There were more useful plants along the California Trail than many of us can imagine today. After all, when you think of the emigrant treks that made up the westward expansion, images of dusty wagon trains, the starving Donner-Reed party, and landmarks like the 40-mile desert probably come to mind.

Fortunately for trail pioneers, the 2,000+ mile journey provided fuel, animal fodder, and food, as well as hopes for new beginnings.

Where Is The California Trail?

The overland wagon trail west to California extended from Missouri to Sacramento. Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, Idaho, Nevada, and California all provided quite the variety of plant life for pioneers to make use of.


The Importance Of Animal Grazing On Pioneer Trails

Because supplies that weren’t carried were moved by oxen, horses, and mules, finding food and water for these animals was essential to keep them alive. The meager supplies most wagon trains started with had to eventually be supplemented with fresh meat (deer, elk, moose, bison, rabbit) hunted or traded for. So both domesticated and wild animals along the trail depended on native plants.

  • Woodland & Prairie Grasses
  • Sedges
  • Chaparral
  • Sagebrush
  • Desert Shrubs
  • Clover

Making Do – Pioneers Foraged For Food

Many plants we see as weeds or nuisances in our lawns today were used as food on the California Trail. Some we see as ornamental or simple grocery store staples were also found growing wild and added to the pioneer diets. Woody portions and stems were often boiled until soft, while petals and leaves could be eaten as is or seasoned with vinegar.

The Ephedra plant was used by westward travelers as a medicinal tea (aka Mormon tea, Mexican tea, or desert tea).

  • Redroot Pigweed
  • Grease Wood Sprouts
  • Barrel-Shaped Agave Cacti
  • Camas Bulbs
  • Stinging Nettles
  • Dandelion
  • Hawthorne
  • Thistle
  • Mint
  • Parsely
  • Ephedra
  • Sego Lilies
  • Roses
  • Violets

Reaching High & Hard – Trees On The Trail

Pioneers were sometimes able to get honey from beehives in trees, but the wood and nuts themselves were more commonly used. Wood was used to repair wagons, ford rivers, and fuel fires.

Mesquite seeds were used to make grain, pine needles could be boiled into tea, and hard acorns were ground up and used in a filling mush by both native peoples and emigrants.

  • Cottonwood
  • Acorns – Acorn Mush
  • Mesquite – Seeds
  • Walnuts
  • Hickory
  • Pecans
  • Poplar
  • Pine – Nuts & Needles
  • Cedar
  • Maple
  • Birch
  • Ash
  • Oak

Fruits & Vegetables On The California Trail

Corn, pumpkins, squash, and beans could be traded occasionally with friendly natives on the trail. Getting your hands on other types of fruits and vegetables was a matter of forage and travel during the proper seasons.

Being trapped in a blizzard in the mountains didn’t give many options to the Donner-Reed party. Making the 3 to 6-month journey during spring, summer, and early fall made wild plants much easier to glean as you walked or when you stopped for the day.

  • Blackberries
  • Strawberries
  • Indianberries
  • Gooseberries
  • Chokecherries
  • Wild Blueberries
  • Currants
  • Ground Cherries
  • Rusty Black-Haw
  • Wild Huckleberries
  • Wild Onions
  • Wild Garlic
  • Apples
  • Grapes
  • Plums

Visit Elko To Find Out More

As you can see, there were many useful plants along the California Trail. To learn more about what early American pioneers ate, wore, and did as they traveled West, stop by and visit the California Trail Interpretive Center in Elko, Nevada today.

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