Ohlone Uses of Native Plants of San Pedro Park
by Shirley Drye

TULE,Bulrush Scripus spp. Cyperaceae

tule,_Bulrush_Scirpus_spp._Cyperaceae.jpgHerbaceous perennial. .. Brown flowers in bloom June-September. The sedges, like the rushes, are a large, variable family found in marshes and other wet sites. Both families are grasslike, but sedges are characterized by their thick, triangular three-sided stems; rushes are round. At the pond, dense stands of Tule grow directly in the water. Growing 6-9 feet tall Tule is one of the most abundant plants at the pond (or marsh). Trailside Plants of Ano Nuevo,by Karen De Lapp, Ano Nuevo Interpretive Association, 1986. ... Scirpus acutus ... Hardstem Bulrush ... in freshwater habitats and in ponds or seeps at the edge of salt marshes ... Plants of the San Francisco Bay Region, Mendocino to Monterey, by Eugene N. Kostoff and Linda H. Beidleman, Sagen Press, Pacific Press, California, 1994.


We always refer to this plant as "tule" In other parts of the country it is bulrush. I included the above references to point out two characteristics: one, it grows in both freshwater and saltwater marshes, but in saltwater marshes, its growth tends to be at the edge, and, two, "sedges are wedges and rushes are round." (A little mnemonic device to help you remember!) In deed, the tule sedge is triangular in shape. It is so easy for us to believe that Mother Nature works only in soft edges!

The Ohlone people used the tules to thatch their dwellings, their boats, their acorn silos, and to make string and rope, seating pads, and even rain capes. A tule mat is very comfortable to sit on. The tule is filled with a Styrofoam-like center which makes it ideal for seating.

We built a tule house at the Sanchez Adobe several years ago, and in spite of our struggling, amateurish effort, it was never wet inside and lasted for several years before a severe winter storm from the south west blew it away. The Ohlone people would bum their dwellings every year or so as they became infested wjth fleas. The logistics of gathering and preparing the willow poles and tules was daunting, but if all materials were ready and all family members were helping, a 10-to-12-foot diameter house could be erected in a day.


This is the plant for string making.

indian-hemp.jpgINDIAN HEMP, Apocynum cannabinum (Dogbane family)

The erect stem has ascending pairs of long broad lancelike leaves. The small bell-like flowers are in scattered cymes along the stem, pink to white. Damp flats below 5000 feet. Pacific States. A FIELD GUIDE TO PACIFIC STATES WILDFLOWERS, The Peterson Field Guide Series. Text by Theodore F. Niehaus. Illustrations by Charles L. Ripper.


This is not cannabis (marijuana).

Another text describes its habitat as wet ditches alongside fields, and this is where I have seen it both times I had the good fortune to see it growing. If you want to view it, go to Filoli. Ask for a nature walk and ask to see the Indian Hemp. In the past I traded with Author-Ranger Bev Ortiz, hemp for olivella shells (which I have in abundance living on the ocean), and at Filoli, I gave a workshop in exchange for hemp. People who have a source are secretive about where it is because sharing the information reads to depletion of the source. Incidentally, the Ohlone used the Olivella shells to make jewelry.

This is one of THE PRIME PLANTS USED IN THE ART OF MAKING STRING AND ROPE by the Ohlone people. I am a string maker, and it is my favorite, although I do like milkweed fibre, but milkweed does not grow on the coast, and I try to stay true to my habitat's sources. Since the Ohlone did engage in trade, when I visit my Ohlone friends, I sometimes trade shells for milkweed, in the spririt of their lifeways.

Counting sticks can also be made from the slender withes of creek willow: 1/4" to 1/3" diameter about 8 inches long. A naturalist friend at Filoli told me about someone using mugwort. She says they make a musical sound when they are dropped.

When our local mule deer grow new antlers each year, the new antlers are covered with "velvet," either green or brown. I learned that this velvet does not drop off but that the deer must scrape it off. My source said the deer scraped it off on trees. It is conjectured that it must be somewhat painful since the antlers will show a web of soft tissue and blood during the time they are working to remove the velvet.

I thought to myself that some evidence of this scraping should show on trees, and I sat about examining all our trees. Not a one showed any signs of this until I took a look at our Creek willow. There it was, shagged and scarred bark everywhere I looked. These clever creatures must know that this precious tree contains something that relieves the pain associated with their efforts to remove the velvet. The Ohlone knew this, too, and would make a willow bark tea for fever or pain. I chewed just plain bark one day, and my headache disappeared!

