It's been clear from news reports — and to anyone who has seen hillsides in the Antelope Valley covered with vast and intense orange hues from millions of California Poppies — that 2019 has been a banner year for many kinds of wildflowers. This winter's rains have also benefited a plant cherished by Tehachapi Indian people for thousands of years: koovoos.
This bright lemon-yellow wildflower is identified in field guides as Spring Gold (Lomatium utriculatum). It has a much older name in the Nuwä language, however, and koovoos has traditionally been the source of the favorite springtime greens for Kawaiisu (Paiute) people.
In our current writing system for expressing Nuwä words, it would be spelled kuuvuus, but I think that would lead most English speakers to mispronounce it, so I'm using a more conventional spelling. You say it like you were rhyming with the words "new moose."
Koovoos typically starts showing their yellow flowers in early March, though this year's especially cool February slowed down the blooming time. Koovoos first appears low on the ground, often buried by surrounding grasses and weeds like someone had spilled little puddles of radiant yellow paint.
As the blossoms mature, they get pushed upward on longer stalks until they are six inches to 12 inches off the ground. The flowerheads themselves also spread out — at first they resemble a miniature tight cluster of yellow cauliflower or broccoli, but then they spread out in a flat-topped blossom that looks like little yellow pom-poms arranged in a circle around the center.
Koovoos has lacy, carrot-like foliage, and is a member of Apiaceae, the carrot family, along with many other plants used for food, including parsnips, celery, coriander, cumin, dill, fennel and more. An old common name for this plant is "wild parsley" because of its appearance and aroma. With no offense intended toward parsley, koovoos tastes better, however.
Traditionally koovoos was harvested by Native Californians as soon as it started to appear — it was a welcome source of fresh, healthy greens. The plants can be eaten raw, but the itabuum — "the oldtimers" — would place a layer of picked koovoos on a smooth, flat boulder, and then add a hot rock heated in the coals of a fire. More koovoos would be placed on top, and the hot rock would steam the greens.
In later years, koovoos would be placed in a pot of water and just brought to a boil, then drained and combined with a little fried up bacon, grease and all, put in a flour tortilla and eaten with your hands. Often accompanied on a plate with pinto beans, and the tortilla and koovoos were used to help soak up the bean broth.
This is how I learned to eat — and love — koovoos. I've also steamed or brought it to a boil and then sauteed it with some olive oil and seasonings for a vegetarian friend, and it was also good.
Nuwä informants told Dr. Maurice Zigmond in the 1930s that the now-extinct California Grizzly bears were especially fond of koovoos as well, and Native gatherers had to keep an eye out for grizzly bears while harvesting koovos.
It is incredible to think that a relatively short time ago (150 years) California Indians and grizzly bears were both harvesting koovoos in the Tehachapi Mountains each spring, with the people keeping a lookout for the bears.
Koovoos is abundant this year, as much as I have ever seen, scattered in fields, vacant lots, yards and oak woodlands throughout the Tehachapi area. Most people regard it as a flowering weed, along with the black mustard, filaree, foxtail and other non-natives that often surround it. Koovoos is an ancient native, however, with a distinguished history. And a tasty, edible nature.
Have a good week.
Jon Hammond has written for Tehachapi News for more than 30 years. Send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.