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California native plants provided abundant food for the Indigenous people of the region. This bounty grew out of a reciprocal relation California’s Indigenous communities cultivated with the plants, depending on the plants for nutrition while honoring native plants through daily practices and seasonal song and ceremony to show respect and help care for them. So the traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) of Indigenous Californians provides us with rich resources for edible California native plant gardening while also suggesting ways to develop respectful relations with our native plant relatives.
Yet many are not accustomed to approaching native California plants as food sources. So gardening for food with these plants requires some creativity and a willingness to adapt and learn from Southern California Indigenous people who know the land so well.
Nina House is a Botany masters student at the California Botanic Garden who was awarded a student grant by CNPS San Gabriel Mountains Chapter in 2020. Her thesis is a floristic inventory of two remote and rugged watersheds in the southern Sierra Nevada. While documenting many rare, threatened, and endemic plant species in the mountain meadows and conifer forests of her study site, she has observed the devastating impacts of large wildfires and severe drought.
When the wildfires were blazing in late 2020, I felt shocked and powerless, but personally impacted as I watched ashes fall from the sky here in Pasadena. My reflex as a science teacher was to educate about the California native plants in relation to climate change. With cartooning as the media and genre that I teach in now, the challenge is to condense science education, relevance, and entertainment into brief sequential boxes (panels, in cartoon speak).
Readers may recall the “Notes from the hillside” articles I wrote for The Paintbrush newsletter during the years I carried out a weekly survey of native flowers on the hillside from 2013 to 2019. Regardless of annual conditions, watching the annual floristic cycle was a treat every year.
Having lived here since the mid-1980s, I have rainfall records covering the period 1987 through 2021. These show a major decline in rainfall, with an especially noticeable reduction in the past 5 to 10 years.
The impact is typified by the state of the one specimen of coastal wood fern that I know of on these hillsides. For the first time during my observations, this year the fronds totally collapsed and have mostly withered to almost nothing. The coming winter rains will hopefully revive it.
I find myself wondering whether, if the rainfall trend continues, we may see permanent changes. There might even be changes that are difficult to reverse when and if better regular rainfall resumes.