For many outdoor enthusiasts, Lanny Kaufer needs no introduction. The Ojai-based naturalist and proud “plant nerd” can frequently be found leading guided hikes through our local trail systems. While he is a man of many talents, one of his specialties is the identification of edible and medicinal plants that grow wild in Ventura County. In addition to writing the book — quite literally — on medicinal herbs in California, he is also the founder of HerbWalks.com (used to promote his hiking and plant identification excursions), the Ojai Herbal Symposium and the Ojai Medical Cannabis Conference.
The most recent storm provided a rare opportunity to catch up with this 76 years-young man of action, who talked to the Ventura County Reporter about his love of nature, passion for ethnobotany, herbs growing wild in Ventura County, the dos and don’ts of foraging and more.
Are you from Ojai originally?
I was born in Hollywood and grew up in the San Fernando Valley. Up to the age of 9 our family lived in Sun Valley where I played with my brother and friends in the Tujunga Wash, an untamed tributary of the Los Angeles River before the era of concrete channels and modern parental supervision. I had no interest in botany at the time but developed sense memories of the mule fat, willow and other riparian plants we used to build our forts and make our tunnels. Scent is a powerful memory trigger.
In 1964 I entered UCSB but took a “sabbatical” at the start of my junior year to explore a real-world education. That’s when I first became aware of my life’s great interest: ethnobotany, the study of Indigenous people’s uses of plants. My break lasted 6 years until I enrolled at UC Santa Cruz as a pre-med biology major doing independent study in naturopathic medicine. I graduated in 1974.
During that break, my parents bought Wheeler Hot Springs just before the 1969 flood and I moved to Ojai to help them with the restoration and caretaking of the property. Other than finishing college in Santa Cruz in the early ’70s, I’ve lived in Ojai ever since.
What were you doing before leading Herb Walks?
I was employed for much of my life as a teacher, excluding the years I managed my family’s restaurant at Wheeler Hot Springs. Beginning in 1976 I led Herb Walks on weekends. I retired from teaching special education and science at Santa Paula High School in 2008 and have been self-employed leading walks, hikes and workshops since then.
Have you always been an outdoorsy person?
I’ve always enjoyed every kind of outdoor recreation or sport available. My favorite sports are bodysurfing and ping-pong (preferably outdoors). Needless to say, I love to hike and learn about new plants, birds and other wildlife.
When did you get interested in botany in general, and edible and medicinal plants in particular?
While traveling in New Mexico in 1967 I stayed in a pueblo for a week. I caught a cold and a man brought me a bag of conifer leaves that I now recognize as cedar tea. He told me how to prepare it. My cold quickly disappeared and my curiosity was awakened. I’ve been fascinated by ethnobotany every day since that encounter.
You’ve amassed quite a bit of knowledge of these types of plants. Did you have any guides or teachers that helped educate you?
I’ve truly been blessed with some amazing teachers, a who’s who of noted herbalists, beginning with the late William LeSassier who was a neighbor my age in Santa Barbara in the early ’70s and who went on to establish himself as a leading herbalist on the East Coast. Through a UCSB Extension class, I met and studied with Juanita Centeno, the late Chumash plant expert. We became friends and she agreed to come to Ojai to co-lead workshops with me in the mid-to-late ’70s. While finishing my college degree in Santa Cruz I studied with acupuncturist-herbalist Michael Tierra, author of Planetary Herbology and founder of the East-West School of Herbology. In 1983 Michael and I co-led an herbal expedition in the Los Padres National Forest backcountry for the Ojai Foundation. I also had the opportunity to learn from the late author-herbalist Michael Moore, thanks to our mutual friend, Ojai author-herbalist Amanda McQuade Crawford. Over the last 10 years I’ve learned a lot about the pharmacology of plants from Professor Emeritus James “Jim” Adams of USC School of Pharmacy.
Tell us about some of the more common edible and/or medicinal plants in this area.
Oh boy, where to begin? And more importantly, where to end? I wrote a whole book about common local herbs that are like the plants around our ancestors’ villages, the ones that everyone knew how to use for everyday health and first aid. Elderberry comes to mind first as one that is both edible and medicinal. This tree is so common and prolific that it’s found around the entire globe in the Northern Hemisphere and used by people wherever it grows for treating the common cold and flu. Of all the herbs we have in Ventura County, elderberry has the largest body of current scientific evidence for its use, including clinical trials on humans. That’s why you can find various preparations in virtually every drug store, supermarket and natural foods store in California and beyond. An antiviral tea can be made by infusing the mature flowers in boiled water. A delicious syrup with similar properties can be made from the berries. The rest of the plant is poisonous to ingest, making it a good example of a) learning to make a positive field identification, and b) knowing which parts of a plant to safely use and how to prepare them.
A common medicinal plant to know is mugwort. Like elderberry, it grows around the world. Although there are different species of the same genus, Artemisia, the ones called mugwort look similar and have similar uses. The main reason folks should know this plant is because it has gained a lot of personal testimony, what scientists call “anecdotal evidence,” for its ability to calm and dry up a poison oak rash when applied externally. It has several internal uses as well, especially for treating menstrual cramping and menopausal issues, but it’s one that probably is better left to the experts as the dosage is important to avoid side effects.
