Outdoor Observer

Plant expert offers insight into their uses and ecological significance

By Alex Wilson 05/17/2012

Herb walks with Ojai resident Lanny Kaufer offer a fun and educational blend of local history and botany during excursions on local trails.


On a recent walk in scenic Horn Canyon near Ojai, we learned about plants taken as medicines by Chumash Indians, like yerba santa, used to treat coughing. We had a nibble of some wild mustard and made natural soap by rubbing ceanothus flowers and water between our hands.


Kaufer is a retired science teacher who’s been leading herb walks since 1976. He says interaction with Native American culture is what got him started. “My first experience with native plants and medicine was on a Pueblo Indian reservation in 1965. I was visiting there and I got a cold. An older man brought me a bag of cedar leaf tea. He said to make tea and drink it, and I did and it cleared up my cold. I was amazed at that, and it piqued my curiosity that has continued ever since,” says Kaufer.


People who join the herb walks gain new appreciation for the variety of plants around us and their myriad of uses. “That’s what I enjoy the most is seeing the sense of wonder and discovery that people have about that, because that’s how I felt when I first started learning,” says Kaufer. “In fact, I’ve never lost that sense of wonder because there’s so much to learn, and I keep studying it and learning new things all the time.”


Kaufer leads herb walks from February through November each year, and the types of plants vary by the trail selected. Spring sees annual flowers while chaparral shrubs are around all year.


The United States Forest Service recently granted Kaufer a special use permit for outfitters and guides, which allows him to take people deeper into the forest than he’s been able to in the past.


He’s also created a website at www.herbwalks.com with a calendar of events and information about registering for the herb walks, which cost $25. The website includes a bookstore and links to more information about topics like ethnobotany and local trails.  “I also have links to so many resources on identifying native plants, on the uses of native plants for food, medicine, crafts and landscaping,” says Kaufer. “I have links about the Chumash and their traditional uses for plants, like building their houses and making their clothes.”


Kaufer hopes the herb walks bring people closer to nature. “That’s my goal. That’s my mission. I like to think of myself as one of the Loraxes who speaks for the trees. The more that people appreciate the value of what’s out here in nature, the more they’re going to want to preserve it, not just see it as bare land that can be mined or built on,” says Kaufer.


He also wants people to understand how plants relate to everything else in nature. “The plants are the foundation of the ecosystem that supports the birds and the mammals and the reptiles. The whole animal world relies on the plants for food and habitat. So you’re really preserving the whole ecosystem when you take care of plants,” says Kaufer. “Understanding the Native American web of life, we have so much that we can use of the plant world, but at the same time plants need us to be mindful of our impact on the environment. So we need them and they need us, in the same way that we need their oxygen and they need our carbon dioxide.”

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