Words on Wellness: Plums, Olives, Berries
Dry yet abundant, September in Northern California presents her last harvest of fruits that have endured the summer season. Wild plums (Prunus subcordata), native to the coast ranges and Sierra Nevada foothills, can be eaten fresh or preserved as jelly. To settlers, these plums were a precious source of vitamins to reduce symptoms of scurvy though not all trees produced tasty fruit. Wild blackberries (Rubus vitifolius) are also very high in minerals like iron, copper and vitamin C. This is the time to pick and freeze them or make a blackberry Oxmel by soaking crushed berries in apple cider vinegar and raw honey. After a month you can strain the mixture and store the berry vinegar for up to a year. It’s a nice way to add summer to your winter salads or add a tablespoon to hot water for a pick up on a cold day.
Olive trees are another fruit that can endure the dry, and have been used as food and medicine since prehistoric times. They were brought to California by Spanish missionaries who grew olives for shade, and to make oil that they used in cooking and in lamps. Today Mendocino county has some excellent locally produced extra virgin olive oils that are rich in vitamins E and K. Both the oil and the leaves of olive contain antioxidant polyphenols, such as oleacein and oleuropein that are anti-viral, inhibit cancer cells and lower LDL cholesterol levels. The leaves can be picked and simmered (covered on low for 15-20 minutes) to make a somewhat bitter tea that bolsters immunity especially in feverish conditions, balances insulin and improves kidney function. Combined with rosemary it aids the heart and lowers blood pressure, while extracts of the leaf are used to reduce herpes symptoms.
Prickly pear cactus (Opuntia spp.) is another plant that stands the test of time. Native to Mexico, it was brought here to provide quick-growing fences to protect livestock. The leaf pads (Nopales) can are scraped and eaten as a vegetable that helps soothe the stomach and manage insulin levels in Type 2 diabetes. The delicious fruits, picked when red and soft for jams and juices, have pigments called betacyanins that are cell-protective and have been found to reduce low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels. Thankfully, all these wild cultivars continue to nourish us today.