Digging our Geophytes

Kat HighBy Kat High      June 25, 2021

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Digging our Geophytes
California Indians have been called, in a derogatory way, “Digger Indians,” due to the misconception that we were impoverished, digging with sticks to find something to eat. Instead, what they were seeing was a technique of managing and gathering geophytes, plants with underground storage organs. Today, we find them in grocery stores as carrots, potatoes, and onions, and in flowers like daffodils, hyacinths, and tulips. Native Americans found theirs in the soil, plants such as blue camas, soaproot, Indian onions, blue dicks, and Mariposa lilies, and gathered them so there would be plenty for the current season, as well as for future seasons. We have a philosophy of interaction with our native plants. We only go gathering when we are in the proper mind, with a song in the heart, giving thanks to Creator, to the plants and creatures that are necessary for our survival. We have a saying that defines our plants and animals as “Relatives, not Resources.” Here are some of our uses of geophytes. Soaproot or soaplily (Chlorogalum pomeridianum)—Small bulbs that can be roasted or boiled for a vegetable dish. The bulb could also be powdered and sprinkled on water to stun fish and bring them to the surface. The fiberous outer covering was formed into a brush by boiling the bulb to use as a glue for a handle, then used to brush acorn flour out of a mortar into a leaching tray. Blue camas (Camassia quamash [Pursh] Greene)—The corms were gathered and roasted with meat in earth ovens. It is important to note, however, that the bulbs resemble those of their close relatives, the Death Camas, which, as its name suggests, is extremely toxic. In order to assure proper identification, the bulbs are best harvested when the plant is in bloom. Source: American Indian Health and Diet Project (AIHDP) (aihd.ku.edu/oods/blue_camus.html) Wild red onions—used to flavor meat dishes. Blue dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum)—Corms were eaten raw, boiled, or roasted in ashes. Despite relatively intensive an-nual gathering, populations of geo-phytes remained robust. This was due in part to the gatherers’ aware-ness of harvesting methods and how they affected the plant’s regenera-tion and the overall health of the habitat. Always thinking about the harvest into the future, tribes made sure that the harvest would help increase future yields. They did more than forage; they re-planted the smaller bulblets, they tilled the soil to facili-tate the growth of the new plants, weeded non-desired plants and scattered the seeds contained within the dried seed pods to enhance reproduction. It was noted that yields increased the year after a cultural burn of the meadow area. With that in mind, here is a recipe for blue camas from Hank Shaw. His website is a fun read: https://honest-food.net/about/. Brodiaea bulbs were most often roasted in an earth oven over about a day. This can be used with all the bulbs and corms from the Brodiaea family, also known by the common name cluster-lilies. Twice Cooked Blue Camas Bulbs Camas needs to be cooked slowly and for a long time before you do anything else with it. If you skip this step, all the inulin in the bulb will still be present when you serve them. According to Hank Shaw, “Inulin cannot be processed by most humans, so our gut bacteria do the job for us and create gas… Lots of gas. I read stories of pioneers eating undercooked camas bulbs and experiencing the Mighty Wind.” Slow, moist cooking breaks the inulin down into fructose. I cooked the bulbs at 220 degrees for 12 hours to get to a point where the bulbs were still savory, but with a hint of sweetness like a parsnip. You could try cooking longer or hotter for different effects. Note that cook time does not include the long, initial slow-cook. Ingredients 1/2 pound blue camas bulbs, about a dozen 1 tablespoon olive oil 1 tablespoon verjus (pressed juice of unripened grapes), lemon juice, or white wine vinegar Smoked salt Instructions Remove the papery sheath from the bulbs and put them in an ovenproof container with a lid. Pour in just enough water to cover the bottom of the container, about 1/4 inch. Cover the container and bake the camas bulbs at 220-230 degrees for 12 hours. Check on them after 8 hours until they turn to a pale to full golden color. Slice the bulbs into rings and lightly dust them with fine salt. Sauté them in olive oil, butter or some other fat until they brown. They will be a little sticky, so keep the pan moving for the first minute or so to prevent the bulbs from sticking to the pan. Keep an eye on them, as the sugars in the camas will caramelize fast. To finish, toss with the verjus and dust with the smoked salt. Eat at once. We need to restore this form of community interaction with our native plants, to restore a healthy dynamic balance of people and nature. We are all related.
Kat High

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