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Artemisia californica: ethnobotanical use

Artemisia californica

Coastal Sagebrush. Sunflower Family (Asteraceae)

The coastal sagebrush smells similar to the mountain sagebrush (also on the ethnobotany tour), but has green to silver threadlike leaves, and grows along the California  coast and in chaparral areas below 2,500 feet.

California sagebrush is an aromatic, native, perennial shrub that can reach 5 to 8 ft ( m) in height. It has a generally rounded growth habit, with slender, flexible stems branching from the base of the Plant . Leaves are more or less hairy, light green to gray in color, usually to inches (2-10 cm) in length, with 2 to 4 thread-like lobes that are less than inch (1 mm) wide, with the margins curled under. California sagebrush blooms in the later summer to autumn/winter (depending on locale), and inflorescences are long, narrow, leafy and sparse, generally exceeding the leaves, with heads less than inch (5 mm) in diameter that nod when in fruit (Hickman 1993).

The Luiseño and Cahuilla tribes used coastal sagebrush in girl’s puberty rights; smoke from the leaves purified and perfumed the skin and clothes of the young girls in the ceremony. A tea of the stems and leaves was also used by women at the beginning of each menstrual period and after giving birth. For respiratory ailments, a decoction of the leaves and stems was used externally for the relief of colds, cough, and asthma, and a decoction was taken internally for bronchitis. Some tribes used a decoction of the plant as a bath for rheumatism. Some Indians of the California coast used the leaves to relieve toothaches and as a poultice for wounds and the Cahuilla chewed and smoked the leaves mixed with wild tobacco. The pungent smell of the coastal sagebrush makes it effective as an insect repellent, and some California Indian tribes wore necklaces of the stems to ward off bad spirits.

Native Americans in California used the leaves of California sagebrush for a number of medicinal treatments, including as a poultice for tooth aches or wounds, or applied to the back to treat asthma; as a decoction taken for menstrual problems, to ease childbirth, to ease menopausal symptoms, and for newborns to flush out their systems; and as a decoction used as a bath for colds, rheumatism and coughs (Bean and Saubel 1972; Bocek 1984; Foster and Hobbs 2002). The leaves are also reported to have been chewed fresh, or dried and used for smoking, mixed with tobacco and other dried leaves (Bean and Saubel 1972). The Luiseno Indians reportedly burned the bushes with white sage in ceremonial fires before hunting (Sparkman 1908). Early Spanish Californians knew the Plant as Romerillo , and regarded it as a panacea, using it in tea for bronchial troubles, or as a wash for wounds and swellings (Dale 1986).

It was also used by early miners in sprays to drive fleas from their beds (Dale 1986).

The fresh plant material was laid out over perishable foods to help preserve them. Fresh berries and tubers would be covered with a layer of sagebrush branches. The antimicrobial nature of the leaves helped to keep foods fresh and uncontaminated.

Tongva use

Pawots (Artemisia Californica) is one of the most important medicinal plants for the Tongva.  It is essential in women’s medicine.  A woman drinks a tea made from Artemisia Californica beginning from her first menstruation and for the rest of her life.

In addition, the plant is also used to treat various ailments.  To relieve toothaches, the Tongva make a poultice from the leaves and apply it directly onto the painful tooth.  The leaves are also chewed for stomachaches and made into a poultice for burns and wounds.

The plant is also useful in the treatment of respiratory ailments.  The Tongva make a decoction for asthma and coughs.  They also use this to relieve rheumatic pains.  Finally, a tea made from the leaves is made to help reduce fever and pain.

Artemisia Californica is also important in Tongva rituals.  For instance, it is a major plant in girls’ puberty ritual.  In addition, men who are preparing for a hunt are smudged with a mixture of white sage and pawots.

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