch.

I had left my sweater inside and was feeling a bit chilled but there was no way I was going to break the circle to go get it. I forgot I was cold after Violet introduced her father, Fred, and he began telling stories about growing up in this area. Fred is a good storyteller and I think he could have entertained us indefinitely, but Violet gave him a gentle sign that he needed to wrap things up so we could all go eat breakfast.

Breakfast consisted of tasty rice, egg, and mushroom dishes made with locally harvested and foraged ingredients. I bypassed the coffee urn to try some tea made with cedar and Yerba Buena. The tea was both warm and refreshing with a slightly minty taste and a cedar fragrance.

We Meet a Toyon

After breakfast, the group set out across the grass of the adjacent park to a nearby campground to meet a plant commonly known as Toyon and called Qwe’ by the Chumash people. In the midst of winter, this 12-foot tall Toyon was glorious with evergreen leaves and branches laden with tiny ripe red berries.

Chumash Kitchen Group Photo in Front of a Toyon
Chumash Kitchen Group Photo in Front of a Toyon at El Chorro Regional Campground in San Luis Obispo, CA – Photo Courtesy of San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden

Easily passing the conversation back and forth, Jeanette and Violet shared information about Toyons, which are native to California and especially enjoy growing with oak trees. Besides being beautiful, we learned that Toyons provide habitat and food for a wide variety of wildlife as well as food, medicine, tools, and fuel for people.

Jeanette talked about how the Chumash and other indigenous people have been tending wild native plants and trees for thousands of years by gathering seeds, planting, weeding, pruning, transplanting, harvesting, and sometimes burning. When pruning a plant or harvesting from it, Chumash people give an offering of some sort, which could be a drink of water, a pinch of tobacco, a prayer, or even a piece of hair.

The Three Yerba Sisters

With the sun now bright and hot, we walked back to a cool shady area on the botanical garden grounds to learn about three California native medicinal plants and then go meet them. As Jeanette and Violet talked about the healing properties of Yerba Buena, Yerba Mansa, and Yerba Santa, they stressed that using plants for medicinal purposes is not like taking pills.

Pharmaceutical pills usually address a narrow range of ailments, have specific dosages, and are uniform in size, color, and ingredients. A plant may have many medicinal uses as well as be a source of food for people and wildlife and it is a living being so each plant in the family will have similar traits but none will be exactly alike. It is important to get to know the plant and to help care for it, after all, it is giving a part of itself for your benefit.

Yerba Santa Plant Growing at San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden
Yerba Santa Growing at the San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden

After learning about the Yerba sisters, Lindsey from the botanical garden led us on a joyful walk through the garden to meet the plants.

She also gave us some background about the botanical garden, which showcases plants and trees from five Mediterranean climates like our own.

We headed back to the event center for a sumptuous lunch prepared by Violet and a talented group of volunteers.

Bountiful Lunch

The day before the event, a hardworking group of volunteers had done some of the meal prep work, which included removing two itsy bitsy seeds from each Toyon berry that had previously been picked and dried.

Chumash Kitchen Lunch Plate Full of Delicious Food
Chumash Kitchen Plate Full of Delicious Food – Photo Credit

After the food was blessed, our plates were filled with delicious looking and smelling food. A creamy gravy with ground bison was poured over rice. This was accompanied by sautéed greens and roasted root vegetables with a Toyon vinaigrette.

Chumash Kitchen Chocolate Crepe with Toyon Berries
Chumash Kitchen Chocolate Crepe with Toyon Berries – Photo Courtesy of San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden

For dessert, we were treated to a chocolate crepe topped with rose hip infused whipped cream and a lovely handcrafted chocolate rosette.

A sweet syrup made with Toyon berries was dotted around the plate and drizzled over the top.

The dessert looked almost too good to eat, but we did eat it and it was scrumptious.

Full of information and replete with delicious food, we were sent off with a tiny Yerba Buena seedling of our own to get to know and tend.

Yerba Buena Seedling from San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden
Yerba Buena Seedling from San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden

Get to Know a Native Plant

Meeting the Toyon was an auspicious occasion for me.

