A Walk in the Garden

Nature’s bounty takes center stage as local plant guide Lanny Kaufer leads an ethnobotanical tour of Ventura’s Seaside Wilderness Park.

By Ken McAlpine

Photo by T Christian Gapen

Lanny Kaufer enlightens a group on the subject of Sweet Fennel, an abundant non-native plant whose seeds are widely used in Italian cooking..

John Muir once famously said, “In every walk with Nature one receives far more than he seeks.”

From life-changing vistas to full body poison oak, I have found this famously true, but I could have avoided the poison oak had I met Lanny Kaufer earlier. As it was, I listened instead to a friend who bent, examined an innocuous plant on the outer edge of a vast hillside of similarly featured innocuous plants, and declared, “It’s not poison oak.” What I learned from that botanical experience was simple. Regarding plant identification, few people are to be trusted, and when you yourself are itching like a hound dog touring a flea farm there is but small satisfaction in seeing your misguided friend come down with a rash worse than yours.

Lanny Kaufer does know plants. He has been making a study of them since, as he puts it, “I was first introduced to the idea that you could make tea from a plant.” Since 1967 Kaufer has been leading Herb Walks, primarily in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, with the aim of introducing folks to plants that can be used rightly for food and medicine and, in the case of poison oak, plants that should be avoided though perhaps not maligned, for as Lanny teaches, poison oak serves its purpose too. Lanny’s mission is simple. To pass on the time-honored knowledge of our predecessors regarding plants of ethnobotanical importance. To save you the trouble of looking it up like I did, that would be plants with a history of human usage. Long before we identified our plants in the vegetable aisle at Vons, our predecessors plucked them from the wild, using them for everything from food to alleviating diaper rash. Lanny is passing that knowledge on.

And so we stand, a floppy-hatted assemblage of roughly 18 men and women who have signed on for Lanny’s three-hour Herb Walk, listening attentively as Lanny points to a bush bobbing happily in the summer sun here on the northern edge of Ventura. Today’s walk will take us through Seaside Wilderness Park to the mouth of the Ventura River, and out on to the sand dunes lining the beach. If you know this walk, you may wonder why a hike that can be done in ten minutes takes three hours. I refer you to Lanny Kaufer and John Muir, and the value of observing Nature.

The bush behind Lanny is Sweet Fennel, Foeniculum vulgare, a member of the Carrot family (Apiaceae), not that you’re going to remember any of that by the end of this sentence. But what you might remember is that Sweet Fennel is the Walmart of plants.

“There’s always something edible on the fennel,” Lanny tells us. “Right now, it’s the flowers.”

Lanny steps aside, and we descend. As you may know, the flowers taste like exactly like black licorice. This impresses everyone.

My new friend Bill Tindula, a retired teacher from Nipomo, chews contemplatively and says, “Really good.”

His wife, Kathy, chirps brightly, “On our last hike with Lanny, I brought biscotti!”

Perhaps in our enthusiasm we are a bit too ardent in our sampling. It may be possible to mow a head-high bush to the nub.

Lanny politely bestows a nugget of conservation.

“There’s a rule not to take more than ten percent of a plant, and unless you see a lot of a plant in one place you shouldn’t pick from it at all.” Lanny points out that the Chumash usually gave thanks to the plant they were using. And not without reason.

“I mean, where would we be without plants?” asks Lanny. “For starters, oxygen.”

I like Lanny. He counsels care, but not like a crotchety museum docent. Knowledgeable to the nth degree, he does not lord it over those of us who would easily eat lookalike hemlock instead of fennel (instead of licorice, paralysis). Lanny’s childish sense of fun and wry sense of humor remind me of Gandalf, though Lanny knows more about plants.

Our group varies in expertise from — me, to an intense fellow named Cash who records Lanny’s every word and tells me, “I’m an herbalist.”

Like any good teacher, Lanny doesn’t demand too much of his charges.

“We’re out here to get to know the plants face to face, but we can’t do it all,” he tells us as we troop, licorice-mouthed, away from the Fennel.

I like my fellow herb walkers. They fearlessly ask the questions I would ask.

“Do you just come out here and eat sometimes?” asks Bill, my schoolteacher friend.

“I just nibble,” Lanny responds.

Bill and Kathy, who drove down from Nipomo this morning, have a fine purpose to their trip.

“I like to go into Nature and know what I’m seeing,” Kathy says.

Quickly we see that largesse is everywhere. A few steps from the Fennel, Lanny pokes at a bobbing, yellow flowered bush.

“Summer Mustard,” says Lanny. “The flowers are edible. Tastes like wasabi. We’re getting all the weeds out of the way. I love how the tastes circulate on your tongue and rise up through your nose.”

Indeed. I turn away so no one can see
me crying.

Officially we are discovering the plants of the Riparian Woodland, Coastal Sage Scrub, and Coastal Strand plant communities, but Kathy has noticed something else.

“We’re not even out of the campground yet.”

Truth be told, my favorite plants are the nasty ones. Lanny introduces us to Poison Hemlock, and Datura, and, as we move close to the Ventura River, my personal Waterloo: the despised Poison Oak. Lanny tells us how to spot Poison Oak, though it’s Bill’s ID I remember best.

Leaning close, Bill whispers, “If it’s shiny, watch your hiney. It’s what I used to tell my sixth graders.”

Lanny smiles at a vast expanse of the damn stuff, a literal floor beneath the forest of Cottonwood and Willow.

“Everything we’re standing on is poison oak roots,” Lanny says. “It’s holding all this leaf litter in place so that the young plants can get established. None of this would be here without the poison oak.”

I am not the only one who is seeing with new eyes. As we walk beside the Ventura River in lovely dappled shade and tinctures of cool, a woman beside me shakes her head.

“I had no idea. I’ve run past these plants dozens of times.”

Out on the beach we discover more plants of improbable beauty (Evening Primrose) and yummy function (Pickleweed). Lanny often sprinkles the latter on his salad.

“It’s only edible when it’s green, but if you find young, tender shoots, ooohhhh, that’s something else,” he says. Nor is it just about instant gustatory gratification. “Pickleweed is now being studied intensively as a possible biofuel and a food source because it can grow in salty water.”

Everywhere, discovery.

Lanny knows his place in this fascinating world.

He smiles easily.

“Once you aspire to be a naturalist that takes a few lifetimes. So I’m trying to make the most of this one.”

For more information, including a schedule of upcoming walks, visit or

From September 11 to October 23, Lanny Kaufer will teach a 6-week class on Edible and Medicinal Plants of Ventura County. Hosted by Oscher Lifelong Learning Institute, a branch of Cal State University, Channel Islands, Extended University, the class is open to those 50 years of age or older. Membership is required. For details, call 805.437.2748 or visit

The edible flowers of Foeniculum vulgare.

Rosa californica, the only rose native to the local area.

Native Cattails (Typha species) are used in “phytoremediation” programs to remove pollutants from water. Those growing in clean water, however, have edible parts with a mild taste and loads of vitamins A, B, and C, as well as potassium and phosphorus.

Poisonous to eat, native Datura (Datura wrightii) flowers have been used medicinally since ancient times.

Herb walks end at the dunes.


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