Classroom Huckleberry

By Paul Belz

A good forager could find many of life’s necessities at Oakland’s Huckleberry Botanical Regional Preserve. There are many excellent reasons why gathering plants for food or other use in regional, state, and national parks is illegal. Still, a walk with a skilled observer provides much information about ways native people and others use these resources.

Neahga Leonard, a conservation biologist by trade, led about forty hikers through Huckleberry Preserve on a cool Sunday in January. “My grandfather was an Iroquois mask maker,” he said. “He made masks and canoes and led dances. My family wanted to keep traditional names in the family. Part of the reason for my interest in human uses of plants is my ancestry.” He stated that he would not focus on medicinal uses of plants since he believes much of the current information is based on inadequate research, but he would mention a few well documented examples.

People make a bad tasting tea from yerba santa. Neahga’s mother gave it to him as a cold remedy. “I don’t know if it cured the colds, or if I got better so I wouldn’t have to drink it!” he laughed. He contrasted this with yerba buena, which provides a delicious tea that tastes like a cross between mint and pine.

The lichen usnea, or ‘old man’s beard’, has powerful anti-bacterial properties. Native Californians have long used it to wrap wounds, as a sanitary bandage, and as a protective wrap for infants. Fringe cup has an unusual folk medicinal use- a tribe near Vancouver used it as a remedy for dreams of having intercourse with dead people. “It’s strange that there was a whole group of people with this problem,” Neahga chuckled.

Huckleberry’s trees gave Neahga a chance to share his deep knowledge of local plants’ many other uses. An Oregon ash, bare of leaves, grew near the beginning of the preserve’s trail. Ash trees are important worldwide, and figure in much folklore. Norse mythology’s Yggdrasil, the World Tree that connects the gods’ realm of Asgard with the rest of creation, is an ash. California’s indigenous people used this tree’s strong wood for bow handles, while other ash species provided flexible wood that’s often used for making baskets.

Madrone colony.  Photo: Neahga Leonard

Madrone colony. Photo: Neahga Leonard

Pacific madrones are easily recognized by red bark that peels away from their trunks, ridding the trees of plants that might use them as a home- these plants add weight and gather water that encourages the growth of fungi. Native people extracted a dye from the bark, and used it to decorate their food. They also ate the berries, but no one is sure of how they prepared them.

Coast live oaks live with bay laurels and in the parks’ drier areas. Gathering acorns from the oaks is best done by shaking the trees to get to the acorns before they’re exposed to insects that live in the ground. Acorns must be leeched in running water to remove toxic tannins. “One of my friends stores them in his toilet’s upper tank to leech them,” Neahga laughed.

He described acorn meal as bland but nutritious. Traditional cooks mix it with meat, berries, fat and other flavorings for a more interesting recipe. Neahga commented that Spanish missionaries cut many oaks so native Californians would need to rely on cultivated crops rather than their historic food.

California Bay Laurel.  Photo: Neahga Leonard

California Bay Laurel. Photo: Neahga Leonard

Tall, multiple-trunked California bay laurels thrive in Huckleberry’s shady, moist areas. Their forms vary with their environments across the west coast; they range from low shrubs resembling piles of rocks in windy areas to tall trees that compete with redwoods for light. The flesh surrounding their seeds is edible, but it quickly rots after it ripens. The seeds themselves are strong tasting but edible, and can also be ground and used as a coffee substitute. Bay laurel leaves include chemicals that are toxic to insects. Indigenous people stored them with acorns and other food to discourage six legged foragers.

Huckleberry Preserve offers a range of microclimates, with differences in moisture and temperature, resulting in habitat for a wide variety of plants. Neahga shared many of the park’s shrubs, and described their uses. Blackberry, thimbleberry, elderberry, and huckleberry provide fruit than can be eaten on its own or used to flavor meat or acorn gruel. The small berries of manzanitas can be dried and crushed, then mixed with water to make a delicious cider.

Basket makers often use flexible twigs from cream bush and hazelnut. Musicians remove the center of elderberry sticks to make flutes. Thimbleberry’s large fuzzy leaves can be used as toilet paper. Toyon’s tough wood is a resource for tools that increase the range and accuracy of spears.

Evergreen Huckleberry.  Photo: Neahga Leonard

Evergreen Huckleberry. Photo: Neahga Leonard

People use huckleberry’s large root balls to make tools and toys; one of Neahga’s friends made him a chess set from this root wood. The lovely, sweetly scented flowers of the California lilac contain a chemical that makes soap lather, and is a good shampoo. “You’ll get flowers in your hair, though!” Neahga laughed.

Fishermen used Douglas iris’ leaves to make fish lines. Cooks steam stinging nettle’s young leaves; Neahga uses them in lasagna. He speculated that the current drought and cold weather could be responsible for the absence of wild fungi and early wildflowers such as pink flowering currant. He shared a range of herbs and other smaller plants. Local ferns, such as the sword fern, contain toxins, and Neahga discouraged their use as food. He described how indigenous people have long used them as bedding. 

Sword fern.  Photo: Neahga Leonard

Sword fern. Photo: Neahga Leonard

Poison oak abounds in the preserve. Native people sometimes burnt its leaves to remove the toxic oils, and used the ashes for tattoos. Neahga mentioned that if he accidentally touches this plant, rubbing mugwort on the exposed area seems to reduce the likelihood of getting a rash. People also apply mud to soak up poison oak’s oils as it dries.

The group hiked on switchbacks for the return to the parking lot. This three hour hike was a wonderful introduction to humans’ need for plants. We depend on this planet, even when we ignore it.

To get in touch with Neahga Leonard or read his articles on plants, natural history, ecology, conservation, and all sorts of neat things, go to


This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.