The Ohlone people also knew how to make the Creek willow grow to meet their needs. Each year, they would "copice" their creek willows (cut them down somewhat above the ground), and next season's growth would provide them with the fine straight withes they used all over California to make their beautiful baskets. By husbanding the growth of the willows, they also produced the larger poles for their house frames.

Willow (Salix)

Willows to survive must grow in well-watered areas--streambanks, wet meadows, springs ... or arroyos. There is great similarity in the appearance of our (various) species ... The different species of willows ... whether trees or shrubs, are not easy to tell apart. The male and the female flowers are borne on separate plants and come before ... the leaves. Both kinds of flowers are in ...catkins ...The leaves are alternate ...typical leaf shape approaches a narrow elipse ...

The Arroyo willow (S.lasiolepis) (what I call Creek Willow) is BY FAR THE MOST COMMON WILLOW THROUGHOUT THE BAY REGION and with Scouler Willow the only ones on which the catkins appear before the leaves. The underside of the leaf is consistently paler than the upper side.

The Scouler Willow (S. scouleriana) can be classed as a shrub, but sometimes within the limits of the Bay counties is a white-barked tree 30 feet high. The leaves are always broadest above the middle ...The undersurface may have silvery hairs or be covered with a whitish bloom. (NATIVE SHRUBS OF THE SAN FRANCISCO BAY REGION by Roxana S. Ferris.)

If they have more pointed ends, wider bases, and rolled-under margins, it is ARROYO WILLOW, Salix lasiolepis. (PACIFIC COAST TREE FINDER by Tom Watts.)

If the leaves have mostly rounded ends and narrowly tapered bases, it is SCOULER WILLOW, Salix scouleriana.


It is fairly challenging to identify family and genus much less species in the Willow family. I actually refer to everything as "Creek Willow" when we are seeing perhaps three species.

To the best of my knowledge, all of the local varieties provided the Ohlone with withes for basket making, poles for tule houses and boats, acilicin (aspirin) in the bark, and when the sap is up, bark for lashing house frames, and fiber for string making.

We also used the above two plants to make game sticks (see above). I think willow makes the best. It is harder to split, but I had equally good luck with the putty knife and hammer method.

If the undersides of the leaves are covered with velvety, white hair, it is SITKA WILLOW, SILKY WILLOW, Salix sitchensis.

If the leaves have mostly rounded ends and narrowly tapered bases, it is SCOULER WILLOW, Salix scouleriana.

If they have more pointed ends, wider bases, and rolled-under margins, it is ARROYO WILLOW Salix lasiolepis.

The plants used to make whistles or flutes and game sticks and counting sticks is Elderberry.

Sambucus callicarpa

Red Elderberry, Music bush (Honeysuckle Family--Caprifoliaceae)

LEAVES: Elders can grow either as shrubs, or as small trees to ten feet tall. The light-green compound leaves are divided into five to eleven leaflets. The leaves are opposite each other, and have slightly serrated margins.

FLOWERS: The small, white flowers grow in ... conical clusters of two to six inches across. The flowers are followed by small 1/8-to 1/4-inch red berries ... The red berries are not recommended for food, some having bitter and toxic qualities ... The berries rippen around late summer. <Early summer on the S.F. Peninsula> (GUIDE TO WILD FOODS, Third Revised Edition by Christopher Nyerges.)

Red_Elderberry.JPGRed Elderberry has red berries in pyramidal clusters, and grows over 6 feet tall ... Blue Elderberry, Sambucus microbotrys, has blue berries in flat-topped clusters. (PACIFIC COAST BERRY FINDER, by Glenn Keator, Ph.D.) The Blue Elderberry also have a leaf less than half the size of the Red. The two bushes look very much alike until you notice the distinctive difference in leaf size, and, of course, if they are in berry, the difference in color.


Most references comment on the possible toxicity of Red Elderberries, so it would be best not to try to eat them in any form. The Blue Elderberries are edible--I have fixed them in fairly heavy sugar and the references I have, say they are edible, but a couple say "danger suspected but unproved." This is just for your information.

Last season I ate a couple red ones, forgetting about toxicity. It tasted okay, not real sweet, and guess what? No reaction at all!

