Posted by: James Wapotich | February 18, 2012

Trail Quest: Plant Teachers

There are a variety of reasons to learn about our local plants, ranging from getting to know the area better to finding out which plants are edible or have medicinal properties. And because there are so many different plants growing in the backcountry and along the coast the challenge quickly becomes where to begin. Fortunately there are a number of great resources available to us locally, one of which is the Edible and Medicinal Plants class offered through Santa Barbara City College’s Continuing Education Program.

Parma Park Adult Education Edible and Medicinal Plants Class

Sue Reinhart describing the medicinal properties of one of the plants in Parma Park

The 9 week class is offered on both Friday and Saturday mornings and makes use of our local trails and in itself is a great reminder of how much access we have here to the natural world. We are blessed not only to be living right next door to a national forest but to also be surrounded by a plant community as rich as chaparral.

And while many of us may be accustomed to seeing chaparral as that blue green blanket of brush covering the mountains in the distance, it is a diverse and uniquely adapted plant community well suited for the drought and fire prone climate we live in. Chaparral can range as far north as the Sierras, but it is here in Southern California with our Mediterranean climate that it flourishes. It is said that the place where you live can teach you about how to live there.

The Edible and Medicinal Plants class is taught by Sue Reinhart and follows a straight forward format of walking along the local trails and talking about the plants as they appear. Which doesn’t necessarily involve a long hike as there is a surprising variety of plants found even at the beginning of most of our trails. At the different plants, Ms. Reinhart will then talk about the plant’s reported edible or medicinal properties, often explaining which family the plant belongs to, how to identify it and any folk uses that she’s aware of.

Edible Medicinal Plants Class Hike Santa Barbara Parma Park

Hiking the trails in Parma Park

In participating in the class I’ve often imagined that this is how traditional elders teach about plants, as working with plants is in many ways about creating a relationship or a connection with that plant. Which would include being introduced to the plant, its history, who its relatives are, and where it lives. And this knowledge was passed down from one generation to the next through oral tradition.

The real key to learning about plants from a beginner’s perspective is being able to recognize them. And Ms. Reinhart does a great job of selecting trails that highlight the plants she wants to cover each week. The hike I went on with the class was through Parma Park, and some of the plants highlighted were those that are poisonous as these are the ones you definitely want to be able to recognize clearly.

Case and point, the seeds of fennel or wild licorice can be used as an appetite suppressant and to improve one’s singing voice, however in its dry from, when the plant has gone to seed, it is nearly identical to poison hemlock and its seeds. As you may recall it was a tea made from hemlock that was used to kill Socrates.

Edible Medicinal Plants Wild Licorice Poison Hemlock Santa Barbara Trail Hike

Wild Licorice, on the left and Poison Hemlock on the right

And although the two plants bloom at different times, which can help in identification, they often grow next to one another, and so the only way to tell the two apart when there are no flowers present is by looking to see if there’s any new growth at the base of the plant as hemlock leaves look sort of like parsley while fennel leaves do not.

In interviewing Ms. Reinhart about the use and effectiveness of medicinal plants she shared, “plants don’t work like western medicine, they’ve been used for different ailments, but that’s not the same as they’re a prescription for the ailment. And yet people do get well. What plants do is that they rectify imbalance.” That is they can address a symptom, but as she shared the healing power of plants comes from the context in which they’re used traditionally, “ritual and ceremony helps people heal because it seals commitment.”

Plants have been used for thousands of years for healing in this context and have that as part of their history and so in that regard they also carry their own symbolic meaning within that context, or as Ms. Reinhart puts it, “taking a plant remedy is like an embodied prayer.”

It’s interesting to consider that while many western medicines are derived from plants, how much more effective might they be if we used them in the same spirit that plants are traditionally used, that is by focusing our intention on the positive effects of the medicine and using the ritual of taking medicine as part of a prayer for our well being and recovery.

And while the class doesn’t focus on the healing traditions associated with herbal medicine it does serve as an excellent introduction to the edible and medicinal plants that grow here locally and includes both native and non-native plants. As Ms. Reinhart pointed out in class, many of the non-native plants that we now consider weeds were actually brought here by the Europeans because they wanted to have their favorite remedies nearby. For example Plantain, which grows along many of our local trails and has a number of medicinal properties, has a history of folk usage that can be traced back to the Celts.

Ms. Reinhart started teaching the class in 2003 and just recently published a set of plant cards that grew out her interest and ongoing research into the healing properties associated with different plants. Her Tri-County Medicinal Plant Cards highlights 65 medicinal plants and 10 poisonous plants found in our local area. Each card has several different pictures of the plant to aid in identification and an ingenious set of color tabs along the sides.

These color tabs make for quick reference of a wealth of comparative information ranging from when the plants blooms and what habitats they prefers to their reported healing properties and how they relate to the systems of Traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic Medicine. The cards are available at Chaucer’s, Tecolote Bookstore and the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden or through Ms. Reinhart’s website

Edible Medicinal Plants Class Santa Barbara Trail Hike

Sue Reinhart sharing her knowledge about the local plants

The next session of the Edible and Medicinal Plants class runs April through June as part of Santa Barbara City College’s Continuing Education Program or Adult Ed and is offered on both Friday and Saturday mornings from 9:00-11:00AM. For more information visit

This article originally appeared in Section A of the February 18th, 2012 edition of the Santa Barbara News-Press.

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