Bracken Fern

Whenever they lived near the mouth of the river, in the bay, they had lots of food.

     They had dried salmon,  and likewise (dried) fern roots, which they ate during the winter.

             They ate fern-roots (mostly).

Thus the people did during the winter.

     Springbank clover likewise they ate in the winter.

            And skunk-cabbage too, was eaten in the winter-time; also kinnikinnick-berries were eaten.

Such was the food of the people belonging to the past.

—Louisa Smith, Lower Umpqua/Siuslaw


Hanis: ɫkwa (rhizome); ɫk’wɪ´tɪmɫ (plant, ferns in general)

Milluk: ɫq’wa (rhizome); ɫq’watɪ´mɫ (plant)

Siuslaw: yauxa (rhizome)

Alsea: húúlhum

Tillamook: sa’aq (rhizome), ch’allashii (plant)

Upper Coquille: siisaq’ (rhizome)

Bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum) is a fern found around the world – depending on which botanist you ask. Some botanists divide Pteridium into other species or subspecies, but however they are classified botanically, these ferns found in Eurasia, the Americas and Polynesia are similar. And they have been valued in many cultures. In parts of China, Korea and Japan the spring fiddleheads (the new fronds that emerge in spring) are a traditional food. Among indigenous people of America and Aotearoa (New Zealand), the rhizomes (roots) are more often eaten than the fiddleheads. In spite of this plants long history in numerous cultures as a food, it does hold some dangers for humans and animals.

For one, eating the greens past the early fiddlehead stage can be fatal for humans and livestock. The fronds contain an enzyme, thiaminase, that destroyed thiamine (vitamin B1). As for fiddleheads themselves, they contain a carcinogenic compound called ptaquiloside. However, how much of the compound is in any one fiddlehead can vary a lot – some populations in New Zealand were found not to contain it at all. The compound is also destroyed by both cold and hot temperatures. Many traditions around the world soak fiddleheads in changes of cold salt water, then cooked, so in all likelihood most ptaquiloside is destroyed. Even so, the recommendation is not too eat too many fiddleheads in any one year, just in case.

In western Oregon, curiously, most Native people did not eat fiddleheads, only the rhizomes (roots). Lottie Evanoff (Hanis Coos) commented on how pioneers ate fiddleheads, often with cream gravy, but Indians never did that. So far as I have been able to find, along the coast (Athabaskan, Coos, Siuslaw, Lower Umpqua, Alsea, and Tillamook) only the rhizomes were eaten. The one exception I have found is one source states Kalapuyans ate fiddleheads after rubbing the woolly coatings off in addition to eating the rhizomes. These plants were a staple food in western OR and in the rest of the Pacific Northwest where these ferns grow (which is quite a lot of regions).

The rhizomes were generally dug up in the fall to as late as December, and sometimes also in the spring (depending on the culture). They were baked on hot stones, coals or in earth ovens. The starchy roots were pounded and a black ‘string’ inside was removed (you can see a picture of the black ‘string’ at ArcadianAbe’s site). The starch could be pressed into cakes.


Barnett, Homer G. 1934. Indian Tribes of the Oregon Coast. National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC.

Batdorf, Carol. 1980. The Feast is Rich. Whatcom Museum of History & Art. Bellingham, WA.

Boyd, Robert, ed. 1999. Indians, Fire and the Land in the Pacific Northwest. Oregon State University Press, Corvallis OR.

Drucker, Phillip. 1933. Ethnographic Field Notes. Office of Anthropology Archives, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC.

Gunther, Erna. 1973. Ethnobotany of Western Washington: The Knowledge and Use of Indigenous Plants by Native Americans. University of Washington Press, Seattle.

Harrington, John P. 1942. Alsea, Siuslaw, Coos, Southwest Oregon Athapaskan: Vocabularies, Linguistic Notes, Ethnographic and Historical Notes. John Peabody Harrington Papers, Alaska/Northwest Coast, in National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC.

Jacobs, Elizabeth. 2003. The Nehalem Tillamook: An Ethnography, edited by William Seaburg. OSU Press, Corvallis, OR.

