Richard Bugbee is a Payómkawichum (Juaneño/Luiseño) Indian from northern San Diego County with ties to the Kumeyaay, Mununjali Yogumbeh, and Te Ahwina. Richard has taught ethnobotany, ethnoecology, Indigenous material cultures, and traditional plant uses of Southern California at Kumeyaay Community College, museums, botanical gardens, and reservations, and for several Kumeyaay tribes. He has served on boards and councils with the goal to use knowledge to serve as a bridge that connects the wisdom of the Elders with today’s youth.

Here, Bugbee shares about what he considers to be the two most important native plants to our region’s first peoples: elderberry and white sage.

California’s native peoples lived with and used thousands of native plants in countless ways over millennia. Some examples of the “material culture” of Indian tribes include adhesives, basketry, boars, ceremonial items, clothing, cordage, dyes, foods, furniture, games, medicines, musical instruments, nets, ornamentation, poisons, snares, structures, toys, tools, traps, utensils, and weapons. —Tending the Wild, M. Kat Anderson

How We Gather

First, ask permission
Say a prayer of thanks
State your intent
Gather in such a way that you benefit the plant, like pruning...
Never gather when a plant is flowering

—Richard Bugbee

The way these names are spelled will vary, as ancient native languages were meant to be spoken and shared amongst conversation, not written. It is through these conversations throughout time immemorial that these languages have persisted to be passed down generation after generation. —Climate Science Alliance

Mexican elderberries are ripe when they turn blue. Image Courtesy of Deborah Small.
Elderberry flowers. Image courtesy of Deborah Small.


(Sambucus mexicana)

Cupeño: kuut

Luiseño: kutpat

Cahuilla: hunqwat

Kumeyaay: kepally

Delicious and Nutritious Eating

Ripe berries are very nutritious and can be eaten fresh or dried, and they are often made into syrups, jams, or teas.

Healing Potential

It’s one of the few plants you can gather blossoms from ahead of time. Good for the blood with long-lasting medicinal qualities.

Making Things

Fibers from the inner bark were used to create skirts. Stems and leaves make yellow and black dyes for basket weaving. Dip branches in water to bless a house, and make flutes and split-stick rattles.

“Willie Pink tells us another reason why elderberry is so unique. The elderberry leaves are poisonous, but...you can drink the blossom tea. You get a tree that can kill you or heal you. You can go either way. You can make weapons out of it, or you can make musical instruments.” Ethnobotany Project by Rose Ramirez and Deborah Small
“The seed stalk of the white sage plant is like the umbilical cord with the Creator.” —Richard Bugbee. Image Courtesy of Deborah Small.

White Sage

(Salvia apiana)

Cupeño: qashily

Luiseño: qaashil

Cahuilla: qas’ily

Kumeyaay: pestaay

Delicious and Nutritious Eating

Toasted seeds and tender shoots can be eaten raw or roasted.

Healing Potential

Use as a tea for various ailments.

Ceremonial Importance

The seed stalk is like the umbilical cord with the Creator. It removes negativity or purifies when burnt as a smudge and purifies in a water solution. The sale of white sage as a medicinal plant is discouraged. Instead, encourage giving some as a gift or grow it yourself.

Making Things

White sage can be used as a hair rinse, cleaning solution for baskets, and toilet paper. In nature, the flower makes a perfect platform for bees and pollinators to land on, with two stamens that strategically drop pollen off on them.

“Native practitioners know never to over-gather an area of plant relatives, so as to maintain the ecological resilience and balance of those plant relatives.” —Will Madrigal Jr.
White sage. Image Courtesy of Deborah Small.

“The Climate Science Alliance and its California Native partners would like to minimize the illegal extractive practice of harvesting native California plant relatives. We would implore all who are interested to obey all plant protective laws and be sensitive to the delicate balance in our plant environments.”

To stem the accelerating loss of habitat, growing white sage and other native plants for ourselves and to share with our communities is one of the most beneficial things we can do as individuals. Cultivating white sage and other California native plants is “essentially repatriating those plants back to the landscape from which they grew,” according to Naomi Fraga. —Saging the World


Does Foraging Threaten Wildlands and Native Culture? by Ilsa Setziol

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