Edible and Medicinal Herbs of the Southern California Coast
by Lanny Kaufer
Native Plant Gardens and Preserves
- Chumash Garden at Ojai Valley Museum: ojaivalleymuseum.org
- Cluff Vista Park (Ojai): ovlc.org/preserves/cluff-vista-park
- Conejo Open Space Foundation (Thousand Oaks): cosf.org
- Ojai Valley Land Conservancy preserves: ovlc.org
- Santa Barbara Botanic Garden and Nursery: sbbotanicgarden.org
- Taft Gardens and Nature Preserve (Ojai): taftgardens.org
- The Land Trust for Santa Barbara County preserves: sblandtrust.org
- Ventura Land Trust preserves: venturalandtrust.org
Native Plant Nurseries
- Green Thumb (Ventura): greenthumb.com
- Growing Works (Camarillo): turningpointfoundation.org/growing- works-retail
- Las Pilitas Nursery (Santa Margarita): laspilitas.com
- Matilija Nursery (Moorpark): matilijanursery.com/contact-us/
- Pan’s Garden (Ojai): pansgardenojai.com
- S&S Seeds (Carpinteria): ssseeds.com
- Seaside Gardens (Carpinteria): seaside-gardens.com
- Yes Yes Nursery (Santa Ynez Valley): yesyesnursery.com
The Southern California Coast stretches from the Santa Maria River in the north to the U.S.-Mexico border. This fertile region is home to countless edible and medicinal herbs prized by foragers and herbalists. Both native and non-native species can be found in Southern California’s springtime mountains, canyons, valleys, yards, and gardens.
The “pineapple express” of atmospheric rivers this winter transformed the local landscape, closing access roads and trails and scouring the lush waterside (riparian) habitat of the rivers, creeks, and canyons. At the time of this writing, there is limited access to the wild native plant communities that have sustained the Indigenous Chumash for generations. This is when modern SoCal foragers consider themselves blessed to live in a region where so many useful plants from around the globe have become naturalized in and around our neighborhoods. And once the backcountry is open again — as it likely will be when you read this — you can expect to see the life-giving effect of all the much needed rain and snow on the growth of native vegetation.
Before we take a virtual herb walk to look at a few native and non-native plants common enough to be foraged, let’s break down the concept of sustainable collecting. To start with, be sure you’ve properly identified the plant. Herb Walks and plant identification hikes are best for that, but if you’re searching books or the internet, use the scientific (Latin) name for the plant. Those names are included here for all plants described below. Learn your plant’s conservation status to make sure it’s OK to forage, and know the right time of year to collect its various parts. Pick only where local laws allow it and only where sufficient quantities of your intended herb are growing. Never take more than 10 percent of the mass of any single plant, and prune carefully while picking to try to encourage new growth and leave the plant looking better than you found it.
The Indigenous peoples of the Americas share a tradition of giving thanks to the plants before collecting. Anyone can do this, Indigenous or not, by leaving a small biodegradable offering, saying a prayer, singing a song, asking the plant for permission, or making a commitment to donate money or volunteer time for a group that preserves native plants or cultural heritage. Jacque Tahuka-Nunez of the Acjachemen tribe of the Orange County region offers this simple three-step advice:
- Don’t take more than you need.
- Give back.
- Be resourceful.
Native plants are those that were here before European contact, about 500 years ago. They are fiercely protected by environmentalists, state and national parks, land trusts and conservancies, botanical gardens, and various other preserves. With permission, some can be legally collected in small amounts for personal use. Even better, try growing your own. See the sidebar for a list of native plant nurseries, botanic gardens, and nature preserves where you can see the plants growing and, in many cases, buy starts and seeds.
Non-native plants threaten biodiversity and are often called ugly names like “weed,” “noxious,” and “invasive.” Once established, they are considered “naturalized.” They are often the best choice for foraging. Picking non-natives frees up space for natives to thrive in their historic ecosystems where they have co-evolved with insects and other wildlife for millions of years.