Jacobs, Melville. 1932-34. Coos Ethnologic Notes, Notebooks 91-99, 101, Jacobs Collection, University of Washington Archives, Seattle.

Juntunen, Judy Rycraft, May Dash, Anne Bennett Rogers. The World of the Kalapuya: A Native People of Western Oregon. 2005. Benton CountyHistorical Society & Museum. Philomath OR

Turner, Nancy. 1997. Food Plants of Interior First Peoples.

Posted in Alsea, Coos, Lower Umpqua, Siuslaw, Tillamook, Uncategorized, Upper Coquille | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Washington document for ethnobotany reference

Washington State Dept. of Transportation has compiled a document on ethnobotany. Since many of the plants and cultural uses are similar to that of western Oregon, I thought I’d include a link here for any one interested.

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Madrone tree trunk with peeling bark, in Rogue River State Park

Madrone (Arbutus menziesii) is a native tree of the far west, and a member of the Heath (Ericaceae) family. Like many of its cousins, the manzanitas (genus Arctostaphylos) one of its notable characteristics is that it sheds its bark. It is a striking tree, with smooth orangey to red trunk, but no one knows why it does this.

I have found almost no information on Native uses of madrone in Oregon, though there are several reported for several California tribes, and some in Canada. Francis Johnson (Takelma) described a tree that sounds very much like madrone, she called it ts’asap. The berries are ripe in fall and people ate some of them when ripe.

In California, the Costanoan people of the bay area,Concow Maidu and Karuk also ate the ripe berries. The Karuk also used the berries as a bait for steelhead fishing. Many more people used parts of the tree to make medicine – the Cahuilla used the leaves to treat stomach ailments, the Cowichan (Coast Salish) made an infusion of the bark for cuts, wounds, and a treatment for diabetes. Miwok people used the cider from the berries to treat stomach troubles.


Harrington, John P. 1942. Alsea, Siuslaw, Coos, Southwest Oregon Athapaskan: Vocabularies, Linguistic Notes, Ethnographic and Historical Notes. John Peabody Harrington Papers, Alaska/Northwest Coast, in National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC.

Moerman, Daniel E. 1998. Native American Ethnobotany. Timber Press. Portland, OR.



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Ancient wapato garden

This is an interesting article in the Vancouver Sun, about an ancient wapato garden in British Columbia.  Along with works like Kat Anderson’s “Tending the Wild” and Deur and Turner (eds) “Keeping it Living”, this is more evidence for indigenous horticulture in the far west.

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Kalapuyan seasonal rounds

My friend & Grand Ronde scholar David Lewis has an interesting post up on the seasonal rounds of Kalapuyan peoples:

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Elk Clover


Elk Clover in bloom, July 7 2016, headwaters of Sonoma Creek, Sugarloaf Park


Big leaves – some as long as my hand

A plant known as ‘elk clover’ (a funny name as the leaves look nothing like clover, but perhaps it got the name from the general shape of its flowers) or ‘California spikenard’ is a forb found in shady forests near streams in California and southwestern Oregon, although there are several populations reported growing in or near the western Cascades east of Eugene and Corvallis which is rarely noted in botanical field guides. And in my copy of the old 1934 field guide by Haskins, the book’s previous owner noted in its pages she saw the plant at Silver Creek Falls.  Its scientific name is Aralia californica and is a member of the Ginseng family.  It is only one of two members of this family native to Oregon (the other being the notoriously spiney devil’s club, Oplopanax horridus).

It has huge leaves – which herbalist Michael Moore described as looking like ‘Elderberries on growth hormone’ which is an apt description.  Its small white flowers bloom in summer which become small dark berries.  The plant can reach heights of three meters, but it isn’t a woody shrub, it’s an unusually tall forb which dies back every fall.  I picked some of its leaves – it has a strong smell a bit hard to describe.  My daughter said it smelled like rattlesnake beans taste – the leaves do have a freshly picked greenbean herbaceous smell.  The plant was used medicinally by many California tribes.  Usually the roots were used to make the medicine, and this is the part used by contemporary herbalists as well.  Michael Moore described the roots as ‘gensinglike’ and “The fleshy roots taste balsamic and bittersweet.”

