Edible Plants of the Ventura River and Ranch Property
By Lanny Kaufer
Need a hero? There’s no shortage these days, from U.S. soldiers in combat to local heroes Bobby Houston and Robert Hudson, Oscar-nominated for their film about civil rights heroine, Rosa Parks. My nomination, however, goes to Jim Engel, executive director of the Ojai Valley Land Conservancy. Jim is the driving force behind the acquisition of the Ventura River and Ranch Property, formerly know as the Farmont project, 1,566 pristine acres straddling the Ventura River near Rancho Matilija.
So when Jim asked me to hike some of the property and write an article on the edible plants to be found there, I quickly overcame my trepidation and agreed. I say “trepidation” because the thought of surrendering my beloved plant friends to the healthy appetites of Ojai’s foodie community stops me in my tracks. After 25 years of leading Herb Walks around the Ojai Valley, I still expect to open the latest journal from the California Native Plant Society and see my face on a “wanted” poster. So you may continue reading this article on the condition that you pause right now and solemnly swear that you will observe the OVLC’s rules for picking plants (no flowers, very small quantities of other plants).
Now that we’ve taken care of that, let me tell you: there’s some good eating out there. I’m going to focus on a few indigenous plants that can be gathered with relatively little environmental impact or, better yet, cultivated in your own native plant garden.
The trail begins on the east side of the river near Rice Road. Traversing a river bottom meadow, you’ll come across a Holly-Leaved Cherry shrub (Prunus ilicifolia). Bears and coyotes love the sweet reddish-purple 3/4 inch diameter fruits and so do I. True, they’re mostly pit but, hey, they’re free. Be careful not to swallow the uncooked pits, though. They contain hydrocyanic acid, a natural form of cyanide found in the seeds of most members of the Rose family, including the commercial varieties of cherries. My Chumash teacher, the late Juanita Centeno, said a coffee was brewed from the ground, roasted kernels which release their poison gas in the heating process. The fruits can be pressed to make juice, jelly or syrup and the bark is a well-known ingredient in wild cherry cough syrups and teas, having a relaxing effect on the nerves that trigger coughing.
Holly-Leaved Cherry is a versatile garden plant. Its glossy dark green foliage makes an attractive shrub or it can be pruned into a hedge which will grow to 20 feet if desired. Both the white flowers of April-May and the shiny Fall fruits add color to the landscape. It can easily be grown in sun or partial shade from ripe seed once the fruit pulp is removed.
A bit further up the trail is an Elderberry tree (Sambucus mexicana). Yes, it’s the one that produces elderberry wine, elderberry jelly or jam and elder flower fritters, among other wild delicacies. Recipes abound in native plant books. This tree can be propagated from seed in flats, then transferred to cans or pots.
Once you’ve crossed the river to the west side, you’ll walk through an open meadow before entering the oak woodland habitat. This meadow is home to one of my personal favorites, Squaw Bush (Rhus trilobata). The species name refers to the red-tinged three-lobed leaf that closely resembles Poison Oak. Both plants are members of the Sumac family although Squaw Bush has none of the irritating oil found on the leaves of its unpopular cousin. The sticky red fruits have a unique taste that is at once sweet, sour and salty. Lebanese and other Middle Eastern cuisine would not be complete without ground “sumak,” the local version of this berry. Propagate this one from seed also.
If you enter the oak forest in the spring of the year, look down and you’ll see the unique round leaves of Miner’s Lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata) sitting atop their succulent stems like little lily pads. Its Northern California cousin is named Indian Lettuce which makes more sense to me. Where do you think the gold miners learned about this juicy salad herb used to ward off the scurvy? While it makes a great salad, especially when combined with stronger-flavored greens, it also can be cooked like spinach. The seeds are an important food source for several songbirds including the Mourning Dove.
Now look up and be greeted by the king of local edible trees, the Southern California Black Walnut (Juglans californica). While it never produced for the Chumash the abundant quantity of food supplied by its neighbor, the Coast Live Oak, the Black Walnut’s sweet oil-rich nuts have no equal in the wild food world. Fortunately for the species, the walnut shells also have no equal – in the hardness department – protecting these magnificent trees from being eaten into extinction long ago. Try slowly cranking down a vise on them. A nut pick is useful for extracting the meat. Sadly, our native Black Walnuts are facing endangered status in some areas because their riparian habitat, becoming increasingly rare in Southern California with every drought, is under constant pressure for development.
And thus we return to my hero, Jim Engel, who must raise the remaining few hundred thousand dollars by June to complete the most important protection of undeveloped natural habitat in Ojai’s history. C’mon, put your money where your mouth is, food lover! Why, I’ll bet if all the foodies in Ojai substituted sunflower seeds for pine nuts in their pesto for one month, we could close the deal.
The property is not presently open to the general public, however the Conservancy is offering walking, driving and equestrian tours for those interested in helping protect this wonderful property. Contributions and pledges can be sent to: The Ojai Valley Land Conservancy P.O. Box 1092 Ojai CA 93024. For more information call (805) 646-7930, email them at email@example.com or visit their website at www.ovlc.org.