Raising awareness of edible regional plant sources with the Tahoe Institute of Natural Science | SierraSun.com

Raising awareness of edible regional plant sources with the Tahoe Institute of Natural Science

Juniper branches can make for lovely decor and its berries are used for flavoring gin and other feremented brews.
Photo: Bob Sweatt |

There’s a noticeable uptick in people’s interest in experiential living nowadays as opposed to materialistic living. Being outdoors in breathtaking locales, appreciating nature and being able to live off the land is more attractive than flaunting expensive things.

Survivalist television reality shows have capitalized on the outdoor and self-reliance movement, gaining popularity by featuring both average people and skilled survivalists striving to stay alive and healthy as possible in tough climates; typically with little to no resources apart from a fire starter and a map, if they’re lucky.

Each episode contestants hunt, build shelters, and forage for edible and medicinal plants native to the region they’ve been introduced.

In the interest of crossing the layman’s versions of botany and herbalism, combined with the sheer passion for gorgeous Lake Tahoe, a snap-guide follows on some of the most popular naturally occurring plants found in the Tahoe region that have edible or medicinal qualities.

Experts from the nonprofit Tahoe Institute for Natural Science are always eager to educate outdoor enthusiasts so they can better interact with their surroundings, fueling inspiration to protect them.

“There’s an imperative need for the Tahoe region community to do a better job of understanding and protecting our natural resources here,” said Will Richardson, executive director of the nonprofit.

“The first step is to gain appreciation for what these resources are and usually follows a fondness and affection for those resources — and with that you ‘naturally’ (no pun intended) want to be a better steward for them; you want to take better care of what you care for.”

Much reading material exists on the native flora and fauna found in this region, as well as land laws that might prohibit people from removing any of the plants. Despite the compilation of the snap-guide of Tahoe’s natural bounty, it’s crucial people do their homework prior to setting out on their own nature expedition.

Sarah Hockensmith, the institute’s membership outreach manager, warned: “It can be difficult to distinguish plant species from one another, and a misidentification situation can result in potentially dangerous and uncomfortable repercussions if consumed.”

The following great eight plants grow naturally in the Tahoe region, are safe to consume, and in some cases offer health benefits when used as home remedies — some dating back thousands of years.

Sierra onion

Scientific Name: Allium campanulatum

Physical Description: Adorned with small pink flowers at the top of a large stem, Sierra onions are also called “wild onions” and are identifiable by the few long, flat and often-hollow leaves attached to a stem that stands straight up, up to 20 inches tall and having up to 50 flowers clustered at the top. The bulb looks like a small pink ball and is found in really sandy soils.

Flavor Description: A pungent vegetable, as to be expected, the wild onions are in the same family as leeks, shallots and garlic. The wild onion bulb is at the bottom of the stalk underground and has an acidic, spicy flavor similar to the onions of which we’re all familiar.

Possible Uses: Sierra onions can be used in many ways, both raw and cooked. They can be digestive aids, add flavor to a dish, or even relieve various health ailments. Its strong and medicinal properties make the bulb a powerful cold remedy when combined with garlic and honey or maple syrup. Cheyenne Indians are said to have applied raw onion bulbs combined with crushed wild garlic to wounds and insect bites to aid healing and reduce swelling and irritation, and even applied wild onion juice to the ear to cure an earache.

Miner’s lettuce

Scientific Name: Claytonia perfoliata

Physical Description: Miner’s lettuce is a leafy green that grows on the ground in meadows or places with a lot of water around the Lake Tahoe Basin. The plants are identifiable by their round, flat leaves and small white flowers. Its namesake comes from its history as a staple in the gold miner’s diet to balance nutrition, as it is high in iron, vitamins C and A.

Flavor Description: The lettuce is mild in flavor and has a fresh, crunchy texture.

Possible Uses: Use miner’s lettuce as you would other lettuce — it’s safe to eat raw and makes a great addition to a salad. Or, try adding it to a sandwich wrap for added nutritional value and a fresh crunch.


Scientific Name: Rubus parviflorus

Physical Description: The thimbleberry shrubs grow on upright stalks with large, flat fuzzy leaves resembling Maple. Small white blossoms grow on the stems, and there are no thorns. Once the berries are ripe, they are bright red in color, resembling miniature raspberries and can be easily picked from the branches.

