Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Native Plants, Healthy Diet?

In the 1960’s and 70's my father extolled the virtues of the natural food movement popularized by the  generation. Even though at the time I didn’t appreciate the benefits of eating a healthy diet, that soon changed as my palate began to mature with the onset of adulthood.

During those exploratory years I read that people questioning the right diet for themselves could look to the region where they grew up. Refining the idea further, they could also consider areas that 'resonated as home’. The philosophy professed that one’s ideal diet would emulate that which native peoples of that particular region would have eaten. 

At the time I discovered this philosophy I was living in Utah. I began to ponder what my ’home region’ diet would consist of. Hailing from Southern California, it dawned on me that the ideal regional diet for myself would be native Californian, hence California Cuisine.

Upon further research, I realized that California Cuisine was made up of mostly exotic foods endemic to the other four Mediterranean climates. The ideal diet I was seeking would consist of authentic California Cuisine. These sources of sustenance would occur naturally in the mountains, foothills, valleys and coast line of California. I began to ponder that which the indigenous people of California would have included in their diet.

Prior to the arrival of Europeans, the incredibly diverse flora and fauna of California supported fifty two tribes of aboriginal people, the largest population of all the states in the union. Along with traditional lean meats acquired from hunting deer, rabbit, foul and seafood, the original California Cuisine was made up of grains, fruits, acorns, shrubs, succulents, forbs, and the seeds of native grasses and wildflowers.

Today forward-thinking Californians are beginning to realize that they can enjoy the health benefits of authentic California Cuisine right in their own backyards.  There are many plant species available that not only provide aesthetic interest, water savings, and habitat restoration, but provide the very food sources that the indigenous inhabitants included in their healthy and tasteful diets. These plants are easy to grow and make a tasty and interesting addition to the contemporary balanced diet.

As a garden designer specializing in California’s native flora, people often ask my opinion with regard to the ethno-botanical aspect of native plants. Ultimately, site conditions of your home garden will dictate which plants work best, but popular examples of plants that will tempt your taste buds include Miner’s Lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata), Mexican Elderberry (Sambucus mexicana), California Grape (Vitis californica). Seeds of Blue Wildrye (Elymus glaucus), Red Maids (Calandrinia ciliate), Tidy-tips (Layia platyglossa), Goldfields (Lasthenia glabrata) and  Chia (Saliva spp.). Other common favorites for the native garden include Buckwheat (Eriogonum spp.), Artemisia spp., Prunus illicifolia, Ceanothus spp., Purple Needlegrass (Nassella pulchra).

There is so much more than meets the eye in the native garden. We can take a cue from our four-legged and feathered friends as well as our states’ indigenous inhabitants. Look a little deeper and discover some of the nutritious and delicious foods that have been hiding in plain sight, right in our own backyards!

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