Fall Native Foods – Explore autumn’s edible offerings

By Alicia Funk

Alicia Funk holding basket of acorns.
Alicia Funk holding basket of acorns. Photo courtesy of Alicia Funk.

The fall brings an abundance of native food and beverages from our beloved gardens. As regular vegetable gardens start to wind down, many of the native plants begin producing.

One of my favorite foods to gather with my family is oak nuts (acorns). All species of oak (Quercus ssp.) have edible nuts when properly prepared. I dry and store the nuts for the winter and then use as them as a gluten-free flour after leaching out the bitter tannins. Classes of fourth-graders at my son’s school love pounding the acorns open with rocks, and I always have a hard time getting them to stop. The same thing happens when adults get their hands on acorns and two rocks.

Manzanita cider is a traditional drink of California, enjoyed by indigenous inhabitants in many parts of the state. Although all species have edible berries, I use whiteleaf manzanita (Arctostaphylos viscida), since it is abundant in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada where I live. The cider is easy to make, high in antioxidants, and naturally sweet. Fill a blender with the dry berries and grind on low-medium for about a minute. This is a modern technique to crush the berries and expose the sweet powder, without crushing up the large seeds. Cover the crushed berries with cold water and soak for several hours to overnight. Strain and enjoy cold or hot.

Native foods connect me with the place I call home and give me a delicious reason to treasure, tend, and grow California’s native cuisine.

Healthy tea from a fir tree

The tart, lemonlike flavor of Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) is delicious as a drink or a sorbet, packed with the extra vitamin C we need in the fall and winter. The basic recipe for making tea is to bring four cups of water to a boil, turn off the heat, and add two cups of fir tips. Let steep for 10 minutes and then strain out fir needles. Making vegan fir tip sorbet just requires a little more steeping time and an ice cream maker.

The leaves of yerba santa (Eriodictyon californicum) taste like nothing else — it’s a flavor that people either love or hate. Though bitter when chewed, they stay sweet and quench the thirst if sucked. At least seven indigenous groups in California relied upon it as a tea for colds and congestion. I prefer to take my medicine in the form of dessert, so I developed a recipe for raw chocolates made from yerba santa.

Forage lightly. Grow your own.

A walk through the woods in fall wouldn’t be the same without the taste of madrone berries (Arbutus menziesii). I gather them from the base of the tree and eat them raw, dry and grind them into a spice, or make them into a cranberry sauce substitute for our Thanksgiving celebration.

Native foods connect me with the place I call home and give me a delicious reason to treasure, tend, and grow California’s native cuisine.

All recipes adapted for CNPS from Alicia Funk’s The Living Wild Project.

Manzanita Hard Cider

Manzanita sugar for making hard cider.
Manzanita sugar for making hard cider. Photo courtesy of Alicia Funk

Collect berries in summer. Makes 1 gallon. Ready to drink in 2 months.

You’ll need:

  • 4 quarts manzanita cider (see story above for how to make it)
  • 2 pounds raw cane sugar
  • 8-quart pot
  • 1-gallon jug


  • Pour cider into pot, add the 2 pounds of sugar, and allow to simmer over heat until sugar dissolves. Let cider cool and use a small amount of iodine to sterilize the jug.
  • Pour cider into sterilized gallon jug and add yeast.
  • Seal jug with the airlock and store in a cool location, 65-75º F.
  • Let the cider bubble for approximately a month. After the bubbling subsides, allow it to sit for another week.
  • Siphon the cider into sanitized bottles, avoiding the yeast that has settled on the bottom of the jug. Seal bottles and allow cider to sit for another 2 weeks or more for added flavor.

Douglas-fir tip sorbet (Vegan)

You’ll need:


  • Bring water and sugar to a boil, stir, and turn off heat.
  • Add fir tips and steep, covered, for 30 minutes. Keep liquid and strain out fir tips.
  • Chill overnight in refrigerator. Freeze in ice cream maker according to manufacturer’s directions. Garnish sorbet with extra fir tips and serve.
Author and culinary forager Alicia Funk develops recipes using native foods.
Author and culinary forager Alicia Funk develops recipes using native foods. Photo courtesy Alicia Funk.

Yerba santa raw chocolates (Raw, Vegan)

Collect leaves in fall.

