Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Plant Profile -- Wild Cucumber

Following the recent rains, I’ve noticed wild cucumber (Marah macrocarpus) has begun to make it’s seasonal appearance.  I first learned about this native plant when I was a fourth grader at Linda Vista Elementary School.  That year, our class was taken on weekly field trips to Hahamongna Watershed Park as part of a nature program.  It was during these trips that I viewed a free flowing stream for the first time within my own city limits -- something I’d never seen outside of the Sierras.  It blew my mind!

I remember that our instructor and guide through the park was a young woman named Gigi.  We used to do all sorts of hands on crafts with her, and it was during one of our explorations of Hahamongna that she first showed us wild cucumber.  Shortly thereafter while playing in my backyard under the oak trees, I was astounded to discover it growing right there on my own hillside!

The author.  May, 1998.  Hahamongna.
Wild cucumber traditionally had many uses for native Californians.  Roots were used as a fish poison. Seeds were used to treat rheumatism and to create pigments.  The dried seed pods were used as hair combs, and used by Shamans to carry their poisons.  Wild cucumber is also one of the first signs of spring in native California.

Whenever I see wild cucumber, I am reminded of what a great impression can be made in the lives of children when you show them somewhere special in their own backyard.  That’s something I’ve kept in mind when guiding kids through Hahamongna with the Arroyo Seco Foundation.

Unfortunately, we now stand to lose this special place to a shortsighted plan by the LA County Flood Control District to scour the Hahamongna basin and destroy it’s irreplaceable habitat.  The District has ignored alternative proposals which would achieve needed flood protection in the area without such significant impacts.  I hope that you will learn more about the effort to Save Hahamongna, and help us ensure that future generations have the same chance that I did to benefit from this amazing community resource.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Plant Profile -- California Holly

In the old days, Toyon, or California Holly, was the most abundant native food available in the winter, which was traditionally a time of hunger and relative scarcity as far as tending the wild.  People used to chew tobacco leaves to suppress hunger, and relied on Toyon berries to supplement their food stores during the cold months of the year.

Toyon berries may be eaten raw, but usually taste astringent and chalk-like.  When dried, Toyon takes on a subtle sweetness, and may be added to trail mix, or ground into meal and added to acorn porridge or flour for baked goods.  The berries may also be cooked, and are great to add into a stir fry!

Toyon berries added to a nopal, corn, pepper and onion stir fry.  Delicious! 
California Holly is a beautiful, drought-tolerant, native shrub, and tolerates full sun to full shade conditions.  A wonderful plant to grow in your yard, Toyon provides rich habitat for birds and wildlife, and keeps them fed as it  kept people fed in the old days for thousands of years.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Life and Death of a Bridge

I really enjoyed this beautiful video about the struggle in Los Angeles to save our past.  Directed and edited by my lifelong friend Derrick Deblasis, I’d like to think his Tom Explores Los Angeles series is beginning to build a culture around appreciating our history -- at long last.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Making California Buckwheat Pancakes

California Buckwheat has long been a staple food plant for native Californians.  I first learned of its use while a student in Christopher Nyerges’s Survival Skills class at Pasadena City College, and have been curious about cooking with this abundant native plant ever since.

The pink and white flowers produced in the spring begin to turn a nice rust-brown color this time of year, and may be gathered and mixed with wheat flour to create bread, porridge, or one of my favorite breakfast dishes which I created this morning -- pancakes!

The first step in using buckwheat as flour is separating the dried seed heads from the stems.  This process was easily accomplished with the help of a rolling pin.  I simply ground down the buckwheat, and then picked out the stems.  California Buckwheat was a favorite staple of the elderly back in the old days, as the seeds required minimal processing and were easy to eat.

The flavor of California Buckwheat can be somewhat creamy, with a woody coarseness reminiscent of sawdust.  It’s not a bad flavor, and the coarseness was definitely diminished by grinding it down.  I added about 1/4 a ratio of buckwheat flour to 3/4 whole wheat flour in order to enjoy the flavor of the buckwheat without being overwhelmed by it.  

The whole wheat flour also helps to keep the pancakes together while cooking.  If someday the sh*t hit the fan and food was not readily available, knowledge of California Buckwheat could go a long way toward stretching out and even doubling depleted rations of flour!

The pancake batter looked lovely, and the pancakes turned out great!  The ratio of buckwheat to whole wheat flour was the perfect amount, and I loved the specks of California Buckwheat that were cooked into the pancakes.

The distinctive California Buckwheat flavor is perfectly complimented with some butter or coconut oil, maple syrup or local honey, and fresh berries on top.  

My white-sage enhanced green tea combined with these California Buckwheat pancakes to create the perfect native California breakfast -- a simple and satisfying way to connect myself physically and spiritually with the land I call home. 

Friday, October 10, 2014

Christopher Nyerges speaks with Tim Martinez about Cottonwood Canyon

I was happy to run into renowned survival skills and wild foods instructor Christopher Nyerges near Cottonwood Canyon recently.  Christopher is an author and the co-founder of the School of Self Reliance, and I have learned much from him over the years.  It was fun talking to him, showing him the canyon the Arroyos & Foothills Conservancy is working to save, and having a drink straight from Yocum Spring!

*One minor correction needs to be made.  I should have said that the Yocum family drilled horizontal shafts into the hillsides.  Not vertical.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Making Corn Tamale Pie (Recipe)

Tamale Pie has become one of my favorite go-to recipes for a quick and easy home-cooked meal.  Inspired by a dish served at Oh Happy Days Healthfood Cafe & Market, my adaptation is a great way to enjoy the rich flavor of masa harina, without the labor of preparing traditional tamales.



