When a new virus known as COVID-19 first came to the US in 2020, scientists at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee put the world’s largest and fastest supercomputer, SUMMIT — which has the power of a million laptops working together — to search out compounds that could block the virus from invading cells in a human.
Jeremy Smith, who led the effort at the Center for Molecular Biophysics at the famed Oak Ridge lab, said that “life on earth evolved over billions of years and produced many many different types of compounds to help it live. The variety of natural compounds in the natural world is stunning, and many drugs that are in use today are derived from natural products.”
In search of this helpful compound, in February of 2020 thirty scientists working with the lab built a digital three-dimensional model of the molecular structure of the novel coronavirus’s famous spike protein and the ACE2 interface in human cells with which it docks. Using the power of the supercomputer they looked for “small molecules” that could likely bind to either the virus’s spiky key or to the ACE2’s lock-like receptor. The supercomputer quickly examined 8,000 compounds and identified 77 compounds that could potentially hinder the viral docking, and highlighted four top candidates most likely to block the novel coronavirus.
The fourth compound on that highlighted list, eriodictyol, comes from a wild Southern Californian yerba santa plant well-known to indigenous healers, herbalists, and native plant experts such as Ojai’s Lanny Kaufer. Kaufer has been leading “herb walks” into the backcountry for decades, and just published a new book thru Falcon Guide called “Medicinal Herbs of California.”
Yerba Santa, easily found in the backcountry, is an extremely vigorous plant with gray resinous leaves long reputed for its healing qualities by natives such as the Chumash. The plant’s medicinal qualities impressed newer arrivals to California as well, including the Spanish, who called it “holy herb,” and white settlers, who included it on the official US Pharmacopeia for lung conditions in 1894, Kaufer writes.
For Kaufer, a former biology teacher, this implicit vote of confidence in indigenous knowledge of native plants by a high-tech scientific pursuit stands as a prime example of “the consilience of evidence,” which can occur when two very different disciplines arrive at the same conclusion.
“Native people have observed over centuries which plants work,” Kaufer noted. “Scientists call that empirical evidence. If the plant didn’t work, it would have fallen by the wayside. So that’s observational evidence, but that’s not scientific proof. Modern science requires laboratory and clinical evidence of effectiveness and safety. That’s what I’m trying to do, is bring together the observational evidence for the use of certain plants with the confirmation that comes with a scientific understanding.”
Kaufer has led “herb walks” for those curious about native medicinal plants into the Ojai backcountry for many years, sometimes in collaboration with his friend Jim Adams, a research pharmacologist recently retired from USC. Kaufer, Adams, and another scientifically-trained Southern California herbalist, Kevin Curran, a molecular biologist formerly at UC San Diego, share an interest and belief in the usefulness of native plants, which they have all in their own ways explored in books, websites, and backcountry walks. But they don’t always agree on exactly on how best to prepare and use medicinal herbs.
One plant that Kaufer and Adams both feature in their walks and in their work is yerba santa, and its potent compound Eriodictyol. Jim Adams said that he knew of several people infected with COVID-19 who had been helped by the inhalation of steam vapor from boiled Yerba Santa.
“For thousands of years the Chumash have been boiling Yerba Santa and inhaling it,” Adams said. “It’s important that it be done correctly — Eriodictyol isn’t absorbed well into the blood, and if drunk in tea form it won’t reach the lungs where it’s needed. But it’s helpful against pneumonia and tuberculosis, and against COVID-19 I’ve had several people feel improvement after just twenty or thirty minutes of inhalation of the steam vapor.”
Adams, through a Facebook page called “Healing with Medicinal Plants of the West,” offers a YouTube video on the correct use of the Yerba Santa vapor for a COVID-19 infection. Kaufer offers a similar recipe for vaporization for yerba santa in “Medicinal Herbs of California,” but in his discussion begins by putting the plant in historical context, and thoughtfully notes the differences in the way this herb (and 70 others in the book) are used medicinally by different peoples. He names nine tribes from throughout California who brewed a tea with yerba santa leaves for colds, coughs, and rheumatic pains, but as well as prominently mentions the contrasting method of vaporizing yerba santa for lung conditions, the method advocated by Chumash elder Cecilia Garcia and her former student, the pharmacologist Adams.
Such differences in the use of medicinal herbs can sometimes be subtle. Another herbalist Kaufer calls one of his “teachers,” Michael Moore, advocates using an infusion of yerba santa tea instead of an inhalation of the vapor, which Moore described as “one of our best decongestants.” These sorts of variations spurred Kaufer to insist on including over 350 citations to medical research studies and historical examples in his book, even though he said the Falcon Guide publisher did not initially want to include references in a field guide.
Kaufer takes a reserved stance towards these different herbalist remedies, succinctly and with minimal comment laying out the differences and variations. In the case of yerba santa, he notes that before the advent of antibiotics, the Chumash “used yerba santa for all breathing problems, including asthma, tuberculosis, and pneumonia,” but unlike Adams he doesn’t recommend it specifically against COVID-19. He does say that in the recipe that teas “may help combat an infection” and adds regarding yerba santa recipes that “You’ll have to find what works for you.”
