Lanny Kaufer has been leading Herb Walks in Ventura and Santa Barbara County since 1976. Unlike native plant walks, Kaufer’s walks focus on specific wild herbs that can be used not only for food but also survival, home remedies, and medicinal purposes. A biology graduate of UC Santa Cruz, his interest in naturopathic medicine and ecology soon immersed him in the world of herbs. Creating a greener place through wilderness education, the walks help hikers understand nature and its ecology – creating tasty, teachable moments.
“I remember when I first went out into the forest, I felt uneasy, kind of like an alien in a strange world. I know other people may feel this way regarding hiking or the outdoors. I wanted to help people overcome this. By getting to know what’s around you, you feel more familiar, and that’s when you can really enjoy nature,” said Kaufer.
A teacher himself, his natural desire to share information was the catalyst for creating backcountry herb walks. Attaining first-hand knowledge from the Chumash people, including Juanita Centeno, Kaufer’s walks offer insight into various Chumash traditions. Kaufer explains how the Chumash would make an offering, singing songs and prayers to the plants and fauna. The original ecologists, they understood how to preserve nature and environment around them.
“The greatest lesson I learned from the Chumash people was the simple lesson of giving thanks, going slow, and being mindful and respectful of the land when harvesting. That has always stuck with me,” said Kaufer.
From the Maricopa Plaza in Ojai, we drove 20 miles into Rose Valley, passing the beautiful Piedra Blanca rock formations. Arriving at the trailhead, the walk began along Sespe Creek, which runs 55 miles into the Santa Clara River. The first taste was the abundant three-leaved sumac berries (same family as poison oak) – sticky, woody, and sour. We harvested a few for later, making sure to identify poison oak and its differences. Walking along the creek, Kaufer explained how native willow bark (Salix) can be used like aspirin. The salicin it contains is anti-inflammatory, helping with headaches, pain, and fever. Some native people used to boil the bark to make tea, in addition to using the leaves as an antiseptic.
Over the years, the preventative aspect of wild food has given a real picture of the micronutrients lost and depleted in conventionally farmed soil. Describing it as “folk medicine,” Kaufer teaches about everyday herbs and plants that the Chumash people and others have always used. Finding ways to integrate natural foods and natural remedies into a health regimen is key to preventative medicine.
“While I make it clear I’m not a doctor, I do encourage people to use herbs for their medicinal and therapeutic properties. Find a doctor that’s open to integrative medicine and naturopathy. Working with your body, herbs are great over-the-counter remedies,” said Kaufer.
The next native plant was the wild rose, or “California Rose.” Used as a mild astringent, the rose plant’s leaves are perfect for washing wounds. Sampling the berries, or rose hips, they were much juicier and sweeter than the sumac berries and are used commonly to make jellies, syrups, and herbal tea (full of vitamin C). Sweet clover was also identified, a naturally occurring blood-thinner. Nibbling on wild tarragon along the trail, we also discovered mugwort, a miracle plant of sorts. The juice of the fresh leaves can help with poison oak, and a tea made of the plant is used for colds, menstrual symptoms, and even ADHD. Pointing out the Bigcone Douglas Fir, Kaufer commented on the “piney sour” taste of new needles, which are in fact edible.
The aroma of white sage led us around the corner, as Kaufer explained its spiritual properties for the Chumash and other Native American people. Sage was frequently used in longevity formulas for its calming properties, for purifying the air, and even helping with sore throats. Neighbors to the white sage, and also part of the mint family, we found a large selection of chia, which we sampled for its nutritional properties. The seeds are nutty, and rich in omega-3s, phosphorus, manganese, calcium, potassium and sodium. Yucca (agave family) can be used to soap up, and its flowers are edible. A unique treasure we came upon were manzanita, or “little apple” berries – crunchy, sour, and astringent-sweet, they can be chewed by hikers to deter thirst.
“When you are able to identify native plants, they become like your friends: you start to feel more comfortable in nature. People have the opportunity to witness the life cycle, the relationships between birds, insects, animals, and of course, plants. You become one with nature on a very personal level,” said Kaufer.
As we neared the water, the diversity of flora began to change, from the lush cottonwood trees to the narrowleaf cattail. A swimming hole offered a great opportunity for a wilderness swim, and yes, a sampling of some cattail. Edible to humans, the underground stems are nutritious and energy rich. Kaufer scraped the starchy fibers off to reveal a tender, sweet under layer. Similar to jicama, the cattail has a salty, sweet property, a perfect cooling treat after a hot hike. Operating under a Special Use Permit with the Los Padres National Forest, Kaufer offers hikers a unique lesson in ecological foraging.
“I’ve always looked for a niche market – I can’t tell you how many people desire to go out and connect with nature. By supporting groups like the Ojai Valley Land Conservancy and leading walks, I am helping save trails from development and calling attention to the sheer beauty of nature,” said Kaufer.
The next herb walk will take place July 29th, from 9:00am-11:30am at Ventura’s Foster Park Area Preserve, on the Ventura River. For details and booking, click here.
–Rachel Hommel, LoaTree team writer (all photos by Rachel Hommel)