In California’s Sonoma county, the Kashaya Pomo called this plant siṭ’abá•ti’ and people boiled the root to make a medicine for external application only, for sores and itchy skin.  The roots were gathered in July and August.

The Karuk people also made a decoction of roots as a soak for arthritis (although some people disliked the smell of the plant and preferred not to use it).  Many tribes in Mendocino county used the roots to make a decoction to treat colds, fevers, stomach problems, and tuberculosis.

So far, I have found no mention in ethnographic sources for Oregon tribes that mention elk clover.  However, I suspect that many southwestern Oregon tribes (and maybe the Kalapuya and Mollala as well) were familiar with it just as our California cousins to the south were, and knew it as a medicine.



Haskin, Leslie. 1934. Wild Flowers of the Pacific Coast. Binfords, and Mort, Portland, OR.

Kozloff, Eugene N. 1983. Seashore Life of the Northern Pacific Coast: An Illustrated Guide to Northern California, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia. University of Washington Press, Seattle.

Moerman, Daniel E. 1998. Native American Ethnobotany. Timber Press. Portland, OR.

Moore, Michael. 1993 Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West. Red Crane Books, Santa Fe, NM.

Schenk, Sara M. and E. W. Gifford. 1952.  Anthropological Records 13:6: Karok Ethnobotany. University of California Press.

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Pineapple weed

Matricaria discoidea (M. matricarioides)

Image of pineapple weed above from

Pineapple weed is commonly found in ‘weedy’ places in North America – in parking lots, well trod paths, and similar places.  It is part of the Aster family & its scientific name is Matricaria disoidea although in some older sources it is identified in the Chamomile genus, Chamomilla.  Pineapple weed gets its name because if you pick the plant and crush it, it smells rather like pineapple.  Like its cousin chamomile, pineapple weed can be used to make tea.  There are many sources online that describe how to gather and make tea from pineapple weed such as here, here and here.  As usual, if collecting  outside one’s garden make sure they are ‘clean’ plants – using plants from a heavily used parking lot is likely not a good idea!  One could also probably make a planter of them or put them in the garden, but be aware they can be a bit ‘weedy’ and may start growing in places you would rather they did not.  On the plus side, they will grow in places other plants might struggle and ‘fill in’ difficult places in a garden or yard.

I had always assumed that pineapple weed as an introduced plant.  I was surprised to find it mentioned in a book on Lewis and Clark that they collected it two centuries ago somewhere in their travels in ID and MT.  In trying to track down sources on this plant, I have found conflicting accounts – some, like list it as native, while the USFS site lists it nationwide as introduced.  Eugene Kozloff’s “Plants of Western Oregon, Washington & British Columbia” list it as ‘probably native’.  If it is an introduced plant, it seems to have arrived before European settlement in the Pacific Northwest.

Looking up the plant in Moerman’s “Native American Ethnobotany” there are numerous peoples from Alaska to Oklahoma who made teas from this plant, from tribes as diverse as Aleut, Costanoan, Cherokee and Chumash.  Most cultures regarded the tea as medicinal – often as a medicine for various gastrointestinal tract upsets, some as a treatment for fevers.  Some Native Alaskan peoples put the pleasant smelling plant in sweat baths.  In Nancy Turner’s “Food Plants of Interior First Peoples” she notes that Okanagan children used to eat the flower tops.  Ktunaxa and Stl’atl’imx people would hang the plants up as an air freshener, or put them in pillows.

To date, I haven’t found any documented traditional use of pineapple weed for western Oregon tribes.  But given that it was well known in so many other places in the west, it seems likely at least some tribes did – as a tea, or possibly in sweat lodges.  Certainly today there are people who still like to use it as a tea, by itself or in a blend with other herbal teas.


Earle, Scott A. and James Reveal.  2003.  Lewis and Clark’s Green World: The Expedition and its Plants.  Farcountry Press, Helena MT.

Kozloff, Eugene.  Plants of Western Oregon, Washington & British Columbia. Timber Press, Portland OR. 2005.

Moerman, Daniel.  1998. Native American Ethnobotany.  Timber Press, Portland OR.

Turner, Nancy.  1997. Food Plants of Interior First Peoples. UBC PRess, Vancouver BC.



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