Kevin Curran, who describes himself as an “Internet friend” of Kaufer’s, is a molecular biologist from San Diego, a former professor at UC San Diego, and an expert on native plant compounds. He offers a popular online guide to California medicinal herbs called the Ethnoherbalist, and consults with manufacturers. He said that although he knows yerba santa is often recommended for lung inflammation, he personally wouldn’t suggest yerba santa preparations for people with COVID-19 without seeing the results of clinical trial testing first,
“I’m a little square that way,” he said, but he stressed that he trusted Kaufer, whom he recommended to the Falcon Guide publisher, in part because of his long experience teaching in the wild with native plants. Kaufer has led hundreds of “herb walks” in the Ojai area since 1976.
Although herbalists such as Adams, Curran, and Kaufer bring slightly different approaches to medicinal plants and their uses, they all support public health measures against the pandemic. Adams in a 2020 video touting the benefits of yerba santa inhalation in the case of COVID19 first strongly stresses the benefits of masking, and Kaufer agreed this January.
“Although I have a distrust of Big Pharma, I am double vaccinated and boosted and I observe religiously the COVID protocols,” Kaufer said. “Because this is a global pandemic and I believe in science.”
To usefully explore the benefits and powers of wild herbs speaks to Kaufer’s deeper intention: to inspire readers to find a closer relationship with the native plants of the land on which they live.
“My primary mission is something that came to me on a personal vision quest, into the mountains behind Ojai in 1970,” he said. “At that time I made a commitment to myself to help protect these native plants. I realized that people want to protect what they value so my goal has always been to instill in people a sense of the value of these plants, so that people see them for their intrinsic value, not just as brush on the hillside to bulldoze out of the way.”
Curran points out that Kaufer’s long experience with native plants gives him experience not available commercially, because Kaufer doesn’t rely on herbal supplements available in stores.
“You can’t just go into a store and buy a medicinal herb and be certain you know what you are getting,” Curran said. “It’s the Wild Wild West. It’s a problem with the entire supplements industry.”
Curran said that because supplements in stores superficially look like medications, people tend to expect that manufacturers will meet pharmaceutical standards for purity, potency, and concentration. These standards are tightly regulated in the pharmaceutical industry, with manufacturing facilities that are inspected routinely. Such is not the case with dietary supplements in this country in part because, he said, customers don’t really want it.
“To be quantitative is not a direction that a lot of people in this market really want to go,” he said. “A lot of people would rather know an herbalist who lives in the mountains and has a little shop that makes infusions. It’s a lot cooler to have some sort of spiritual connection than to look at a certificate of purity from a registered analyst.”
Kaufer writes about the history of this conflict between the spiritual and the scientific regarding medicinal plants. In an introductory chapter in the book, he contrasts how in this nation the indigenous knowledge of plants was all but lost to genocidal attacks on native tribes, and then in the early 20th century, to a focus on “scientific” learning that excluded past plant knowledge.
“A racist bias prevented most Europeans from accepting medical advice from people they deemed inferior, or even worse, subhuman,” he writes, of early settlers in North America. The release of the “Flexner Report” on medical education in the U.S. in 1910 further setback herbal treatments for common ailments, he writes, as it led to the closing of half the schools providing medical education in the country, “including those who taught herbal or naturopathic medicine, as well as those that taught Black or women doctors.”
“I’m just trying to restore herbs to their rightful place in the pharmacopeia,” Kaufer said. “In terms of laboratory and clinical evidence, synthetic drugs and the medication education around them has a 100-year head start on herbs. So it’s going to take a while to level the playing field, and we still have a commercial problem, which is that a drug company can’t patent a whole plant. They can isolate an extract from the plant, and patent that, but that’s not necessarily the best use of the plant, because with some of these plants, the compounds work in synergy with each other. Sometimes nature does a better job.”
Kaufer reports that interest in his backcountry “herb walks” has risen slowly but steadily over the decades in which he has been leading walks. On many walks he invites collaborators, such as herbalists or naturalists or scientists, including pharmacologist Adams, the prominent artist, writer and naturalist Obi Kaufman, and the forager Christopher Nyerges. A walk with the mushroom collector/writer Jess Starwood early in the year proved so popular that Kaufer added two dates for walks with her and still sold out with a substantial waiting list in January. He said that people have been asking him for years when he would have a book for sale at the small store he runs via his herbwalks.com website for those interested in medicinal herbs.
“This book is really my attempt to bring together the ancient knowledge that I value so much and has been so badly disregarded with the science that confirms that plants have been shown for centuries to be effective for certain conditions by Native Americans,” Kaufer said. He adds that the pandemic’s arrival in 2020, by forcing him to halt his herb walks, ironically gave him the many months of uninterrupted time he needed to write and fact-check the book.
Now that he can safely lead walks outdoors again, Kaufer looks forward to resuming his schedule of herb walks, which will feature him exploring Matilija Canyon, the Ventura River Watershed, the Potero John Trail, and many other favorite locations rich in medicinal herbs.
“Go for a hike with Lanny. Get out in the woods and check out the plants,” urged his researcher friend Curran. “Get to know your local plants, grow them in your yard, and be connected with the world around you. It’s a great reminder of what we always have available to us in Southern California for free.”