Even though I have seen hundreds of Toyons while living on the Central Coast, I had not met one until last December during my first native plant walk with the California Native Plant Society. Toyon was the very first plant pointed out on the trail. Later in the month, my spouse and I planted two Toyon seedlings in our yard as part of our tradition of planting two trees each year during the Christmas season.

I felt blessed to have had the opportunity to meet a grown-up Toyon that had been living at its location for many years and was obviously thriving. Better yet, was learning about Toyons from two Chumash women whose ancestors have been living with Toyons for centuries.

Over the past couple of months, I have developed a special affinity for Toyons that I cannot explain. When we got home, I filled up a watering can and gave the two small Toyons growing in your yard a drink and a few words of encouragement.

You can help native plants flourish in your community by adopting a native plant or two.

Learn about native plants at your local botanical garden, native plant society, or nursery. Select a native plant that appeals to you. Locate a suitable place for the plant to live in your yard. Get to know your native plant and tend it. Alternately, introduce yourself to a plant or tree living in the wild and adopt it.

Featured Image at Top: Toyon with Ripe Red Berries at El Chorro Regional Park Campground in San Luis Obispo, CA

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Thanksgiving – We are All Connected

On Thanksgiving step outside and share your gratitude.

This Thanksgiving I am mindful that people are part of nature not separate from it. Everything on Earth is worthy of our reverence and gratitude.

A few weeks ago, after an inspirational morning at the San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden in California, I knew that I wanted to write about the interconnectedness of nature (yes that includes people) for my Thanksgiving post this year.

It all began with a bowl of oatmeal.

But, before we get to the oatmeal, a bit of background may be useful.

My home is on the California Central Coast in the midst of one of the few remaining swaths of Monterey pine forest. Before we bought our home, the mostly wild yard had been untended for years so invasive plants had been encroaching unimpeded and some plants that had been purposefully planted had gotten out of control. Somehow, I got the possibly ridiculous and crazy idea in my head that we could restore our tiny piece of land and then it could encourage the neighboring land to go native.

With limited knowledge, a shovel and some clippers I set about removing the few invasive plants that I could identify. The flip side of invasive plants is native plants, which I am trying to learn about so we can encourage natives growing in our yard and plant others.

So, when I read about an upcoming event called the Chumash Kitchen at the botanical garden, I signed up my spouse and me. We were excited to have an opportunity to learn about native plants from two Chumash women (Jeanette and Violet) who are descendants of the people who have been living on the California Central Coast for thousands of years and we were looking forward to tasting some dishes made from locally foraged and harvested foods.

The Chumash Kitchen

The day was warm with just a slight chill and the skies were cloudy and gray.

We arrived just in time for breakfast. I was somewhat dismayed to find that breakfast was oatmeal (I think it had ground acorns, too) because I seriously dislike oatmeal and have since I was a little kid. Not to be deterred from fully participating, I ladled a small portion into my bowl and topped it with several heaping spoonfuls of cut up local apple pieces. I was thankful to see there was coffee and poured myself a mug.

Group Photo Beneath Ancient Oak Tree in El Chorro Regional Park, San Luis Obispo, CA
Group Photo Beneath an Ancient Oak Tree in El Chorro Regional Park, San Luis Obispo, CA – Photo Courtesy of San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden

After breakfast, the group headed out for a hike up to a sacred Chumash site. Along the way, one of the young participants introduced us to an oak tree that she and others had gathered acorns under two days before. At a magnificent and ancient oak tree, we stopped to admire its beauty and sense of history and to pose for a group photo.

Sacred Grinding Stones

A short uphill hike brought us to a small open area with huge boulders embedded in the ground. Scattered across the boulders were round indentations that had been created by the Chumash people who had been grinding acorns here for thousands of years. This is a sacred site for the Chumash people who live here now and we were asked not to take photos of the stones.

By now, we were all warmed up and feeling fortunate that the cloudy sky was keeping the sun from beating down on our heads.