Flavor Description: Thimbleberries are sweet and delicious; and there’ll likely be some competition from birds and other critters for this natural treat.

Possible Uses: Naturally foraged berries can be used in the same way store-bought ones are used: eat them raw, straight off the plant, or add them to yogurt with granola for a parfait, cook them in a homemade pie, enjoy them in baked goods, or as dried snacks or even juiced.

Juniper berry

Scientific Name: Juniperus communis

Physical Description: The juniper branches are covered in short, needle-like leaves and produce small, cones that resemble berries in pale white or blue color. The seeds are inside an outer fleshy covering of natural yeast and they have a spicy, pine scent.

Flavor Description: Juniper berries are used to create the unmistakable flavor of gin. Their spicy scent and taste also makes the berries a wonderful flavoring agent for pickling juice and to brine meats. Berries should not taste overpoweringly bitter and if so, are not suitable for consumption.

Possible Uses: Fun Fact — the berries can be foraged and used to flavor homebrewed beer; a process of which this article’s featured photographer Bob Sweatt is familiar. They are also helpful in combatting the effects of urinary tract infections when brewed as a tea.


Scientific Name: Taraxacum

Physical Description: The dandelion is an easily identifiable plant commonly taken for a simple invasive weed — garden weeds which also have wonderful health benefits.

Flavor Description: Dandelions are packed with nutritious minerals and vitamins A, B, C and K. The leaves are most commonly used for their edible and medicinal purposes, but the entire plant does have potential health benefits when prepared correctly. The leaves and roots will taste bitter but can be used raw or dried, drying or roasting will remove some of the bitterness.

Possible Uses: Dandelion leaves and roots are high in daily nutrition and roasted roots can also serve as a coffee substitute. The flowers can be used in cooked meals or freshly juiced and added to a smoothie.

Mountain pennyroyal

Scientific Name: Monardella odoratissima

Physical Description: The Tahoe region features abundant plants of the mint family. Marshmint, giant hyssop and mountain pennyroyal are a few species that can be found growing by water or in meadows. Mountain Pennyroyal is identifiable by its pinkish or light purple flowers with several thin petals on top of straight stalks with small green leaves.

Flavor Description: The leaves of the mountain pennyroyal flower make a great mint tea and can be used either fresh or dehydrated. Foraging the pennyroyal should be approached carefully as this strong herb can have serious and uncomfortable effects when not properly consumed.

Possible Uses: Take caution and additional research prior to drinking the pennyroyal brew; though it can be soothing relief for cold symptoms and indigestion, it is said to have adverse affects on pregnant women and can induce sickness, dizziness and harm to organs if consumed in improper, high doses by anyone.


Scientific Name: Achillea millefolium

Physical Description: Yarrow is a long stemmed plant with compound leaves, which are segmented along the length of the stem. Yarrow has been scientifically classified for both its “thousand leaves” appearance as well as for its medicinal qualities, of which it is related to the Greek god Achilles, who was known to heal the wounds of his warriors. Folk tales claim Achilles applied a yarrow tincture to his entire body, save the heel.

Flavor Description: The flowers have a bitter taste and mix well with other herbs to achieve a less medicinal flavor. Mint and honey pair well with the herbal elixir.

Possible Uses: Yarrow is a highly medicinal herb used to relieve fevers and colds, stomachache and even as a topical remedy for skin irritation. Yarrow and mint are said to make wonderful teas that can also aid in restful sleep, congestion and allergy relief.

Quaking aspen

Scientific Name: Populus tremuloides

Physical Description: Quaking aspen are found in meadows and around streams and feature unmistakable, smooth bark. During the summer its branches hold dainty green round leaves which turn brilliant shades of orange and red in the fall and ultimately fall off entirely during the winter, when the trees are a stark whitish green.

Flavor Description: The bark of quaking aspen does not have a scent but does taste bitter. The acidic bark resembles the anti-inflammatory, anti-swelling and pain-relieving properties of aspirin.

Possible Uses: Salicin acid is found in the bark of quaking aspen trees and has many medicinal qualities in treating joint and nerve pain, healing wounds, ailing coughs and fevers as well as diuretic properties. The bark can be brewed to use as a tea while the aspen leaves can be broken down into a salve that has health benefits when applied externally as well as when ingested. The tree bark has even been used to treat toothache when chewed.

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