If you don't know watercress from wild rose hips, you can take a hike with herbalist Lanny Kaufer and find out what's edible--and medicinal--out there in the wilds of Ventura County.
Kaufer is leading a leisurely two-hour hike Saturday on the Oak Creek Canyon Trail in Thousand Oaks. During the two-mile jaunt, Kaufer will identify plants such as the prickly pear cactus, which bears a sweet, edible fruit, or the mugwort plant, an antidote for poison oak.
"I've used the mugwort successfully," Kaufer said. The leaves can be rubbed together to release a juice for itchy areas. "Or, you can use the modern technique of putting it in a blender and squeezing out the juice."
This is not to say that hikers will be picking any plants or flowers on the hike. It's not allowed on the Oak Creek Canyon Trail, which connects to the long Los Robles Trail that runs along the south end of the city.
Nor is it OK anywhere in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. But in the Los Padres National Forest, Kaufer said, hikers can pick up a free botanical collectors permit from the Forest Service that enables them to pick specified plants for their own use.
Spring is really the best time to see flowering plant life. That's when Kaufer conducts herb walks around the Ojai area to acquaint people with plants used by the Chumash Indians, early settlers and even people today for food, medicine, crafts and ceremonies.
Kaufer has been conducting the walks for 17 years. He has a degree in biology and has taught science, health and natural history and outdoor education at Ojai private schools. He works in public relations for Wheeler Hot Springs, near Ojai.
He was traveling in the Southwest about 25 years ago when he learned about herbal medicine from the Indians. "I was fascinated that you could eat wild plants and use home remedies," he said. "I'm even more fascinated now."
But Kaufer issued a caution: No one should simply go out and use plants for food and medicine without some knowledge. "You have to learn how to properly identify plants so you don't poison yourself."
On Saturday's walk, sponsored by the Conejo Recreation and Park District, Kaufer will talk about identifying plants and the proper way of gathering them so that neither the hiker nor the environment is harmed.
What else are hikers likely to see? Sage and yarrow, an old remedy to stop bleeding. Ventura County is home to a number of edible goodies, including watercress and wild rose hips, which, Kaufer said, are "full of vitamin C."
Jane Hulse, who spends as much time as possible out of doors, is aregular contributor to Ventura County Life. If you have any outdoor recreational news, send it to her at Ventura County Life, 5200 Valentine Road, Suite 140, Ventura, 93003, or send faxes to 658-5576.
* WHAT: Two-mile hike during which herbalist Lanny Kaufer identifies edible and medicinal plants.
* WHEN: Saturday from 9 to 11 a.m.
* WHERE: Trailhead for Los Robles Oak Creek Canyon Trail, at the Arts Council Center, 482 Greenmeadow Drive, Thousand Oaks.
* COST: $10 for residents in the Conejo Recreation and Park District, $12 for those outside.
* FYI: Preregistration is required. To register, call the district at 494-8301. For more information about this hike and others led by Kaufer, call 646-6281.
* TIP: Bring water.