All of the plants described below are discussed in greater detail in my book, Medicinal Herbs of California: A Field Guide to Common Healing Plants (Falcon Guides, 2021).
- Blue elderberry (sambucus nigra subsp. caerulea)
No list of edible and medicinal plants of California is complete without elderberry, and not just for this part of the world. Due to its popularity with birds and its honored place in our nomadic ancestors’ medicine bags, elderberry can be found around the globe, mainly in the northern hemisphere. Elderflowers appear throughout the spring in dense clusters of creamy-white to yellow flowers 2 to 10 inches across and are often flat-topped. The blue berries typically ripen in early summer. Please note: All flowering and fruiting times described here can vary a lot from year to year, from north to south, and from sea level to the inland mountains.
Both dried elderflower tea or berries and the juice of the berries cooked to a syrup are well-documented anti-virals, capable of affecting the onset, duration, and severity of colds and flus. The Chumash and other native Californians had been using it for that very purpose for thousands of years before Juan Cabrillo set foot on their soil in 1542.
Caution: All fresh parts of elderberry, mainly the green stems and leaves but also the seeds, contain cyanide-forming compounds that can be avoided by drying the flowers and cooking or drying the berries. The dried berries can be eaten as a tasty medicinal snack while the delicious syrup can be added to many other juices and beverages. Who said all medicine has to taste bad?
- The sages (salvia species)
Thanks to the Mediterranean climate of the Southern and South-Central Coasts of California, several members of the salvia genus — the true sages of the mint family — have evolved here as natives, producing oily, aromatic terpenes to protect them from the summer sun and ward off insects and other leaf-munching predators. Their equally aromatic European cousins in the same family, such as common garden sage, rosemary, basil, thyme, and mint (to name just a few) can easily be grown in the garden. All mint family plants have opposite leaves, and flowers with an upper and lower lip.
Our local region is home to five native salvias: white sage, black sage, purple sage, hummingbird sage, and chia sage. Yes, chia seeds come from a sage! Salvia columbariae grows on steep slopes of the Coast Range — the mountains you can see from Highway 101. Chia seeds are tiny, and these small annual plants are not common, so please don’t collect the seeds, especially when imported chia seed is readily available in markets. All of the other sages described here are abundant and have edible flowers and seeds, with the exception of the hard chunky seeds of hummingbird sage.
Each of the Southern California sages has its unique claim to fame in the world of herbal medicine. Some Chumash healers consider the white-flowering white sage (salvia apiana) to be the foundation of healing and add it to most other medicinal preparations. Indigenous and modern herbalists alike use it as a decongestant to treat head colds, taken as a hot tea, or used as a steam inhalation. A 1991 study confirmed that a tincture of white sage can inhibit the growth of staphylococcus, candida, and klebsiella infections. Sadly, its popularity for burning as a purifying smudge has led to a huge black market of poachers. Growing your own or buying it from a reputable supplier are the only ethical ways to obtain it.
Black and purple sage (salvia mellifera and salvia leucophylla) have blue and purple flowers, respectively, and can be prepared as sun teas for soaking the feet to treat pain throughout the body. Dr. James D. Adams, Professor Emeritus of the USC School of Pharmacy, has published studies explaining how this works and includes the recipe in his book, Healing with Medicinal Plants of the West. The recipe and description can also be found in my book, Medicinal Herbs of California. Purple sage leaves have a flavor profile closest to the European garden sage sold commercially.
Hummingbird sage (salvia spathacea) is the only one of the local sages that prefers to grow in the shade. Its long, tubular red flowers are pollinated mainly by hummingbirds, hence its name. Hummingbird sage leaves make a uniquely fruity tea with a reputation for relieving anxiety and soothing sore throats.
