This past week-end, July 9–10, I photographed the Native Plants for Food & Utilitarian Purposes class at Idyllwild Arts Center taught by a group of stellar teachers, including Craig Torres, Tongva educator and plant specialist in the photo below; Daniel McCarthy, U.S. Forest Service Tribal Relations Program Manager; and Abe Sanchez, master basketweaver and native foods chef. Renowned Tongva elder and plant specialist Barbara Drake, in the photo above, was scheduled to teach the class, but she was called away by a family emergency. Lorene Sisquoc, Cahuilla/Apache teacher who has led the class with Barbara for several years, joined us on Sunday to share her wisdom and knowledge of plants and cultural practices, and to sing four beautiful Native songs with Craig to end a spectacular weekend. Click on this link for images from Barbara Drake and Lorene Sisquoc’s Native Plants for Food and Medicine Class at Idyllwild Arts 2010 Click on this link for images from Barbara Drake and Lorene Sisquoc’s Native Plants for Food and Medicine Class at Idyllwild Arts 2009 We particularly missed Barbara’s warm and welcoming presence. Craig told us how it was Barbara who first inspired his interest in the Tongva cultural revitalization when he was in his early 20’s. For Craig, participating in and teaching about native plants, foods, and cultural practices is a “way to alleviate some of my anger about people not knowing who we are, who we were, and I channel it into educating. Barbara was the one who inspired me. Barbara and Cindi Alvitre and Lori Sisquoc.” Abe connected the workshop to the Slow Food Movement: the rejection of the industrialized food chain and all that it represents: the transnational corporations’ control of seeds, the production of genetically modified foods, and the promotion of unsustainable agricultural practices damaging to all species and the earth that sustains us. Slow Food, an international movement founded in 1986 in Italy, is also a rejection of fast foods and our even faster multi-tasking lifestyles. The Slow Food Movement promotes local and sustainable organic agricultural practices, farmers’ markets, CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture), and the creation of seed banks to help preserve biodiversity, among their other ethically and ecologically-driven goals. The week-end workshop was a celebration of California native foods. Above are  stinging nettle leaves wild-gathered by students on the grounds of the Idyllwild Arts campus, then stir-fried with garlic, onions, tomato, and cilantro. Abe promotes what one might call a native-strong cuisine: native foods as the primary ingredient, but joined with other foods for added nutritional value, flavor, and beauty. For Craig, Daniel, Abe, Lori, and Barbara, the act of eating has social, political, ecological, and spiritual ramifications. What we eat, therefore, can exacerbate the degradation of the health and well-being of ourselves and our planet, or can contribute to the transformation and healing of all of us. Below are stir-fried yucca blossoms Abe had gathered in the spring from Yucca whipplei plants, and frozen to store for future use. The students stir-fried the blossom on the classroom’s outdoor camping stoves, adding tomatoes, garlic, onions, and cilantro. All of the teachers wild gather native plants for food and medicine. Several times throughout the weekend, Craig emphasized the importance of cultivating a deep relationship with the plants that one wild gathers:

When we harvest plants, there’s a certain protocol and etiquette to follow, and it’s very important to do this. You never take more than you can use to survive on Mother Earth. You always respect the plants, because without them, we wouldn’t be here. And you always give back. So when we harvest these plants, we develop relationships with them.

We leave offerings and we pray to the plants. We ask them for their medicine and for their healing before we take them, because that’s a big part of our connection to the land. As you do that over time, you begin to develop a relationship to the plants that you wouldn’t otherwise have. . . .

The students also gathered wild rose petals to top a salad of dandelion greens, mustard greens, and watercress. For the workshop, the three greens were purchased, but they can be gathered in this region at certain times of the year, along with lambsquarters, mallow, Indian lettuce, and other wild greens. The salad above is inspired by Barbara and Lori’s wild salad recipes. At the evening of the first day of the workshop, we had the opportunity to travel to three different rock sites in Idyllwild with Daniel, an expert not only in the harvesting and preparation of Native foods, but also the archaeology of the region. Some of the students and teachers photographed the pictographs in the fading light. Other students, such as Fernando Lemus below, made drawings. The next morning, everyone arrived early for Abe’s demonstration of tortilla making. These tortillas were special: prickly pear cactus tortillas, stinging nettle tortillas, and mesquite tortillas. Below, Abe is encouraging all of us to make our own tortillas starting with masa, or corn flour, that can be purchased at any major supermarket in our region. Then comes adding the blended prickly pear cactus pads to the masa. Prickly pear pads, or nopales, are not only delicious. They’re packed with nutrients and help to lower blood sugar levels.

Craig spoke eloquently of the importance of incorporating native foods into his own diet, because it’s a way for him”

to establish a relationship with these plants and to connect me to my culture. That’s why I feel it’s so important for me to do this. And to bring it back to our people, to our communities, for our health.

Diabetes and other auto-immune diseases run rampant in our communities. We need to develop these relationships with these plants, and that’s what we’re doing here today. That’s what this is all about.

While Abe is busy demonstrating his innovative tortillas, Craig show students how to make chia candy. Featured on Dr. Oz and Oprah, chia is incredibly popular now as the health food industry continues to discover what indigenous people of California and Mexico have known for centuries, that chia is a superfood, an “exceptional and unique low-calorie source of Omega-3 fatty acids, dietary fiber, antioxidants, complete protein, iron, calcium and magnesium.”

Craig roasts the chia seeds, adds pumpkin and sunflower seeds, raisins, dried blueberries and cranberries, heats up agave nectar, and combines it all to make his delicious chia candy. Above, Holly Owens is helping to divide up the trays of chia seed candy into squares. For the class, Craig purchased a readily available and relatively inexpensive, cultivated variety of chia: Salvia hispanica. The chia native to southern California is Salvia columbariae, a wild chia that grows on precipitious hillsides. It’s quite labor-intensive to gather, and with all of the development and habitat destruction, it’s increasingly rare to find in the wild. You can check out a video of gathering Salvia columbariae seeds here. For my daily dose of chia,@ 2 T, I purchase the cultivated variety online at The Raw Food World. It’s a busy day. Next, the students have an unscheduled opportunity to observe how prickly pear cactus pads and chia seeds can also serve as medicine. When one of the Idyllwild Arts staff is bitten by a deer fly, Lori, a gifted teacher with an extensive knowledge of the medicinal uses of the local native plants, quickly improvises a group of little poultices from split-open prickly pear pieces (these were already chopped for the nopales salad), and applies chia seeds as well to help reduce the swelling and inflammation. For Lori, Craig, Daniel, Abe, and Barbara, sharing is a way of life. The workshop inspired all of us to embrace a combination of native, wild gathered, and local, sustainably produced foods, and to cultivate a deeper and more profound relationship to the plants, animals and earth that sustain all species. Thank you Daniel, Lori, Abe, Craig, and Idyllwild Arts!!

Posted by deborah small


  1. Hi there just wanted to give you a quick heads up and let you
    know a few of the pictures aren’t loading properly.
    I’m not sure why but I think its a linking issue. I’ve tried
    it in two different internet browsers and both show the same outcome.



  2. I would love to attend a class like this! I am a chef of Mexican and Native foods but could really use knowledge on indigenous plants and recipes. Great work! Love Love This!!!!



    1. deborah small May 3, 2014 at 3:01 pm

      They’re teaching a class again this summer July 5-6 at Idyllwild Summer Arts:
      click on
      Native Plants:
      Contemporary and Traditional Uses
      for a description of this years class.
      I’m sure Barbara Drake, Craig Torres, Abe Sanchez, and Daniel Mccarthy would love to see you at their workshop.



  3. great pics Deb!



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