Let’s give gratitude for the spring rains, the diversity of plants and wildlife in our local area, and to still having access to some of our wild places! Have you ever wondered which plants are edible here in Santa Barbara? Have you ever wanted to drink warm cups of tea to remind you of that beautiful hike you went on last week? Not wanting to head to the grocery store? Here are a few of the many delicious plants that we at Wilderness Youth Project love to drink.
Things You Might Need: Scissors, a sharp knife, or pruning shears can be helpful for making a clean cut. Gardening gloves can be helpful to protect yourself from the spines and thorns. Some kind of container like a harvest basket or a paper bag can be great for keeping your leaves clean. But if you have nothing, you can still get by with just your hands!
Location: Most of these plants love to grow in shady oak woodlands near creeks and streams in the Santa Barbara Front Country (e.g. Rattlesnake Canyon, Steven’s Park, Parma Park, Tucker’s Grove, San Marcos Foothill Preserve, etc.). Springtime is the best time to harvest the succulent new growth.
Hazards: Before we head out, it’s good to know about some potential hazards. When walking under our Coast Live Oak trees, Quercus agrifolia, it’s a good idea to look up for potential falling limbs and to look down to keep an eye out for poison oak. “Leaves of 3, Let it be!” and “Two leaves kissing, One leaf missing” are good reminders to help you identify poison oak. Protector Poison Oak (as we like to call it) loves the shade and can take on different forms. In the springtime, look out for new lobed clusters of bright green growth. Sometimes they have an oily surface, but not always! If you do come in contact, check out our page on Poison Oak Information and Remedies.
When trying new edible plants for the first time, it’s a good idea to take a bit of precaution. People respond differently to all sorts of food. We recommend trying each new plant separately before mixing them together into a blend. Before harvesting or eating any plants, always check in with an adult to make sure that you are identifying it properly. Safety first!
Ethics: First, make sure you are in a place where it is safe to harvest (i.e. not close to roads or contaminants). Second, are you in a place where it is okay to harvest? Is there a lot of the same plant around, so that you are only taking a small percentage of that population? Third, what are the rules of the area? Parks and National Forest have different rules. Needless to say, the ethics of foraging are a controversial topic. As a rule of thumb, harvest only what you need and make sure to leave plenty for others!
Before we harvest, keep in mind that it’s a good idea to ask for permission from the plant as well. This could look many different ways. Some people physically ask with words, others might ask silently. Either way you do it, it’s a great idea to give something in return. It could be some words, or a song, a piece of hair, or some water. Whatever feels like a fair gift in return.
The way that we harvest is another way to show respect for the plants that we take from. Generally, we want to pinch old leaves off from the bottom or use some scissors or shears to ensure a clean cut. Try not to leave any stem. Keep the plant in the ground. Harvesting like this allows the plant to continue sending its energy up and towards flower growth, which eventually leads to seed production. This means… more plants for years to come!
Hummingbird Sage, Salvia spathacea, also called Diosa in spanish, was said to be used for the treatment of pulmonary ailments and rheumatism according to Chumash Ethnobotany by Jan Timbrook. This plant is in the mint family. I notice that it has leaves that have an arrow-shape.
The pink circular clusters that stack upon each other remind me of a space needle. It has a fruity smell when rubbed and a taste that reminds me of pineapples. This plant is often growing in big patches like the photo above.
California Hedge-Nettle or Wood Mint, Stachys bullata, is also in the mint family.
When steeped into a tea, hedge-nettle can help soothe a sore throat or an upset stomach. It has a lemony smell. This plant is in the same family as Hummingbird sage, and can sometimes look a lot alike. I notice that the flowers of this plant are smaller and paler in hue, typically have bigger spaces between its leaf sets, and leaves that look more spade-shaped than arrow-shaped.
California Blackberry, Rubus ursinus, or Pacific Dewberry, is in the rose family. It is commonly seen with leaves that grow in pairs of three like Poison Oak, but has small spines all over the stem and along the underside of the leaf, “if it’s hairy it’s a berry.” When the leaf is steeped into tea it is said to be mildly-astringent and used as a diuretic by herbalists. This plant is often found growing in long vines along the banks of a stream or creek alongside poison oak, so be sure to identify carefully. It has small white flowers and can sometimes produce small delicious berry fruits.
Stinging Nettle, Urtica dioica, is not native to our region but can often be found near city parks or backyards. You’ll know this plant if you have tried to touch and felt the sting of the sharp hairs along its stem and leaves.
This plant is packed-full with minerals and micronutrients that make any tea feel even more medicinal. Adding this to your tea blend can round out the fruity and bitter flavors of the other plants with an earthy sweet taste. Harvest with a pair of garden gloves to help protect your fingers from its sting. Once the leaves are boiled, blanched, or dried they are safe to touch (or eat!) without the risk of sting.
Drying: Once you’ve gathered all that you need, it’s time to dry out your harvest. Herbs are best dried in a shady place away from sunlight and with great ventilation. If you have a screen or something porous to lay your leaves on, even better. You can improvise with an old window screen or clip them up on a line. It can take 1-2 weeks to fully dry and be ready to store away. Make sure that the leaves are crisp and not cold to touch before storing in a tight sealed container like a plastic bag or a glass jar.
Ratios: Once you’re ready to make tea, you can try each plant out individually or blend them all together. Which ones you like most will determine the ratios of your tea blend.I personally love the taste of Hummingbird sage, so my blends tend to have mostly that. I add less Blackberry and Stinging Nettle because their medicinal flavor can be overpowering. Play around and experiment with what you like best.
Flash Connection: While you’re out, dip your feet in the creek! If it feels right, try taking your shoes off. Or lie down and enjoy the feeling of the ground on your back in the dappled shade. Can you hear a “skibit-skibit” or a “wakka-wakka” coming from the trees?
Share your Findings: Make a Leaf rubbing, sketch a drawing of the plants, share the findings of your day with a family member, or send them on a scavenger hunt to find the plants themselves.
Reflect Back: Boil some water and steep your herbs for 5-10 minutes. I like it with a little honey. How do the plants taste to you? Can you close your eyes and envision yourself walking through the landscape where you found the plants? What do you remember seeing? What bird sounds did you hear? Did you notice anything you’ve never seen before? What kinds of insects did you see while harvesting? What other animals do you think eat these plants?
Integrate: What are some other ways that you can bring the beauty and gifts of the oak woodlands into your daily life?
*If you tried this wander, please send me your reflections and/or any questions or feedback. Email me at gro.pyw@DnailuJ*
Pulmonary Ailments – respiratory illness, illness of the lungs
Diuretic – increased passing of urine, makes you pee a lot
Rheumatism – inflammation and pain in the joints, muscles, and tissues
Astringent – bitter, a puckering taste
Ethnobotany – study of a region’s plants and their practical uses through the traditional knowledge of a local culture and people