Sprouting once again from the San Juan Bautista soil is blue elderberry. For the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, the California native plant is pollenating cultural knowledge among its tribal members, both young and old, while promulgating the hope that others understand the tribe’s continued presence in its ancestral homeland.
Blue elderberry is among the nearly 200 California indigenous plants growing in the Native Plant Garden. Located in a portion of the San Juan Bautista State Historical Park’s Heritage Garden, the Native Plant Garden is the result of a partnership between the Amah Mutsun Land Trust (AMLT) and California State Parks.
The collaboration underscores an effort by the tribe—descendants from the mission Indians of Missions San Juan Bautista and Santa Cruz—to partner with various government entities, conservation groups, businesses, educational institutions, and other native peoples to steward and conserve their traditional territory for generations to come.
Ground was broken on the Native Plant Garden in April. Once a month, AMLT members converge on San Juan to tend the plants and maintain their surroundings.
On Friday, July 1, four AMLT members uprooted weeds, raked the soil, and monitored the growth of each item demarcated with a red stake flag.
Overseeing the work was Sara First, an associate researcher for the AMLT and the tribe’s ethnobotanist. She explained that every plant found in the garden “is significant to Amah Mutsun,” as it serves as either a food source, a medicinal herb, or ecological vector.
Some plants are very versatile, especially blue elderberry, noted First.
“Its berries are edible and can be used to make preserves. Its flowers can be used to make tea. Its stems can be hollowed out and made into clapper sticks [traditional, musical instruments],” she said.
AMLT volunteer, Liza Kachko, stated that several nurseries donated to the garden, including Go Native of Montara, Acterra Native Plant Nursery of Los Altos Hills, the University of California, Santa Cruz Arboretum, Sierra Azul Nursery and Garden of Watsonville, Sutro Stewards, and Save the Bay, both of San Francisco.
Joining Kachko and First at the Native Plant Garden on Friday were Amah Mutsun tribal members, Josh Higuera and Abran Lopez, both of whom are part of the Native Stewardship Corps.
An extension of the AMLT, the Stewardship Corps is a program that’s designed to connect tribal youth to the tribe’s traditional methods of land management. But the program often does more.
His time spent in San Juan and in other locations has provided Higuera with a better sense of identity.
“Over the last couple of years, I’ve learned a lot about the native land practices that my tribe used. And I’ve become more in touch with my tribe, especially working in our homeland,” Higuera said.
Before his involvement in the AMLT, Lopez explained that he lacked direction. The Stewardship Corps changed that.
“Learning about food plants and crafting plants and their connection to the world has given me a sense of purpose,” he said.
First explained that establishing the Native Plant Garden in San Juan was important for two reasons: One, it invites the Amah Mutsun back into their ancestral territory. And two, it provides an opportunity for the general public to learn about a people and culture that are still very much a part of the community.
State park staff agree.
“It’s important to give space to the Mutsun, and to have them more represented in San Juan,” said Park Ranger Jennifer Naber.
Naber added that the historical park lacks quality interpretative exhibits on the tribe. But she’s hopeful that will change once the plants are in full bloom and the interpretative panels go up.
A grant secured through the California State Parks Foundation will pay for the panels, First explained. Currently, the grant is funding the garden’s maintenance and providing mileage reimbursements for AMLT staff and volunteers who travel to San Juan monthly.
And though the panels’ design in still in the works, Amah Mutsun Tribal Band Chairman, Val Lopez, stated in a phone interview with BenitoLink that the panels will include a description of each plant, as well as it’s purpose for the tribe.
“It’s all about education and bringing people’s attention to the landscape and plants in San Juan prior to first contact [a term that’s used to describe the initial meeting between California Indians and the Europeans],” Lopez said.
Before her death in 1930, Ascension Solorsano (de Cervantes) left for her descendants a detailed list of California native plants she used for either their nutritional or medicinal value. Among those she cited was blue elderberry—a plant that the highly respected matriarch of the Mutsun community often served to those who gathered at her table or administered as a natural remedy for the ailing who arrived at her door in search of relief.
For almost 90 years, Solorsano’s botanical knowledge wilted on paper fragments, as the plants she described were largely absent from the county’s landscape.
Drawn from her list, nearly 200 can now be found growing in San Juan Bautista.
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