We are fortunate to have several native species of edible-medicinal sage (the genus Salvia of the mint family) growing wild in the undeveloped areas of Ventura County. Around our homes the Mediterranean climate of long, dry summers and short, wet winters is perfect for European garden sage and other members of the mint family like the peppermint, spearmint, rosemary, oregano and thyme that can be grown in the ground or in a pot as part of a drought-tolerant landscape. Sage flowers and seeds are edible and delicious. Teas and other preparations of the leaves of the mint family are loaded with beneficial aromatic terpenes and are considered good home remedies for colds, sinus congestion, digestive problems, pain relief and many other common ailments. And, of course, sage leaves are well known as a seasoning.
Is there a lot of variation in Ventura County? Will you commonly find different types of plants in Ojai than you would in Ventura, Camarillo, etc.?
Good question! The Mediterranean climate is the common denominator throughout the county but there are two versions of it. The cool Mediterranean climate is found near the coast in Oxnard and Ventura while the hot Mediterranean climate is found inland in Ojai and Fillmore. Areas in between are a little of both, depending on how much ocean air is reaching them up the creeks and rivers. The plants have their happy places within these climate variations.
Take the sages, for example. Purple sage and black sage are found in full sun throughout the coastal sage scrub plant community closer to the ocean. As you go inland you’ll find them in the canyons and river valleys. Sun-loving white sage and chia sage prefer the hot climate in the mountainous chaparral plant community. The oddball is hummingbird sage which likes both climates but, in either one, prefers the shade of the oak forest.
Do you often cook with edible plants you find in this area? If so, what do you make?
One of my favorites is stinging nettle. I know that doesn’t sound like something to eat but it’s delicious and widely used in European cuisine. We have a wild native species, giant creek nettle, that grows eight feet tall with huge leaves but it’s not always easy to get to. On the other hand, non-native dwarf stinging nettle is a common garden weed. In fact, it’s taken over my garden right now with all the rain we’ve had. I let it grow and harvest it for free just feet from the kitchen door. Once it’s cooked, the stinging “hairs” wilt and it’s safe to eat as a substitute for any cooked green leafy vegetable. The leaves are small and delicate so a lot quickly cooks down to a little. Pound for pound, though, it may be the most nutritious plant on planet Earth, a genuine superfood! What I can’t use goes into the compost pile where it’s an excellent source of nitrogen.
Another favorite are the young pads and ripe fruits of prickly pear, well known and used by Mexican-American cooks who call the plant nopal. The diced pads are called nopalitos. I make a traditional breakfast dish with eggs known as nopalitos con huevos. The wild native prickly pear of our region (Opuntia littoralis) has many spines and irritating bristles so I prefer to harvest them from friends’ yards or ranches. I also grow them in our yard. The fruits are known as tunas in Spanish and are delicious peeled with no cooking needed. You just have to know how to handle them without picking up those annoying bristles. They feel like many tiny splinters in your skin. Not fun!
My wife, Rondia, grows Mediterranean herbs like oregano, sage, rosemary and thyme in our garden that find their way into many of our meals. I like to grow chocolate peppermint, sweet basil and garlic, among others, the last two for making pesto pizza.
How about medicinal plants — what do you use for yourself and your family?
I mentioned elderflower tea and elderberry syrup for colds and flus. Those are always on hand. A tasty antiviral tea is made from California everlasting flowers that I gather in the summer. I like to combine them with peppermint leaves for use at the first sign of a cold coming on. I use wild horehound to make an expectorant cough syrup. Our hummingbird sage patch under the old oak tree makes a delicious anti-anxiety tea. There are different uses for each of the other species of wild sage.
We also gather eucalyptus leaves to have on hand if we need to vaporize with steam for a cold or sinus congestion. Another species of Artemisia, coastal sagebrush, makes an effective liniment for treating pain, a remarkable remedy I learned from Jim Adams. I highly recommend that anyone serious about learning the uses of Ventura County’s medicinal plants attend his Ojai workshop on May 6. Details are on my website.
There are many potted aloe plants in our yard. They are attractive, easy to grow, drought tolerant, and their clear gel is great first aid for burns, sunburns and dry skin. I grow only the true Aloe vera, the one with yellow flowers, because the yellowish gel of the many other orange-flowered species is considered unsafe to use on open skin.
Where are some of your favorite places to forage?
I don’t forage in the places I lead herb walks and nature hikes as those are typically preserves or national forest trails that prohibit collecting. I have a Collection Permit from the U. S. Forest Service that allows me to gather certain plant parts in designated areas. Those permits are available at no cost from each forest’s local botanist.
I recommend that people grow the plants instead of foraging them or seek out friends and acquaintances who live on the outskirts where the plants grow wild. I envision a day when more local farmers will see the value in planting edible and medicinal herbs. Consumer demand is what will drive that change. Kudos to those growers who already do that!
I understand that there are rules for when and where you can forage. What are some guidelines you follow?