  • 2 cups masa harina 
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1/2 cup organic vegetable shortening or butter  
  • 2 cups stock or water
  • 2 cups beans (Or one can -- I usually use black beans)
  • Shoyu to season
  • Cooking oil (sunflower, safflower) 
  • Salsa

1.  Preheat oven to 400 degrees

2.  In a mixing bowl, combine masa flour, baking powder, and sea salt.  

3.  Cut in shortening or butter.

4.  Add water and stir until dough is formed.  Set aside.

For the topping:  

5.  Cook the beans in a skillet with a bit of oil, and with any other vegetables or seasoning desired.  Splash enough shoyu to taste toward the end of cooking, and stir in as much salsa as desired.

The beans may be cooked with any combination of tomatoes, onions, garlic, peppers, corn kernels, and seasoned with epazote, cumin, cilantro, lemon -- get creative!  

6.  Spread the masa evenly along the bottom of an oiled cooking pan.  Some recipes place the bean or meat filling on the bottom with the masa cooked on top, but I have found that the casserole holds together much better with the masa cooking at the base.

7.  Spread the bean and vegetable filling evenly upon the top of the masa dough.  If you like, add vegan or dairy cheese and olives on top to melt and cook in the oven.  I like to use Spanish Manzanilla Olives with Pimentos!  Cheese and olives may also be added after, to accommodate different dietary practices.

8.  Bake for 20 to 30 minutes, until the masa has risen, is firm, and the edges are crisp and golden.  I like to serve slices of Tamale Pie on a bed of salad, with grated carrots, tomatoes, and fresh sprouts.

For this version, I used Daiya vegan cheese.

Tamale Pie has become a dish that I enjoy preparing at least once a week.  It’s easy to make and leaves plenty of room for creativity.  The balance of the salty, savory, and nourishing whole-grain corn flavor of the crisp, fluffy masa makes this a true vegetarian comfort food!

Monday, August 25, 2014

Exploring the Hills of Mt. Washington

Last week, my friend and Arroyo Seco Foundation colleague Scott Cher took me on a walking tour of Mt. Washington, which he has long called home.  Nestled in the hills behind the majestic Southwest Museum, Mount Washington is a historic LA neighborhood with commanding vistas and surrounded by nature.  We set out to explore the open spaces and habitat in the area that have been set aside and preserved, and those which still need protection.

We began our walk by hiking through Moon Canyon Park.  Moon Canyon is an unmaintained Los Angeles city park with great potential for habitat restoration.  The canyon slopes are home to the rare California Walnut tree, which Mt. Washington is known for.

Moon Canyon
Once we reached San Rafael Avenue at the top of the canyon, we were rewarded with views of Highland Park, Eagle Rock, and the San Gabriel Mountains.  We then crossed the road and ventured into the boundaries of Heidelberg Park.

The slopes of Heidelberg Park were covered with such a dense canopy of oak and walnut woodland that when I gazed upward it felt as though I could have been deep in the forest.  We encountered beautiful native flowers which Scott later identified as cliff desertdandelion

As we walked further down the canyon trail, we encountered seasonal stream-beds, elderberry trees, poison oak, toyon, and a skateboard rope-swing!  I climbed onto my new “hoverboard” and told Scott of the various similar spots I’d discovered as a kid while exploring Pasadena’s San Rafael Hills.  I smiled at how kids growing up in the hills will explore them and make them their own.

It’s great to be a kid from the hills.  The author, hanging on the “hoverboard” rope-swing.
After climbing back out of Heidelberg Park, we walked to beautiful Elyria Canyon Park.  We passed by the gates of the Self-Realization Fellowship headquarters on the way, which opened in 1925 on the former site of the Mt. Washington Hotel.  The historic homes on San Rafael Avenue surrounding the Fellowship headquarters reminded me of the beautiful Arroyo Seco neighborhood of Prospect Park in Pasadena.

At the bottom of Elyria Canyon, we encountered a plant which at first looked to be Sacred Datura.  Upon closer inspection, Scott found that growing from this plant were small, watermelon-looking gourds, which I later identified as Buffalo Gourd.  Scott noted that they smelled like squash, yet the leaves still smelled a bit like Datura to me.  

Learned a new plant!  Buffalo Gourd in Elyria Canyon, with a sunflower growing in the middle.
In the bottom of Elyria Canyon, we observed more riparian plant species along the dry creek-bed.  Mulefat and sycamore trees indicated the presence of water, and rusted old farm equipment which had been long cast-aside served as a reminder of a bygone era -- of a time when this part of Los Angeles was undeveloped and agricultural.

Contributing greatly to the area’s rustic atmosphere was the Red Barn in Elyria Canyon Park.  Growing next to the barn was a beautiful, gigantic Coyote Brush, which attracts various insects and pollinators.  (Incidentally, coyote brush is also the best cure for poison oak!)  

I had a great time exploring the hills of Mt. Washington with Scott.  There is no better perspective through which to view the land than the eyes of a native.  The more I have met and befriended people who grew up in the hills of the Arroyo Seco, the more I’ve realized their important role in shaping our character.
The view from Sea View Avenue.
If we wish to live in a country which people love, then let us preserve the very places that residents fall in love with.  There are still natural areas of Mount Washington that need to be protected.  By saving our remaining open spaces, we will be providing future generations with cities worth taking pride in.  We will be creating neighborhoods of citizens who love the land upon which they live, and who will in turn love and nurture their community, their nation, and indeed, the world.