The Ohlone people called Elderberry the "music bush." The Elderberry wood has a soft thick center pith. The Ohlone hollowed out branch segments and made whistles or flutes of them. The ohlone also made the playing sticks for their games. The bark was peeled in a pattern, and the stick was then held in the fire to darken the peeled areas. The remainder of the bark was then removed leaving the burned design in place. For making game sticks I know of no reason why we could not use both bushes. Red is what grows on the Adobe grounds. I regularly see the Blue Elderberry bushes back in San Pedro Valley Park. The distinctive difference in the two is in the size of the leaves and the color of the berries. Leaves of the Blue are smaller and daintier. The Filoli grounds contain lots of blue.

Splitting the sticks to make game sticks requires a little skill. We can use a pocket knife, but use a great deal of care to get a straight even split. One friend uses a sharp putty knife and hammer with very good results. The Ohlone people were, of course, skilled at their technology which we clumsily attempt to replicate!

Blue Elderberry

Sambucus caerulea & S.mexicana has blue benJies in flal-Iopped clusters '

Red Elderberry

S. callicarpa has red berries in pyramidal clusters, and grows over 6 feet tall


My handout covers four common and highly visible native California plants: soap root, elderberry, creek willow, Indian hemp and tule.

The plant used to make soaproot is:

Soap_Root_Leaves.jpgChlorogalum pomeridianum (Lily Family--Liliaceae)

Soap Plant, Amole, Indian Soap Root, Wavy-Leaf Soap Plant

Large basal rosette of wavy-margined linear leaves. The white linear flower petals with green or purple midveins are often completely curled. It has a single stout and leafless branching flower stem. Flowers open in the early evening and close in the morning ... 1-4 ft. (Peterson's A FIELD GUIDE TO PACIFIC STATES WILDFLOWERS, Neihaus & Ripper.)

Soaap_Root_Blosoms.jpgThe bottle-shaped bulb is deep set in the ground and covered with coarse brown fibers. The bulb may be roasted with the fibers in place, then peeled and eaten, or peeled and boiled and then eaten. The small, young green shoots may be slowly baked or steamed to provide a good nourishing green. The young, fresh green leaves may be eaten raw.

For a cleansing soap, strip off the fibers and crush the heart of the bulb in water; rub vigorously to produce a good lather. This preparation also makes a good shampoo and leaves the hair soft and glossy, and is said to be good for removing dandruff.

The crushed green plant, including the root, can be used in streams to stupify fish, but must be used in quantity.

Habitat and Distribution: Amole is found on dry hills and plains, sometimes in open woods from Southern Oregon to southern California ... (WILD EDIBLE PLANTS OF WESTERN NORTH AMERICA, Donald R. Kirk.)


The above information was taken from reference books in my personal library. What it lacks is the folk knowledge gained from gathering and processing the plant over a number of years.

Some years, to my dismay, the fibres surrounding the soap root bulb have been short as opposed to the up-to-12 inch long fibres I often find. I talked to our County of San Mateo Park Rangers, to Norm Kidder and others, and my surmise that the weather plays a role in fibre length was born out: the fibres hold moisture in the bulb during dry periods and either rot away in wet years or moist landscape and do not grow as long.

Gather anytime after January, but not during the blooming season in April and May. In January, you will find the plant with small leaves, low growing--close to the ground. One of the above authors speaks of eating the young fresh green leaves, and our deer surely know what he is talking about. In January and February the plants will have stubs of leaves with the ends shredded where the deer have eaten them.

In my park, San Pedro Valley Park in Pacifica, our Valley View Trail has the densest growth of Soap Root along the uphill trail. Over the years I have discovered that the deer will knock soap root out of the uphill scarp, stomp the fibres to remove the bulb, and then eat the bulb. I regularly show visitors all the fibres impressed into the trail earth by the deer extracting the bulb.

Book authors write as if their information is set, like the ten commandments, in stone. I have never seen any mention of seasonal variations or harvesting information. The truth is that plants vary from year to year in profusion and hardiness. Like the oak trees who some years do not produce acorns. I think it has to do with soil nutrients and weather. It stands to reason that if a plant flourishes one year, it may have depleted its favorite nutrient and will experience a more sparse growth following years until that nutrient is replenished. This is an observation of mine over the past 30 years.