Savoring the Hours of Flowers

Photo credit: Kathleen Scavone

Solar-powered flowers of spring and summertime have a way of putting a smile on everyone’s face. It’s comforting to observe the quiet and gentle unfolding of spring each year. I like to look for the ‘usual suspects’: flowers that show up almost like clockwork, such as plentiful poppies in the fields along Lake County highways, or the shade-craving trillium that materialize as stealthily as a grazing deer under the pines, appearing almost prehistoric with three petals and three bracts or modified leaves. Native trillium is understood to be a ‘tri flower’ and is also known as wake-robin. Trillium proliferates in the gentle climates of North America and Asia.

Those who study human culture, or ethnologists tell us that the lands that now make up California were the homeland of over 100  tribes of indigenous people. Being experts on utilizing the abundant flora and fauna, they understood sustainable living and what to eat, how to hunt, and how to respect the land. William Ralganal Benson, a Pomo Indian born in 1862 at Shaxai, now called Buckingham on Clear Lake, is understood to have stated,  “Plants are thought to be alive, their juice is their blood, and they grow. The same is true of trees. All things die, therefore all things have life. Because all things have life, gifts have to be given to all things.”

The gifts that are today’s spring and summer wildflowers often conferred sustenance to indigenous peoples then. A lengthy list known for millennia was well known for food, medicine or materials for hearth and home. Various clovers, mules ears or wild sunflowers, bay laurel or pepperwood nuts, fairy lantern bulbs and more were harvested for their nourishment.  

Miner’s lettuce, a plant easily identified by its round, thick shape and subtle white rosettes can be found in damp, sometimes shady areas. So called because the  miners of the California Gold Rush plucked the plant to  prevent scurvy, since miner’s lettuce is full of vitamin C. Then, it could be consumed as a  leafy vegetable, raw, or cooked like spinach.

Wild Strawberries were well-loved by many indigenous groups. The Kashaya Pomo people were known, then as now, to hold a flower dance at the annual Strawberry Festival. Growing in shaded and wooded areas, these perennials with white flowers,  produce a tiny berry is quite similar to its cultivated cousin in flavor. They were consumed both fresh or dried. This plant’s leaves deliver vitamin C, therefore an enriched tea was consumed, while the roots were utilized medicinally as both a diuretic and for tummy aches. Glenn Keator who wrote “The Complete Garden Guide to the Native Perennials of California”, explained that wild strawberries, or Fragaria, belong to the rose family. Today folks love to garden with large colonies of the plant since they make a great ground cover, or soil stabilizer.

A plant with another delicate, albeit tall flower is the native plant soaproot. This  unassuming low-lying green plant was popularly utilized in a variety of ways by indigenous people. Soaproot is also called soap plant or amole,  is a prolific bulb plant and is related to the lily. You’ve seen it, no doubt, a million times with its narrow, wavy-edged long leaves that hug the ground. In late spring look for its straight stalk growing amidst the center of the leaf rosette and  you may see the white flowers that open up late in the day. These ‘smart plants’ don’t require help from bees or wasps for the  pollination process, but instead, depend upon small night flying beetles, flies or moths. Soaproot was commonly used to fashion strong brushes from the brown fibers that cover its bulb. When the fibers were removed from the bulb, and cleaned of debris, they were formed into various sized bundles for sifting acorn flour. The brush handle was often made from boiled soaproot bulbs. When it was made into a pulp, it could be adhered to the soaproot fibers, then dried. These useful brushes were put to a range of uses by indigenous people. For example, they could be employed for cleaning of baskets, mortars and pestles.  

Soaproot took its name because it was used to produce a type of soap. First, the bulb was crushed, then combined with water for a foamy cleaner. Soaproot’s other traditional uses included a formulation to stun fish in a dammed creek, and its bulb was also cooked and eaten.

Whether you are marveling at the gentle, delicate spirits of  flowers such as meadow foam, Mariposa lilies,  or California goldfields let these ‘songs in the fields’ lure you to visit their fragile and fleeting beauty!

The California Native Plant Society has a Lake County chapter called Sanhedrin with a list of some of our wildflowers.

To aid in identifying flowers, many of which are California native plants,  be sure to see Six Sigma Winery’s flower list.

Kathleen Scavone

Kathleen Scavone, MA., is a retired educator who has resided in beautiful Lake County for over 45 years. She freelances fiction, poetry, nature writing, curriculum ideas, and local history. She writes for The Press Democrat, Napa Valley Register, News From Native California, Green Prints, etc. She has published three books, a play and a poetry chapbook. The second edition of her locally set historical novella, People of the Water- a novella of the events leading to the Bloody Island Massacre of 1850 is available in local museums and stores, as well as on Amazon.com and IngramSpark in both paperback and e-book formats. She has written Anderson Marsh State Historic Park- A Walking History, Prehistory, Flora and Fauna tour of a California State Park, and Native Americans of Lake County. Kathleen is a photographer and potter. Her other interests include hiking, assisting on archaeology digs, travel, gardening and reading.

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