Slash and Burn: Native Garden Tending

 The Awaswas used a variety of methods, including fire, to maintain the Santa Cruz landscape. Image courtesy of Molly Lautamo.
The Awaswas used a variety of methods, including fire, to maintain the Santa Cruz landscape. Image courtesy of Molly Lautamo.

The California coastal landscape has been managed in some way by people for thousands of years. In the Santa Cruz area, the native Awaswas people*, set fires to maintain and invigorate the coastal landscape. This form of land management successfully provided animal forage and a healthy crop of grasses and other plants important to the Awaswas’ diet. The Awaswas may have managed riparian plants along creeks local to Santa Cruz through periodic pruning and controlled burns. Willows, for example, might have been actively tended through a pruning process called coppicing with the intention of harvesting new shoots for basket making.

How and Why to Prune a Willow

Coppicing involves cutting back the branches of a shrub or tree to encourage new, vigorous growth. The plant is pruned back to its base during its dormant period, when the tree has lost all its leaves in winter. Much like when you heavily prune rose bushes, the willows grow back much healthier.

A recently coppiced tree, in this case an alder (Alnus glutinosa). Photo courtesy of Naturenet.
A recently coppiced tree, in this case an alder (Alnus glutinosa). Photo courtesy of Naturenet.
The same coppiced tree, showing regrowth after one year. Photo courtesy of
The same coppiced tree, showing regrowth after one year. Photo courtesy of Coppicing Cat James.

Coppicing also promotes the growth of long, straight, slender, and flexible branches – optimal for basket weaving. The pliable young branches of the willows growing along the edge of creeks may have been used for making baskets, fish traps, and the inner framework of Awaswas homes. The bark could also be stripped from the branches and braided into a strong rope. Local Rumsien (native tribe located on the south end of Monterey Bay around Castroville) basket maker Linda Yamane uses gray willow sticks for her baskets’ foundations.

Willow shoots were used by the Awaswas to make baskets. Photo courtesy of Molly Lautamo.
Willow shoots were used by the Awaswas to make baskets. Photo courtesy of Molly Lautamo.

How Controlled Burns & Weeding Shaped the Landscape

Just as willow stands were managed through coppicing, the Awaswas used other land management techniques to promote other plant communities they relied on. Tule marshes were burned periodically to clear away old growth allowing sunlight to reach new shoots. This management was extremely necessary as the construction of one cooking basket required 3,750 stems from close to 40 bunchgrass plants!

Some less desirable species, such as salt marsh coyote brush, were weeded or burned to keep them from crowding out more frequently used species like willow. Meadows were also maintained through the use of fire to prevent shrubs and eventually trees from taking over precious grasslands needed for their seeds and the animals they would attract.

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This piece is part of the Pilkington Creek Walking Tour made possible by the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History. Download the free app with many tours of the Santa Cruz area and beyond.

*The native peoples of the Santa Cruz area of California, refer to the region as Cotoni and call themselves the Awaswas. Most folks today think of them as the “Ohlone” people but this is a misnomer and not how they identify themselves. Today the descendants of the area’s indigenous forbearers who were “missionized” at Santa Cruz and San Juan Bautista, are organized as the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band. The Cotoni-Awaswas nourished themselves from the sea and tidal zone as well as harvesting, gathering and taking game from the coastal uplands. Though not “agricultural” as we tend to think of it, California Indians thrived by actively managing the environment for productivity.

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About The Author

Molly Lautamo is a content strategist and writer in Santa Cruz, California. She loves exploring and researching her surroundings and then writing about her discoveries to inspire others to get out and explore too. You can check out more of Molly's writing at mollylautamo.com.

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