A Multipurpose Plant of the California Indians

Tules are grasslike perennial herbs which grow abundantly along the marshy areas of California. The term tule was derived from the Aztec tullin or tollin, which designated a grouping of plants including the common cattail, burushes, and similar plants. The term was used similarly by the Spanish to designate any such marshland plant.

There are some seventeen species in California with the most common being the Common Tule (S. acutus), which is abundant below 5000 feet (to 8500 feet in Mariposa County), and the California Bulrush (S. californicus), also found in Freshwater Marsh plant communities along the coast from Marin County to Baja (Lower) California.

Tules grow to heights of eight to ten feet along streams and may reach fifteen or twenty feet in height in marshshores and on lakeshores. Mary Austin in The Land of Little Rain (Austin 1903, pp. 240-241) described the "tulare" marshes of the southern San Joaquin Valley:

The reeds, called tules, are ghostly pale in winter, in summer deep poisonous looking green, the waters thick and brown, the reed beds b reaking into dingy pools, clumps of rotting willows, narrow winding water lanes and sinking paths. The reeds grow inconceivably thick in places, standing manhigh above the water; cattel, no, not any fish nor fowl can penetrate them.... The tulares are full of mystery and malaria.

Tule was widely used by the California Indians to make shelters, boats, and sleeping/sitting mats. And for some groups, such as the Yokuts-speaking populations of the southern San Joaquin Valley, the roots were an important source of flour. And at least two nations used the tule for medicine. In post-contact times the Chumash cured poison oak rash by appling burned ashes of the plant; the Luiseño applied a plaster of the leaves on burns and wounds.