Drought Busting Edible Garden

Real California Cuisine – with California Natives Plants

Have you ever wondered what our native plants taste like? You can find out by attending a Native Edibles workshop and tasting at the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden and by planting some beautiful edible natives in your own yard! One of the best ways to save water during our drought is to grow plants that thrive with less irrigation.

Western Elderberry

Photo Courtesy of Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden

Antonio Sanchez, the nursery manager at the Gardens, teaches the class with an emphasis on fun and humor. He introduces you to his “A-List” of native edibles, which include plants that are attractive, tasty, easy to grow, and easy to find.

The “A-Listers”

When looking for these plants at nurseries, it’s important to use the scientific names to make sure that you are getting the same plants described below. Sometimes different plants have the same common name. Scientific names, on the other hand, act as bar codes so you don’t get anything mixed up.

Hummingbird sage tea

Salvia clevelandii and Hybrids – Cleveland Sage and Hybrids

Cleveland Sage is the main ingredient in the sage pesto recipe – it replaces basil found in pesto from Italy. It is very similar to the “Common Sage” found in the Mediterranean and can be used interchangeably. Southern California’s climate is very similar to that of the Mediterranean, so plants that are popular in Italy, Spain, and the South of France tend to do well here.

Cleveland Sage has beautiful purple flowers that will add color to your garden. Usually, you can water it deeply once or twice a month. Like lavender and rosemary, sage’s fragrance will be stronger if it’s watered less.

Single Leaf Onion

Photo Courtesy of Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden

Allium unifolium – Single Leaf Onion

Single leaf onion is a bulb plant, but instead of resting in the winter like bulbs on the East Coast, this plant rests in the summer and grows in the winter. You can use it like you would chives, eat the bulbs, or even eat the flowers that show up in the spring. It is also an ingredient in the sage pesto recipe.

They can taste spicy or mild, depending on how much sun you give it. Plant single leaf onions in the sun for a spicy flavor and in the shade for a more mild taste.

Hummingbird sage tea

Salvia spathacea – Hummingbird Sage

Some plants only flower for a few weeks a year, but Hummingbird sage will gift you with flowers for 6-7 months (if you continue to remove dying blooms). It works well in a container. If you live near the ocean, give it full sun, if you live inland, partial shade is best. In addition to providing blooms half the year, it makes a lovely tea.

Vitis Rogers Red Grape

Photo Courtesy of Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden

Vitis ‘Roger’s Red – Roger’s Red Wild Grape

Would you like to have beautiful red autumn color? Than Roger’s Red Grape is for you! It is a cross between a native grape and a domesticated grape from Sonoma County. You can train it on a trellis to grow against a wall. If you let it grow freely, it will look a bit like a shapeless shrub. It grows well in varying conditions, dealing well with sun vs. shade and lots of water vs. little water. It will need to be cut back every year.

The grapes have a strong flavor, like Concord grapes. If you cut off half of the grape clusters when they start forming, the plant will send all of its sugar into the remaining grapes, making them sweeter. The grapes do very well in jams and jellies. The leaves can be used for dolmas (grape leaves wrapped around rice and other fillers). They need to be cooked down for a substantial amount of time, though, because they are very tough.

Saturegia douglasii – Indian Mint

The strong minty flavor of this plant is similar to spearmint. It looks very good in a hanging basket and prefers partial shade. Use it for teas, ice cream, and as a garnish on deserts.

Barberry Preserves 2

Berberis species – Barberry species & Oregon Grapes

Barberry is a very large berry-producing shrub. The barberry bush produces a sweet yellow berry and the Oregon Grape bush produces a tart purple berry that is best served in preserves.

Miners Lettuce

Photo Courtesy of Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden

Claytonia perfoliata – Miner’s Lettuce

Miner’s lettuce is a mild lettuce that has the same consistency as bib lettuce. Some farmer’s markets are now selling them. It’s best to plant from a seed and will live 2-3 months. The leaves are mild enough that you can use them in a salad.

Sambucus Mexicana – Western Elderberry

Western Elderberry is a native tree. The berries and flowers are edible, but the stems are poisonous, so be sure to remove them before eating the fruit of the tree. This is a great tree to have to attract wildlife to your garden. Elderberry can be made into juice, wine, and preserves.


Atriplex lentiformis – Saltbush

California has no native grain, but saltbush can be used as one. The plant itself is related to both quinoa and spinach and it’s a good salt substitute for people with high blood pressure. As for the plant itself, it can be grown as a hedge in your yard. The leaves are a grayish color.

Saltbush is easy to clean and use. Simply take the seeds off the plant (they grow in clusters) and soak them in water. You can toast them or grind them and put lemon on them. Like popcorn and French fries, saltbush needs to be eaten hot and fresh – it does not make for good leftovers.  Anthony has used them as dolma fillers with Roger’s Red grape leaves and said it was excellent. You can also use leaves from the middle of the bush – ones that don’t get much light – in a salad. The leaves have a very strong flavor, so it’s best to use it as part of a mixed salad rather than as the entire thing.

Want to Learn more About California Natives?

If you want to learn more about our native environment and about cool things to do with native plants, check out the website of Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Gardens, including the Calendar section. You may also purchase some of these plants at RSABG’s Grow Native Nursery – if you want a specific plant listed here, please call ahead to check availability.

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