Ethnobotany in SLO’s Open Space

This blog post is a blurb written by one of our SLO Stewards Docents, Evan Albright. You can meet up with Evan out on the trails, and learn more about our SLO Stewards Docent program here. Please note that this post is for educational purposes only, and it is illegal to collect anything in the City of SLO’s Open Spaces.

As a local naturalist, I have lead countless hikes and wanders along the many trails in San Luis Obispo county over the past 19 years.  I am always struck by the amazing diversity we have here in SLO.  I have been told that we have more native plant species in our county than the entire state of Alaska. One resource that I have found useful to identify many of the plants along our local trails is the field guide “Wildflowers of San Luis Obispo,” created as a cooperative project by both the City of SLO and the local chapter of the California Native Plant Society. Below, I have included the page numbers for the plants mentioned.

As a docent, one of my favorite things to demonstrate and share on hikes are the many traditional uses by the local Chumash tribes, and later the settlers, had of the plants for daily life, including edible, medicinal, and utilitarian uses.  I often bring items on my hikes to share, like a pair of hand made sandals created from Yucca leaves, Hesperoyucca whipplei (pg. 22), to demonstrate the strength of the fibers, and acorn bread made from the leached acorns of the Coast Live Oak, Quercus agrifolia, to taste the nutty flavor of this plentiful food source. Along the southern slopes of Bishop Peak, Irish Hills, and the Lemon Grove trails, I enjoy sharing facts about California Sagebrush, Artemisia california (pg. 83), which was a favorite by the local Chumash for friction fires.  They made fire boards out of the sagebrush and hand drills out of the plant called Mule Fat, Baccharis salicifolia, found in riparian areas like Reservoir Canyon. Unfortunately, this is not a skill I share due to the high fire risk in our area.

Growing along these same trails and others in the City of SLO open-space you will also find other plants used for food. Several examples include, Soap plant, Chlorogalum pomeridianum (pg. 17), which is edible when cooked properly but was also used for soap, fish poison, making brushes, and glue. Chumash are reported to have roasted the root in large pits alongside Yuca, Hesperoyucca whipplei (pg. 22), for several days to remove the toxicity before eating. Blue Dicks, Dichelostemma capitatum (pg. 77), were also dug up for the small corm of a root to be eaten, as were many other bulbs found in the area.  Some are highly toxic so knowing the difference took some skill. And, my favorite, Miner’s-Lettuce, Claytonia perfoliata (pg. 17), which can be eaten raw and is a great addition to a salad. It is important to note that collecting anything in the city’s open-spaces is illegal.

I find it amazing how many useful plants there are just in the San Luis Obispo water shed. If you are interested in learning more about this subject I recommend the book, “Chumash Ethnobotany: Plant Knowledge Among the Chumash People of Southern California,” by Jan Timbrook. I hope to see you on the trail.


Happy hiking,

Evan Albright