Wild winter spices add local flair to holiday cooking

By Alicia Funk

During the winter there is still an abundance of delicious wild foods that we can enjoy as an interesting complement to standard holiday cooking. A few of my favorites include Toyon, Manzanita, Madrone, and California Bay.

toyonciderUSE300Toyon, an evergreen bush with red berries, is also known as California Holly, which is reportedly the origin of the name Hollywood, since Toyon bushes used to cover the Hollywood hills. It is an easy plant to grow and provides its bright red berries in the heart of winter. Use Toyon in wreaths and floral arrangements, and surprise your guests with a glass of hot Toyon cider. Dry the berries first and then sweeten the cider as desired.

Manzanita is one of my favorite native foods, as each berry is filled with sweet powdery sugar. Enjoy Manzanita sugar in hot chai or cocoa, or use it in muffin and cookie recipes. Though it is most abundant in the late summer and fall, you can still find berries on the bushes throughout the winter. Sugar from the berry is for sale at BriarPatch.

Madrone berries are delicious right from the tree. Madrones are evergreen trees that can be recognized by their orange, peeling bark. Since the mature trees are tall, look for berries at the base of the tree or on low branches. You can eat them fresh or cook them for just a few minutes along with fresh veggies.

California Bay is our local substitute for the Mediterranean species of Bay, which is sold commercially as a spice. Bay trees grow near water, and are typically shaded by other trees. Use the leaves to flavor soups and stews. I’d recommend using about half of the amount called for in recipes, since our local Bay is highly aromatic.

As a rule of thumb, never gather anything from the wild unless you are 100 percent sure of its identity, and it is growing in significant abundance, away from roads. All of these evergreen natives are also available at nurseries, so you can add beauty and local spice at your own home, as well.

manzanitaelderberrymuffins-coverUSE300Manzanita Muffins Makes 12 muffins.

  • 1-1/2 cups flour 
  • (wheat, Oak nut, or other gluten-free substitute)
  • 1 cup Manzanita sugar
  • 2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup mashed ripe bananas
  • 1 cup soy, rice, oat, dairy or other milk
  • 1 egg
  • 2 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 2 teaspoon lemon juice
  • 1-1/2 cups wild or local seasonal fruits, 
  • fresh or frozen (3/4 cup dried)


1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

2. Line a muffin pan with paper cups or vegetable oil.

3. Mash the bananas in a mixing bowl and stir in the milk, egg, oil, and lemon juice.

4. In a separate bowl, mix together the dry ingredients: flour, Manzanita sugar, baking powder, and salt.

5. Add the wet ingredients to the dry and then gently stir in the fruit.

6. Bake for approximately 20 minutes.

Toyon Cider

Cover the dried berries with water.

Bring to a boil and simmer for 20 to 30 minutes, while crushing the berries. Strain and sweeten as desired.

Recipes from “Living Wild —Gardening, Cooking and Healing with Native Plants of California.”

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