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Yerba Santa

Here’s a plant I have to travel to see: it only grows on open, sunny slopes.


I don’t have to travel very far, though. Not far down the road are friends with luscious yerba santa in full bloom. It’s another one of those native plants that a lot of people wouldn’t think of as a garden plant, but I’d have it in my garden if I could. Probably someplace toward the woods, so it could blend in with its surroundings the way it ‘s doing in this picture. It’s a very leggy small shrub-those fluffs of leaves you see are what happens up top; underneath they have storky long woody stems.

Yes, it’s leggy and awkward, and shaggy with old leaves in winter (they’re more-or-less evergreen). But it grows in hard clay soil with no summer water. And it’s a plant with hidden powers. Yerba santa’s resinous scent–most pungent on a hot day–is refreshing, and emblematic of its ability to heal. The leaves can relieve stubborn respiratory problems, including bronchitis and pollution allergies and headaches.

You use them this way: get a covered pot (enamel, glass, or stainless steel; other pots will react with the herbs, and it won’t be a good reaction). Simmer a few leaves, covered, until the water shows some color. Turn off the heat, put the pot on a table or floor, and drape the largest towel you’ve got over your head. Remove the pot lid, and inhale the steam for as long as you dare. (Hint: keep far away at first, and move in as it cools. That steam is hot.)

After this, you can add to the treatment by lying down with the warm leaves sticking to your sinuses-remember you have sinuses in your forehead. (Try putting them on your temples if you have a headache.) It sounds silly, but there’s a kind of cooling relaxation that spreads out from the leaves, taking away the headache you may not even have been aware existed.

If you’re really brave, you can drink the tea, but it’s an acquired taste. It’s a flavor blend of pine sap with saccharine and something really weird and unnameable. I’ve drunk it, but only when I was desperate. Others swear by it. You decide.

If you want to try growing yerba santa and gathering your own leaves, they’re best after the flowers bloom–unlike most leaves, which are better before. Yerba santa’s resins develop best after bloom and in hot sun. Dry them and save them for a rainy mucousy day. (You can also get the dried leaves through herbal suppliers.)

If you pick yerba santa from the wild, do be sure to find a good stand before you pick, and take only a few leaves from each plant. Denuding a wild plant or decimating a small stand of them is not a good way to connect to either nature or healing. As a flower essence (not a scented oil, but a homeopathic remedy derived from the blooms), yerba santa helps emotional constriction–getting things off your chest, so to speak. Maybe this is why its common name means, roughly, “holy herb”.

Altogether a useful and, to my eye, beautiful plant.

{ 4 comments… add one }

  • Nancy Bond June 24, 2008, 11:46 am

    A very interesting plant that I hadn’t heard of before. I just did a little exploration and read that it is used to treat pulmonary and bronchial disorders, so it’s not only pretty, but useful! Very nice.

  • Pomona Belvedere June 26, 2008, 8:20 am

    Yes, I’ve used it a lot for all those respiratory things, with very good results. A lot of people I’ve recommended it to for respiratory stuff have also done well with it.

    And I’m glad you think it’s pretty, too! A lot of people here just dismiss it as weedy.

  • Abdulla October 24, 2015, 12:08 pm

    it’s elm, and he may be right. The leaves look very much like phtoos of American elm. It’s apparently not toxic, though her passion for it may indicate she’s missing something from her diet. Something else to discuss with her vet! I have her on speed dial at this point

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