Jeanette began speaking of thankfulness and history and telling stories in a quiet and melodious voice. I remember her looking up at the cloudy sky, smiling, and saying, “The Mother is smiling on us this morning.” or something very close to that. What a delightful way of expressing gratitude for clouds.

View Looking Away from Sacred Chumash Grinding Stones near Eagle Rock Nature Trail in San Luis Obispo, CA
View Looking Away from the Sacred Chumash Grinding Stones near Eagle Rock Nature Trail in San Luis Obispo, CA – Photo Courtesy of San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden

While Jeanette was speaking, Violet circumnavigated the group carrying a smoldering bunch of white sage. She paused at each person and using her hand wafted the smoke over us. This simple act seemed to connect us all even though many of us did not know each other. I came away with the understanding that white sage is honored for its healing qualities and is used for blessing people.

Before making our way back down the hill, we were each given the opportunity to make an offering by placing a small pinch of tobacco leaves into one of the grinding holes and saying a prayer (out loud if we wanted to). My prayer (said silently) was that my children and everyone else’s children would have a habitable planet to live on in years to come.

Oak Trees and Acorns

Back at the garden event center, while Violet and a small contingent of volunteers were preparing lunch in the kitchen, we learned about the history of oak trees over thousands of years and Jeanette entertained us with stories.

Acorns were and still are an important food for Chumash people. We learned from Jeanette that some acorns are always left under the oak trees for those who do not speak. She referred to people, plants, trees, and animals as her kin. Hearing her speak with such respect and reverence for every living thing struck a chord in me. It feels right.

San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden Volunteers Preparing Acorns
Volunteers of All Ages Preparing Acorns for the Meals to be Served at the Chumash Kitchen Event – Photo Courtesy of San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden
A Locally Foraged and Harvested Lunch

Before the lunch meal was served, Violet described the locally foraged and harvested ingredients and how they were prepared. I admit that once the mouth-watering plate of food was placed in front of me, I could not remember everything that had gone into making it.

I do remember a few things like the silky feel of the acorn gravy that had been ladled over a stuffed and roasted acorn squash. The Manzanita vinaigrette was tart and fragrant. Who knew you could make salad dressing from a Manzanita plant? The sautéed greens looking suspiciously like kale were tasty with a sort of acidic twang. I think ancient Chumash people probably did not have ice cream, but it was delicious melting on top of an apple crumble made with local apples and garnished with acorn dust.

The gathering ended with a traveling song. Feeling replete and uplifted we headed home.

Thanksgiving Gratitude

The reverence and gratitude that Violet and Jeanette had expressed for, well, everything stayed with me. So did the way they had spoken of the non-human members of nature as their kin and neighbors.

I frequently talk to trees, houseplants, and the variety of animals wandering and flying through our yard. However, I do not think I was conversing with them as peers, neighbors, or potential allies.

During the week following the event, I knew that something had shifted in my relationship with nature when I found myself apologizing to the ice plant that I was removing from my yard because it was choking out everything else. Another day, when a big buck deer wandered into the yard while I was working, I politely asked him if he would come back later. As he sauntered away, I could almost hear him thinking, “I was just passing through anyway.” When I noticed that somebody was living beneath and chewing on the roots of our lion’s tail plant, I suggested to the unseen neighbor that we try to work things out (the jury is still out on that one).

Although I do not fully understand how the diversity of life on Earth makes Earth, well, Earth, I do believe that everything connects somehow. People do not have dominion over nature we are part of it.

This year, I propose that we enlarge our gratitude circle beyond the family and friends gathered around our Thanksgiving tables to the whole of nature.

On Thanksgiving, take the opportunity to step outside for a few minutes or a long time and give thanks to a tree, a bird, a spider, a flower, a lake, a plant, or a mountain. How do you give thanks to a tree? It is up to you. Perhaps with a gentle hug, a prayer, a gift of water, listening, or just saying thank you. You get the idea.

“I see a world in the future in which we understand that all life is related to us and we treat that life with great humility and respect.” – David Suzuki

Happy Thanksgiving!

Featured Image at Top: Give Thanks in Block Letters with Fall Leaves, Acorns, and Pine Cones – Photo Credit iStock/jenifoto

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