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Oemleria cerasiformis “Indian Plum” Rosaceae

Washington Park Arboretum, Seattle, WA
May 9, 2016
Robert Niese

Oemleria is a PNW endemic and is one of the first plants to leaf-out and bloom in spring. Later in the summer Oemleria will begin to bear ripe fruits which are purple with a large pit, giving them the name Indian Plums. Opinions vary on the palatability of these fruits. Some find them to be among the best in the PNW, while others find them too bitter. Generally, their astringency can be reduced through cooking and, as such, Oemleria fruits tend to be most commonly prepared in jams and pie fillings. Also, their bark is thought to be a mild aphrodisiac. Someone should try chewing on a few twigs and report back to us all.

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Arbutus menziesii “Madrone/Arbutus” Ericaceae

Point Defiance Park, Tacoma, WA
May 5, 2012
Robert Niese

This is one of my favorite PNW endemics. The bark can be collected and steeped in a tea to treat stomach aches, cramps, or sore throats. The berries can be chewed to suppress hunger or fermented into a cider. The wood of madrone is beautiful and dense making it excellent for kinds of projects. Madrone’s thick, evergreen leaves are resistant to water loss make the species well adapted for coastal and dry environments throughout the PNW.

Arbutus menziesii “Madrone/Arbutus” Ericaceae

Point Defiance Park, Tacoma, WA
May 5, 2012
Robert Niese

This is one of my favorite PNW endemics. These bark peels can be collected and steeped in a tea to treat stomach aches, cramps, or sore throats. The berries can be chewed to suppress hunger or fermented into a cider. The wood of madrone is beautiful and dense making it excellent for kinds of projects. Madrone’s thick, evergreen leaves are resistant to water loss make the species well adapted for coastal and dry environments throughout the PNW.

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Camassia quamash “Common Camas” Liliaceae

Joint Base Lewis-McChord, WA
May 6, 2012
Robert Niese

Camas was one of the most important food plants for PNW indigenous peoples. In late spring, bulbs were collected and slow-cooked in giant pits or earthen ovens. These roasted bulbs taste similar to sweet potatoes, but are much sweeter and more fibrous. These plants were such an important food source that wars were often fought over control of the prairies in which they grow. Here in the Puget Sound, these prairie habitats were maintained through regular burning in order to preserve and promote camas growth. Today, more than 85% of these prairie ecosystems have completely disappeared and almost 20,000 of the 23,000 remaining acres can be found here on the Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

Maianthemum racemosum “False Lily of the Valley” Liliaceae

Drinking Horse Mountain, Bozeman, MT
June 3, 2015
Robert Niese

These lilies are found abundantly in almost all moist-to-wet forests in North America. Here in the PNW, they are the largest of three species in this genus which all share the common name “false lily of the valley.” These plants are edible, but, when young, look nearly identical to False Hellebore which is very poisonous. Their shoots are said to taste like asparagus and their berries apparently taste like treacle. The plant has also been used at one point or another to treat every sort of ailment you can imagine. All parts of the plant, however, have strong to mild laxative effects and should be consumed cautiously. Learn more here.

Rosa gymnocarpa “Baldhip Rose” Rosaceae

Weir Hot Springs, Clearwater National Forest, ID
June 8, 2015
Robert Niese

This is one of North America’s smallest rose species and, as such, it is often nicknamed the “dwarf rose.” I prefer the name “baldhip” though. Not only does it sound wonderfully silly, but it also is a direct translation (more or less) of the species epithet, “gymnocarpa.” Well, gymnocarpa really means “naked fruit,” but their fruits are hips and these hips are indeed bald. When the flower is fertilized, its petals and sepals fall off, leaving behind the growing fruit. Most roses hang on to their sepals as their hips mature, making this a reliable feature for identifying R. gymnocarpa. Look for these small shrubs in low- to mid-elevation moist forests throughout the PNW. This little corner of western Montana is their eastern-most range edge!

Amelanchier alnifolia “Western Serviceberry/Saskatoon” Rosaceae

Missoula, MT
April, 25 2015
Robert Niese

These common shrubs are some of the first plants to bloom in spring. Their bright white flowers light up our hillsides just as they’re starting to turn green. This plant was a staple food source for many native peoples who ate their berries raw (although they’re not as moist or sweet as other Rosaceae berries) or mashed them and shaped them into biscuits which were dried and stored for winter (side note: serviceberry is also a common ingredient in pemmican, which often is stored in biscuit shapes, so this note about dried biscuits could be a reference to pemmican, and saskatoon biscuits might not be a real thing…I’m not sure. Do any of my followers know?). Today, many local foragers will utilize these berries in jams and pies and often sweeten them for trail mixes and granola.

Linum lewisii “Lewis’s Prairie Flax” Linaceae

Drinking Horse Mountain, Bozeman, MT
June 3, 2015
Robert Niese

Prairie Flax is native to western North America where it grows in dry open areas east of the Cascades and west of the Mississippi. This species was first collected on the Lewis and Clark expedition on July 9, 1806, although there is some debate as to whether it was collected by Meriwether himself or by Captain Clark. After the species was formally described by Frederick Pursh in 1814, the original specimen was lost for nearly a century along with many other historic records. Flax (L. usitatissimum) is among the oldest of all cultivated plants and has been utilized by humans for at least 30,000 years. Here in the Northwest, native peoples used fibers from the stems of L. lewisii to create cordage, string, and textiles and used its seeds to treat all manner of dietary problems, to reduce swelling in wounds and boils, and to remove small, irritating particles from the eye. Learn more about the edible and medicinal uses for L. lewisii here, and learn more about its discovery and discussion in the Lewis and Clark expedition here!

Mentha arvensis “Wild Mint” Lamiaceae

Missoula, MT
July 19, 2015
Robert Niese

Mint is one of the most abundant, easily recognizable plants growing along the banks of Missoula’s rivers this summer – perfect for those on-the-fly, riverside mojitos! Look for its square stems, axillary flowers, and minty aroma!

Chamerion (Epilobium) angustifolium “Fireweed” Onagraceae

Great Burn, Lolo National Forest, MT
July 10, 2015
Robert Niese

 

Unlike its name suggests, Fireweed is hardly a weed! One of the PNW’s most abundant wildflowers, Fireweed holds an important role in nearly every native culture. Its young shoots and leaves are a delicacy to some, and medicinally important to others. Many peoples used fibers torn from its shoots to make rope, and, still today, folks throughout the northern hemisphere use its fluffy seeds as a natural stuffing for pillows.