- The artemisias (artemisia species)
Have you ever heard of or tried absinthe, the infamous green spirit used by Van Gogh and other artists and writers of his day to reach an altered state of mind? It’s made with artemisia absinthium, commonly known as wormwood. We have two native artemisias in our region, although both have just a small fraction of thujone, the intoxicating compound that put wormwood in the art history books. Both are known as medicinal herbs.
One is mugwort (artemisia douglasiana), a common, fast-spreading colony plant of the riparian habitat. It grows where poison oak grows, and many people swear by the ability of its leaves, when mashed or juiced, to relieve the itch of poison oak rash and help it disappear. It has a long history of use by California’s Indigenous tribes and American herbalists alike for easing menstruation and PMS as well as treating the symptoms of menopause.
The other is artemisia californica, a medium-sized shrub called sagebrush — even though it’s not related to the true sages described above. Like the sages, though, it contains aromatic terpenes shown to be pain-relieving, anxiety-relieving, and antibacterial. Dr. Adams’ Chumash mentor, Cecilia Garcia, recommends a sagebrush liniment for pain. It works through the skin by the same means as the sage foot soak.
Sagebrush is antifungal, too. The dry brown leaves that hang on the branches were powdered and used by traditional Chumash mothers to prevent diaper rash while their babies spent hours in a cradleboard. And like its cousin mugwort, sagebrush is used to treat various women’s issues in small internal doses.
Caution: Due to the possible thujone content, artemisias are best used under the supervision of a clinical herbalist or naturopath and should not be ingested by pregnant women.
- Stinging nettle (urtica species)
Here we have a plant represented in our creek-side habitat by a tall native species, giant stinging nettle (urtica dioica), and in our yards and gardens by its low-growing non-native cousin, dwarf stinging nettle (urtica urens). The leaves of both are equally edible once they are dried and/or cooked to wilt the stinging hairs. If you plan to collect the leaves, gloves are recommended. The sting can be relieved by rubbing the skin with the leaves of dock (rumex species) or “sour grass” (oxalis pes-caprae), two herbs with high oxalic acid content.
Pound for pound, cooked wild nettle leaves rank among the most nutritious foods on the planet, with high quantities of protein, iron, fiber, vitamins A and C, and many other nutrients often missing in agricultural soil. Cream of nettle soup is a longtime favorite in French cuisine.
The German Commission E — set up by the German government to study medicinal herbs — approved drinking nettle leaf tea to increase urine flow in treating inflammation of the lower urinary tract and to prevent and treat kidney stones. They also approved its use as a supportive therapy for arthritis. Nettle root is Commission E-approved for difficulties in urination.
- Prickly-Pear Cactus (opuntia species)
While native prickly-pears abound in our region, their sharp spines and irritating hairs (glochids) require lots of processing. Fortunately, we also have many old plantings of spineless mission prickly-pear (opuntia ficus-indica), originally from Mexico. Known as “nopal” in Spanish, it is preferred by aficionados for its edible pads and fruits. The first-year pads are often diced and served with eggs in a dish called “nopalitos con huevos.” The ripe so-called pears (“tunas” en Español) can be carefully peeled, revealing fruit with the texture of watermelon and a wonderfully sweet taste all its own. Kitchen gloves are recommended for handling, while cleaned pads and fruit are available year-round in Mexican markets.
From Mexico to South America, preparations of prickly-pear pads and fruits continue to be widely consumed to help regulate blood glucose levels in adult-onset (type 2) diabetes. Among its external uses, the soothing gel inside the pads is used like aloe vera to soothe sunburn.
- Horehound (marrubium vulgare)
This bitter, non-aromatic member of the mint family is one of those invasive, European weeds that are usually free for the taking. Cursed by dog owners for its Velcro-like seed heads that coat canine tails, horehound has a storied reputation as an expectorant, a cough medicine that thins phlegm so the lungs can expel it. Ever seen “horehound candy” on a tourist shop candy rack? It’s really a cough drop made from a syrup of horehound leaves because the tea is just too bitter to drink. Try making your own syrup with the recipe in my book.