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Medicinal Herbs of California: A Field Guide to Common Healing Plants


Medicinal Herbs of California: A Field Guide to Common Healing Plants by Lanny Kaufer. Lanham, MD: Falcon Guides; 2021. Softcover, 296 pages. ISBN: 9781493058020. $26.95.

Editor’s note: This book received an honorable mention for the 2022 ABC James A. Duke Excellence in Botanical Literature Award in the consumer/popular category.

California has more than 5,500 species of vascular plants, the greatest number of any US state. California also has a wide range of habitats, from the coastal strand and mountain ranges to deserts and high plains. In these ecologically diverse regions, numerous plant species, some still undescribed by science, flourish and adapt.

Historically, Native Americans who inhabited these areas often relied entirely on medicines from the plant kingdom. Indigenous knowledge of the medicinal uses of plant species found throughout California is extensive, but, unfortunately, much traditional herbal knowledge has been lost. By the time naturalists and ethnobotanists arrived in California to record this knowledge, many oral traditions had disappeared due to tribal fragmentation and dislocation.

Several notable books about medicinal plants in California have been used widely for decades. One prominent work is herbalist Michael Moore’s Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West (Red Crane Books, 1993). Other notable works include Edible and Useful Plants of California by Charlotte Bringle Clarke (University of California Press, 1978), Kumeyaay Ethnobotany by Michael Wilken-Robertson (Sunbelt Publications, 2017), Medicinal Plants of the Desert and Canyon West by Moore (Museum of New Mexico Press, 1989), Chumash Ethnobotany by Jan Timbrook (Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, 2007), and Early Uses of California Plants by Edward K. Balls (University of California Press, 1962). One of my favorites, and certainly one of the most connected to the source of the knowledge, is Temalpakh: Cahuilla Indian Knowledge and Usage of Plants by Lowell John Bean and Katherine Siva Saubel (Malki Museum Press, 1969).

In 2002, Steven Foster and I completed Peterson Field Guides: Western Medicinal Plants and Herbs (Houghton Mifflin). In the book, we covered about 600 species, many of which can be found in California. Although the guide details Indigenous uses that have been preserved, as well as cross-cultural uses and some scientific research, the book’s focus is not day-to-day use, collection, and preparation. Lanny Kaufer’s Medicinal Herbs of California addresses this gap in the literature.

The author has collected, studied, and brewed California’s herbs for many years. A longtime member of the herbal community, Kaufer also has attended herb conferences and workshops and thoroughly studied the existing literature. He is in touch with well-trained herbalists who collect and extract California’s native plants for their clinical practices and the current herbal practice that has emerged over the past 10 to 20 years. Classic European herbs like valerian (Valeriana officinalis, Caprifoliaceae), arnica (Arnica montana, Asteraceae), gentian (Gentiana spp., Gentianaceae), and centaury (Centaurium erythraea, Gentianaceae) are closely related to species that grow wild in California and often serve as well as their better-known European counterparts. Many traditional Chinese herbs also have wild relatives in California, including Ligusticum species (Apiaceae), Polygala species (Polygalaceae), Actaea species (Ranunculaceae), and many more.

Medicinal Herbs of California begins with sections on the history of herbalism in the United States and California, guidelines for sustainable harvesting, native plant conservation, collecting and drying medicinal herbs, and preparing herbal home remedies. Most of the book focuses on individual medicinal plants, but it begins with “Lichens,” which technically do not belong to the plant kingdom. The herbs generally are arranged phylogenetically, meaning they are grouped in clades in which families, genera, and species have recent common ancestors. After Lichens, the main sections cover “Gymnosperms,” “Magnolias,” “Monocots,” and “Eudicots.”

Each herbal entry is organized into consistent headings, including nomenclature and conservation status, then moves on to brief subheads that list major uses (e.g., “antimicrobial” and “antifungal”), parts used, edibility, and a detailed description of the organism and its habitat, as well as other related species that might be used in its place.

The book may be somewhat geographically biased in favor of interior Southern California, as it does not address some important herbs that are frequently sought by California herbalists, such as the many gentian species available in the mountains of California, valerian (Valeriana californica), arnica (Arnica longifolia and other species), and pacific osha or kishwoof (Ligusticum grayi).

Traditional and modern uses are detailed next. Then, the “Phytochemicals/Mechanisms of Action” section covers the chemistry and pharmacology of the herbs being discussed. In some cases, the author references animal studies and cites the biological activities of the main constituent groups like flavonoids, terpenes, and alkaloids.

The next section for each herb covers its cultivation. In some cases, little information is available. California native plants are often difficult to propagate in climate, soil, and other conditions that are substantially different from the habitats where they occur naturally. For instance, attempting to grow a native plant like seaside aster (Erigeron glaucus, Asteraceae) in the dry and hot Sierra foothills is often unsuccessful. Still, the book does gather some useful information for those wishing to grow native plants in their gardens.

The author also includes a “Cautions” section for most herbs with known toxic compounds. These appear to be researched carefully, for the most part. For instance, the section on chaparral (Larrea tridentata, Zygophyllaceae), which has become controversial as a possible liver toxicant and mutagen after many years of popular use as an anticancer herb, is accurate.

The Cautions section includes some inconsistencies. For instance, it is noted correctly that red cedar (Thuja plicata, Cupressaceae) contains high levels of the toxic (and potentially hallucinogenic) terpene thujone, which is mutagenic and hepatotoxic. The author says that western red cedar is still in use “often in tincture form to better extract the essential oil compounds.” This includes the major compound in the essential oil, thujone. Later, the author does caution about using excessive amounts of red cedar, especially during pregnancy and for those with pre-existing kidney disease. However, he does not mention the hepatotoxic potential of western red cedar tincture and is not clear that, traditionally, red cedar almost exclusively was used as a tea infusion internally. Studies show that thujone, which is also present in high amounts in wormwood (Artemisia absinthium, Asteraceae), is not extracted well in water, but much more efficiently in alcohol.

The last section in each herb entry is “Notes,” which offers stories and lore about the herbs.

The book also contains herb formulas with instructions on how to make various preparations like tinctures, liniments, salves, syrups, and tea blends. Many of these formulas were created by the author (and some were featured in his previous publications) or other local herbalists. Presumably, they have all been tried and tested for flavor and palatability. Some look quite reasonable for their intended use. For instance, the “cough formula tincture” contains yerba santa (Eriodictyon spp., Boraginaceae), grindelia (Grindelia spp., Asteraceae), wild cherry (Prunus spp., Rosaceae) bark, and licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra, Fabaceae), all of which are recommended for treating congestion associated with upper respiratory tract infections.

Numerous references are cited throughout the book, which indicates that a significant amount of research and effort went into it.

The main aspect of the book about which I can complain is that the quality, resolution, and clarity of the photographs for identification purposes is irregular. Some of them are quite clear and useful, whereas others are just a green blur. Some of the pictures are apparently low-resolution shots that were used because others were not available.

My impression of the book and what it offers to the literature is generally favorable, and at this point it is the most practical, detailed, and referenced work available on the safe use of California native plants for healing.

Christopher Hobbs, PhD, LAc
, is a fourth-generation herbalist and mycologist, licensed acupuncturist, herbal clinician, research scientist, consultant, botanist, and author of more than 20 books and numerous articles.