First of all, be sure that collecting is legally allowed where you want to do it and that the area you are in has not been sprayed with herbicide or otherwise polluted. Also, be sure you can positively identify the plant you’re after to avoid poisoning yourself.
My teacher Juanita Centeno taught me the Chumash way of gathering plants. Stop at the first specimen of the plant you want to collect. Give thanks to the plant and, if it suits your mindset, leave a biodegradable offering of herbs, for example, to symbolize our give-and-take relationship with the plants and animals. Think of other ways you can give back, like supporting local conservation groups. Then look around to make sure there are plenty of those plants in view. If not, keep going until you find a good population where some mindful collecting won’t impact the propagation of your chosen plant.
Never take more than 10% of the mass of an individual plant’s parts and be sure you know the correct time of year for collecting the part you want and the proper way to remove it. I have a blog post on “Sustainable Foraging” on my website with more details.
What other places beyond Ventura County are good for edible and medicinal plants?
I don’t travel long distances as much as I did in my younger days, but I’m always up for some ethnobotanizing wherever I go. Rondia and I were recently in Palm Springs where, much to my delight, I found several edible native plants like desert apricot (Prunus fremontii) and California fan palm (Washingtonia filifera), and medicinals like creosote bush (Larrea tridentata) and desert lavender (Condea emoryii). We were hiking on a Cahuilla tribal preserve so I didn’t do any collecting. It was fun, though, to identify plants I rarely get to see in the wild.
Tell us a little bit about your book, Medicinal Herbs of California.
I was recommended to Falcon Guides by a colleague. My first impulse was the same as it’s been for years when people ask me if I’ve written a book about medicinal plants. “How am I going to carve that much time out of my busy life?” Fortunately, I engaged with an editor and found myself thinking, “They’re going to find someone else to write this book if I don’t, so it might as well be me.” I signed a contract, started the book, and quickly realized I could not write the book I felt the plants deserved within their timeline.
I reached out with my concern and didn’t hear a word back for weeks! Well, it was March of 2020 and the whole country was shutting down, including the publisher’s offices. Long story short, they extended the deadline, I wrote the book, and it was released on December 30, 2021. It’s been very well received, already in its third printing as of last September.
What I believe sets the book apart from other similar field guides is the attention given to scientific data, both to evaluate the conservation status of the plants as well as to show evidence of their medicinal properties. The book has over 350 citations, unheard of in a field guide. They lead to a bibliography of 170 print books and online journal articles in the back of the book. After publication, I created a free hyperlinked version of the bibliography on my website to save readers the task of transferring long URLs from the printed page to a web browser, character by character.
We’ve had a lot of rain this winter. Are you looking forward to wildflower season? Where do you think it will be most spectacular?
There is undoubtedly going to be a lot of vegetative growth this year which probably will translate to more wildflowers, too. Timing is everything for flowering plants so we’ll see if the long, cold, wet winter has an adverse effect on flowering or just postpones it for a while. When it happens it should be spectacular just about everywhere, at least everywhere you can get to by the time Highway 33 and the roads and trails are repaired. The human infrastructure out there took a beating.
What edible or medicinal plants that will be blooming this spring are you most excited about? Any special concoctions you have in mind once they are available?
Thinking about which plants will be accessible while they’re still flowering eliminates a number of them that grow in the mountains, at least for a while. There are already a lot of elderflowers showing up seemingly everywhere at lower elevations, so I’d like to try making a non-alcoholic elderflower fizz and an elderflower liqueur. Alcoholic beverages are one of the oldest ways to preserve the medicinal and nutritive properties of fruits and flowers.
By the time the wild hollyleaf cherries are ripe in the mountains in the late summer, the roads should be open. I love to eat the fresh cherries and I make a sedative cough medicine tea from the dried inner bark but I keep trying to find the best way to preserve the flavor of the fruit. It forms a thin layer around a huge pit, making it a challenge. So I plan to work on that some more. In olden times, the Chumash processed the pits by cracking them open and cooking them to evaporate the cyanide, then making a dough-like food with a mild almond flavor. It was considered a delicacy. I’ve tried making it but I want to work with it again.
Any final thoughts you’d like to share with people interested in exploring the world of edible plants and wild foraging?
At the risk of shamelessly self-promoting, I think people should come to my walks, hikes and workshops to learn about the plants first hand, right where they grow. Learn how to positively identify them, to tell them apart from poisonous lookalikes, to see their relationships with the rest of nature around them, to smell them, touch them, get to know them. Then read my friend Christopher Nyerges’s Falcon Guide, Foraging California, for edible uses, or my field guide, Medicinal Herbs of California, for healing uses. Both books have thorough plant descriptions and lots of recipes and other tips for utilizing the plants. You can find them in the store on my website at HerbWalks.com.
Ultimately, Mother Nature is the master teacher. We guides and authors can lead you to water but you’ll have to put in the time to learn to drink it.
Lanny Kaufer’s next guided hikes include an herb walk at Arroyo Hondo Preserve on April 1, a wetland walk at Ojai Meadows Preserve on April 2, and a full moon nature hike on April 5. For more information on these and other hikes, visit herbwalks.com/events/.