I’ve often wondered about the affinities some of our native wildlife species have for introduced plant species. How did those creatures manage before the Europeans began messing up the ecology of California by importing, on purpose or by accident, all those weeds? It is well known that numerous native wildlife species, such as monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus), hummingbirds and raptors (birds of prey) seem to make very good use of eucalyptus. Butterflies that benefit from introduced species include American lady (Vanessa virginiensis, which utilizes milk thistle [Silybum marianum]) and painted lady (Vanessa cardui, which utilizes yellow star thistle [Centaurea solstitialis]). Native bumblebees (Bombus spp.) collect the pollen of forage crops like alfalfa (Medicago sativa) and clover (Trifolium spp.).
Another example is the anise swallowtail butterfly (Papilio zelicaon). You perhaps associate this beautiful black and yellow swallowtail with sweet fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), that horrible weed of vacant lots and fields, or poison hemlock (Conium maculatum). But before the introduction and spread of these plants, anise swallowtail made do with other native members of the carrot family (Apiaceae or Umbelliferae) such as hog fennels (Lomatium californicum, L. dasycarpum, L. utriculatum), as well as the subject of today’s discussion, Kellogg’s yampah.
Kellogg’s yampah is a stout herbaceous perennial found in moist places below about 4,000 feet in elevation. It occurs in open or wooded sites and such plant communities as coastal prairie, mixed evergreen forest, chaparral, and foothill woodlands. Kellogg’s yampah is endemic to California, occurring in the Coast Ranges from Santa Clara to Del Norte counties and in the Sierra Nevada foothills from Mariposa to Sierra counties. It produces leafy (caulescent) stems two to five feet tall that develop from a cluster of fibrous to slightly thickened roots. The leaves are compound, being divided into leaflets one to four inches long with a seemingly inflated sheath at the point of attachment to the stem. The small white to pinkish flowers occur in umbels (think “umbrella” to imagine the arrangement of this type of inflorescence), appearing July through August. The genus Perideridia is entirely restricted to North America, with the greatest diversity found in the western United States. There are 20 taxa of Perideridia in North America, 17 of which occur in California, all indigenous.
As mentioned, Perideridia belongs to the carrot family. Worldwide there are 434 genera and about 3,800 species in the family; California supports some 206 species in 48 genera. Most are non-woody herbs with thick and often hollow stems, and with leaves that wrap or sheath the main stem (think of celery). The family is valued mostly for its edible plants: carrots, celery, fennel, chervil, parsley, parsnip, etc., and herbs, including coriander, cumin, caraway, dill, and angelica. However, it is unwise to eat wild members of this family unless their identification is certain, as some are extremely poisonous. Species considered deadly include poison hemlock (common in our area), water hemlock (Cicuta virosa, not occurring in California), and hemlock water dropwort (Oenanthe crocata; also not occurring here). Mildly poisonous members of the family that are present in California, in addition to poison hemlock, include western water hemlock (Cicuta douglasii), spotted water hemlock (Cicuta maculata), and water parsley (Oenanthe sarmentosa, fairly common in local streams).
The common name “yampah” comes from the Yampah Ute Indians of Colorado. The word yampah means “big medicine”, and Kellogg’s yampah was a staple of this and many other native-American tribes. The tuber-like roots were cooked like a vegetable and were dried and ground into flour (pinole) for baking. The seeds were eaten as a remedy for colds and indigestion and the roots were chewed to relieve sore throat. The flavor ranges in taste from radishes to carrots. Yampah was such an important staple and a commonly used word that it was almost given to the state we know as Colorado.
Kellogg’s yampah is common and widespread throughout the Bay Area, occurring in the coastal counties of Santa Cruz, Santa Clara, San Mateo, San Francisco, Marin, and Sonoma, as well as inland in the East Bay and North Bay. Historically, in San Francisco, it was reported from the Presidio, Laguna Honda, Mt. Davidson, Twin Peaks Bayview Hill, Hunter’s Point, and the San Miguel Hills (A Flora of San Francisco, California Howell et al.,1958). It has become much less widespread in the City now only found on Bayview Hill, Bernal Hill, and the Presidio. Elsewhere on the Peninsula, it can be seen at San Bruno Mountain, Crystal Springs, and Edgewood Park where volunteers have restored a terrific stand.
Kellogg’s yampah has no protected status under the federal or state endangered species acts, and is not considered a special-status species by the California Department of Fish and Game, nor listed by the CNPS. But like so many other pieces of the biological puzzle, it is part of the intricate and interconnected ecology of our region. Not only does its presence contribute to the biological diversity in its own right but also helps to maintain the diversity of insect life which adds so much to our own enjoyment of the natural world. So, the next time you’re pulling out sweet fennel, be sure to replace it with some yampah to keep the anise swallowtails around.