You’ll need:


  • Melt cacao butter in the sun. Add cacao powder and stir until smooth.
  • Slowly stir in yerba santa powder. Add raw honey and sea salt, mixing well.
  • Spoon into silicone molds and freeze for at least an hour. Remove and serve. Store in the refrigerator.

Note: Use more or less honey depending on desired sweetness. Makes approximately 60 chocolates.

Madrone “beyond cranberry” sauce

Madrone (Arbutus menziesii) Photo: Franz Xaver

Collect berries in late fall.

You’ll need:

  • 1 3⁄4 cup fresh madrone (Arbutus menziesii) berries (stems removed)
  • 1⁄4 cup fresh toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) berries (stems removed)
  • 1 cup water
  • 1⁄2 cup apple juice, plus 2 tablespoons, divided
  • 1⁄2 cup honey
  • 1 tablespoon arrowroot or organic cornstarch
  • 1 tablespoon grated orange zest


  • Mix berries, water, apple juice, and honey in a pan and bring to a boil. Simmer for 15 minutes.
  • Stir arrowroot or cornstarch into 2 tbsp apple juice. Pour into berries and stir constantly while bringing to a boil.
  • Remove from heat and add orange zest. Allow to cool before serving. Store in refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.

Variation: If toyon berries are plentiful, instead of madrone berries, simmer 1 cup dried toyon berries, 1 cup water, 1 cup apple juice and 1⁄2 cup honey, and then follow the same recipe.

Oak nut financiers

You’ll need:

  • 5 tablespoons butter, plus butter for the molds
  • 1/3 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 cup confectioner’s sugar
  • 1/3 cup oak nut flour (see recipe below)
  • 4 egg whites
  • 1⁄2 teaspoon vanilla extract


  • Elderberries, blackcap raspberries, raspberries, walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts
  • Cheesecloth-lined sieve
  • Financier molds


  • Prepare the financier molds by brushing with melted butter and placing them in the refrigerator. Preheat oven to 425º.
  • Sift the flour, baking powder, confectioner’s sugar and oak nut flour into a large bowl and stir to evenly distribute the ingredients.
  • Melt the 5 tablespoons of butter in a saucepan. Once it has melted, start whisking the butter until it starts to boil. Continue cooking the butter, whisking as necessary to stop the solids from burning, and gradually the butter will change in color to a light brown. Remove from the heat and let cool for a few minutes.
  • Strain the brown butter (beurre noissette) through the cheesecloth-lined sieve into the dry ingredients. Immediately add half the egg whites and the vanilla extract, and mix until combined.
  • Stir in the remainder of the egg whites.
  • If adding fruit, spoon a small amount of batter into each mold and then place fruit in the mold and top with a layer of batter. If adding nuts, spoon batter into molds and then arrange nuts on top.
  • Place the molds in the oven and reduce the temperature to 350º. Bake petit four financiers for 7-8 minutes, larger ones for about 20 minutes. A skewer inserted into the financier will come out clean when they are done.

How to make oak nut flour (boiling water method):

Removing acorn shells to make oak nut flour.
Removing acorn shells to make oak nut flour. Photo courtesy Alicia Funk.

Acorns must be dried for months, then leached to remove their bitter tannins. Several leaching methods exist, with the boiling water method being the fastest.

  • Gather acorns in fall, keeping only those without holes, and store in a warm, dry place until spring, shaking basket at least once a month to rotate the acorns.
  • Crack and remove shells with a hammer. Remove the red skins by heating nuts at 200º for 10 minutes, then scraping skins off with fingers or a knife.
  • Grind nuts in a food processor. Place finely ground nuts in a pot, cover with water and bring to a boil. Change water and return to a boil. Repeat several times, watching for clarity of water and lack of bitterness in the nuts.
  • After leaching, dry the flour by baking at 250º F for 30 minutes.
  • Estimate 2 cups shelled nuts for each 1 cup flour.


Alicia Funk is the founder of the Living Wild Project and co-author of Living Wild—Gardening, Cooking and Healing with Native Plants of California. She is the editor of six books, including Herbal Medicine: Expanded Commission E Monographs, The ABC Clinical Guide to Herbs and The Botanical Safety Handbook. Her Living Wild books and programs support environmental and cultural conservation in California. www.livingwild.org


  1. Where can I purchase Yerba Santa seeds or plants ? I understand that boiling some parts of the plant and breathing it helps with asthma problems. I also like your recipe for raw chocolates.

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