Introduction to Tule Ethnobotany

by Norm Kidder



In many parts of the world tules, reeds, bulrushes and their relatives have been used by local groups as building material. The Egyptians used papyrus for paper and boats (more technically called balsas, or floats). A statue of King Tut shows him spearing hippos from a reed 'surfboard', while multi-ton slabs of stone are known to have been transported on large ocean going reed vessels. (See Thor Heyerdahl, the Ra Expeditions). Natives in other parts of Africa, the Marsh Arabs of Iraq, and Indians of South America, Mexico, and California also used the versatile reeds for watercraft. In this article I will stick to the uses of tule reeds by the Indian peoples of Central California and neighboring Nevada.

Tule, seems to be both a general term for freshwater marshes and also for the sedges of the genus Scirpus. The term Tule Fog refers to moisture rising from the ground. The Spanish called the seasonally flooded center of the San Joaquin Valley the "tulares". In the San Francisco Bay area, the Common Tule is Scirpus acutus. This tule grows up to over 16 feet tall, has a round dark green stem, and only vestigial leaves. Its seed head is an open tassel normally 2 inches or less across. A similar looking relative, Scirpus californicus, or California Tri-square differs in having a lighter green and triangular stem, and a larger seed head. The tri-square also has a larger internal cell structure which makes it inferior for most construction purposes. A number of other species are found around the country, and may or may not prove suitable for making useable items.


In Central California, Tules were made into:
- from loose berry baskets to water carriers (Yokuts);
clothing - Pomo 'grass' skirts and leggings to Yurok sun visors;
mats - to thatch a house or sit on, or rolled up for storage;
dolls and toys - slings, quivers, swaddling clothes, arrow skippers;
balsa boats and rafts - from one man floats to small islands;
duck decoys - plain, painted, and feather covered.



Cut tules anytime after they have reached full height. They will tend to get firmer from late summer into fall. They can be cut in the fall until wind and rain have broken and dried them. The feel of the stem is the real determining factor. Be careful when cutting to keep the tules neatly stacked in the same direction so they don't bend or break. I tie them into bundles about 8 inches thick at the base with cords near each end and one in the middle. Always carry the bundles with the butt ends forward to avoid breakage.

Once cut, the stems must dried before use. Depending on when they are cut, they may shrink up to 50% in diameter as they dry. When they are uniformly light green they are just dry enough, although yellow or tan is better. While drying, be sure to allow for good ventilation, and don't stack the tules too thickly, or mold and mildew will result. I prefer to dry tules in the shade. It takes longer, but they acquire a leathery texture. Drying in the sun is quicker (few days instead of a few weeks), but the stems end up more crisp and brittle.



Twining is easily confused with weaving, but differs in a fundamental way. Weaving involves a single strand passing in and out between the standing stock or ribs. Twining involves two (or three) strands which pass around the ribs in sequence, while intertwining around each other. This results in a 'locked' stitch compared to weaving's looser wrapping. Twining done without ribs (twisting) results in a two (or three) ply rope.



Twisting is used to turn fibers into string, or in this case using whole or split tules to make tule rope. To begin, grasp a bundle of at least two tules at each end and twist them between your fingers until the tules begin to 'kink' back on themselves. Move your hands closer together as the tule strands are twisted, and the kink begins to twist into a 2-ply strand. Attach the end to something (your teeth?), and now, as you twist clockwise, pass the strand over each other counterclockwise, switching hands. Repeat this endlessly, adding in new tules (fat end first) into each side as needed (See the "Bulletin of Primitive Technology" #2 for a complete description of the string making process).



To twine tules into mats or other items, begin as you would for rope, twisting together three or tour inches of single ply cord. Instead of twisting the plys together, place the twisted section around a small bunch of tules with each twist. You should have the tules laid out roughly. Pass the strand which lies on top of the first bunch over the strand which comes up from beneath, and then this strand passes beneath the second bunch of tules and then comes back out to the working face. Repeat this - over, behind and out - until you have completed a row. Add in additional pieces of tule as needed to maintain the thickness of the strand. As the row progresses, each 'stitch' should slant at the same angle across the face of the project At the end of a row, twine the tule strands into rope until it is long enough to reach the next spot you want a row to begin, then turn and twine the row. Continue this process until you have finished. End the last row with a knot, then tuck the ends back into the work.



From observations by early explorers, decoys of tules and feathers were used over a wide area in the West. A cache of decoys was found, wrapped in a tule mat, in a dry cave in Nevada in 1924. Most were painted and partly feathered, others plain. A bag of feathers was found with it. Paiute Indians have continued to make tule duck decoys to this day. Jimmy George, a Paiute shaman, is shown making a decoy in Margaret Wheat's book "Survival Arts of the Primitive Paiutes" (Univ. of Nevada Press, 1967) in the 1940's. I have a decoy I believe was made by his son some years later, and we have recently purchased two decoys from Daren George, the grandson.

There appear to be two styles of decoys. One was finished by pinning a fresh duck skin to a body of tule (shown in Wheat), and adding the stuffed head. The other type (from Lovelock Cave) has the whole figure made from tule, with paint and feathers applied over it to define the species of duck (or goose). The following instructions are for making the second type, leaving decoration up to the user.

Decoys were commonly set out in a marshland where they would attract a flight of ducks to land. A concealed hunter then pulled up a net, weighted with stones (so as to sink out of sight), and attached on the opposite bank, ensnaring the flock. Other methods included shooting with arrows equipped with 'skip bomb' heads which would skip along the surface of the water and into the swimming group of birds; and nets thrown into the landing or leaving flock.

Tule decoys made in recent times have been primarily for decoration, but there is no reason a motivated primitive hunter couldn't give the old ways a try.


This article was first published in The Bulletin of Primitive Technology (Vol. 1, Spring 1993, #5)
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