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Cultural Landscape: Chumash Ethnobotany

The edible IV landscape reflects the people and history it encompasses.  It is a diverse cultivated space with Mexican chayote growing alongside Chinese bok choi while gardeners and foragers from different backgrounds plant their familiar varieties and share tips.  But the history of the edible landscape is much deeper than today’s student food initiatives or the 70s counterculture gardeners of Tipi Village (see Sueño Orchard). Each patch of ground is a reflection of IV culture from past to present.  Looking out over a seemingly “wild” plot of land, there is a historical timeline: from pre-human to Chumash history, from European contact to today’s global plant diaspora. The California landscape has been used by native groups for as long as it has been populated, an estimated thirteen thousand years ago (Timbrook, 2007).  The Chumash of this area used, and still use, the native plants which now grow alongside the diverse array of plant varieties. Our knowledge of native plant use comes from archaeological data and through oral histories passed down through generations and it continues to be studied. Just as eating our landscape allows us to engage with the physical environment in a new way, understanding traditional uses of native plants allows us to engage directly with history and with the people who foraged before us.  Click the link below to watch a video recording on our DIY Ethnobotany Classes page about even more plants the Chumash use!

The Chumash, Isla Vista's First Foragers:

This stretch of California is incredibly diverse with nearly fifteen hundred plant species native to the Chumash region (Timbrook, 2007).  Reflecting this plant diversity, there were over six different Chumash languages spoken, with Barbareño spoken in this area. The Chumash called Isla Vista “Anisq’oyo’,” meaning manzanita (Arctostaphylos), a native shrub-like plant type with edible berries and flowers.  Their livelihoods centered largely around gathering wild plants, fishing and hunting (Timbrook, 2007). Though we often think of early native groups as “one with nature”, not changing or impacting but simply living off of the land, in reality, the Chumash actively engaged with and altered their environment, creating a living artifact which continues to be shaped today.  When the Spanish arrived in California in 1542 they witnessed “tended gardens rich in wildflowers, edible bulbs, and carefully groomed grasslands” (Gamble, 2008) (Reid, et al. 2009). Though the Chumash didn’t practice agriculture in the manicured, geometric rows we think of today, they promoted growth of useful plants through the use of fire and strategic foraging (Timbrook, 2007).  

Chumash Village

Native Taxonomies:

The categories we use to talk about plants are not universal and are, in many cases, arbitrary.  By using the “scientific” system of taxonomy, a lens is often created through which we see the world, inhibiting the understanding of local, equally legitimate  environmental categories. For example, what is a weed?  To us, a weed is any unwanted plant that pops up among our manicured gardens or between sidewalk cracks.  There is nothing that makes these unruly plants weeds except for our aversion toward them.  Many cultural groups have no word, classification or concept of "weeds."  The Chumash people grouped plants in different ways and by different features.  By recognizing these categories as not fixed or universal, but relative to the people by which they are used, we can better understand plants from new perspectives.

What are "Native Plants" and Why Do We Value Them?

There is a tendency to view a stark division between plants that are “native” and “non-native” (introduced) but, like people, plants have moved, blown and grown across boundaries throughout time.  It is more beneficial to think of spectrums or timelines of environments and, while some plants listed may have been “introduced,” they have still played important roles for native people.  Nonetheless, conservation of those plants with a deep history in the area is essential to knowing and preserving our landscape.  According to the UCSC arboretum, one third of California’s native plants are endangered, rare or threatened (2009). This is largely due to overdevelopment of “cultivated” concrete landscapes.  The loss of native plants impacts insect and animal populations and affects the ecology as a whole. Promoting diversity of plant environments which include both native and non-native plants helps preserve the timeline of history and ecological health.

Chumash Plant Uses:

Below are some of the plants used by the Chumash that can be found in Isla Vista and on campus. Visit the map to discover their locations.


Walqaqsh, Common Name: Lemonadeberry (Rhus integrifolia)  

The fruit of the lemonadeberry was ground, laid to dry in the sun, and eaten. It may also have been made into a drink by being soaked in water (Timbrook, 2007: 166).

Khapshikh, Common Name: Sage (Salvia officinalis)  

Sage has a variety of medicinal benefits documented to have been used by the Chumash. To remedy night sweats, sage was brewed in water and drunk before sleep or boiled in milk to aid insomnia (Timbrook, 2007: 184).  Sage tea was also used to sooth the stomach, cleanse the blood and nervous system, and to alleviate symptoms of anemia, colds and flus.

Sto'yots', Common Name: Ice plant (Carpobrotus edulis)  

Ice plant was used by the Chumash but is not a native plant and most likely came from South Africa (Hickman, 1993:128).  The Chumash ate the fruit of the ice plant which are “very sweet-tasting and just a little salty” (Timbrook, 2007:50).

Mal, Common Name: Mallow (Malva parviflora)  

After the arrival of the Spanish and development of the mission agricultural system, many plants were introduced to the area and entered into Chumash use.  Mallow were some of the herbaceous plants that snuck in with the agricultural seeds. They were similar to some of the native plants already used by the Chumash (Timbrook, 1984:146).  The Chumash used mallow to make strings and also adopted its medicinal uses from the Spanish, making a tea for fevers, inflammation and stomach problems (Timbrook, 2007:121)

'Akhiye'p (Ventureño), Common Name: Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)   Chumash Name: ‘akhiye’p (Ventureño)

The Chumash used Rosemary, introduced by the Spanish, in similar ways to the native plant, woolly blue curls (trichostema lanatum).  They would make a tea from the flowers and leaves to aid the stomach or would add the leaves to food for flavoring.  The Chumash also used rosemary as a body and hair cleanser. In oral histories, it has been documented that a tea mixture of rosemary and vinegar or wine was used as an abortifacient (Timbrook, 2007:218)

Works Cited:

Gamble, L. (2008).  The Chumash World at European Contact: Power, Trade and Feasting Among Complex Hunter Gatherers.  [online].  California Scholarship Online.

Reid, S., Wishingrad, V. and McCabe S., (2009).  Plant Uses: California, Santa Cruz.  UC Santa Cruz Arboretum.

Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians, (2009).  Santa Ynez Reservation. [online].

Timbrook, J. (1984).  Chumash Ethnobotany: A Preliminary Report.  Journal of Ethnobiology, Volume 4(2).

Timbrook, J. (2007).  Chumash Ethnobotany: Plant Knowledge Among the Chumash People of Southern California, Berkeley: Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History.

Image by Salah Ait Mokhtar
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