Intro to Yerba Santa, Eriodictyon californicum and ecology
Yerba Santa is a plant native to California, parts of Oregon and other species are found in the Southwest usually found at lower or mid elevations. It was given the name we currently use meaning 'sacred herb' by settlers that came to the region and noticed it's regular use amongst native groups who had lived here for thousands of years.
Yerba Santa is a woody shrub that grows on disturbed soil or after fire, often forming dense stands or sprinkled clusters. I see it sprout up on the sides of roads where the land has been dug up and moved around. It holds soil together, can be a short squat plant or can tower overhead from 7 to 8 feet tall. Like Ceanothus, it's seeds can wait in the soil for fire or disruption to initiate germination. It's leaves are thick, leathery and tough with a dark green varnished upper surface and a lighter green almost white-green underside with prominent veins and sometimes serrated margins. The non-woody leaf stems have a yellow/orange/green tint. The leaves can be aromatic, and sometimes you have to really crush up a leaf to get that resinous sweet smell. I have found that sometimes I get more aroma from older leaves, sometimes I get it from younger leaves. In Spring, the plant puts out new succulent lighter green leaves that eventually lead to a flower stalk with purple to white flowers. It keeps its leaves all year, and after the initial burst in Spring the leaves toughen and lose potency, though if you're sick and need medicine right away, you can still pick some leaves and make a steam inhalation or tea for emergency use.
Other species (of which I am not going to cover in detail): E. angustifolium (found in western deserts, esp. Pinon Juniper woodlands), E. crassifolium (endemic to southern California), E. trichocalyx (southern California and Baja).
Yerba Santa has been put into the Borage plant family alongside familiar members to some: Comfrey (Symphytum spp.), Borage (Borago officinalis), and Alkanet (Alkanna tinctoria) for you natural dyers. Most members of this plant family have a distinct Scorpian like unfurling inflorescence (group of flowers), especially when the flower stalk is young. The corolla (group of flower petals) is often bell shaped or tube-like, with five lobes. The leaves tend to be longer and lance-like. Many members of this plant family have irritating hairs like Comfrey, but Yerba Santa does not. It seems like there are some mixed feeling about how this plant family exists as a group of plants with commonalities, and whether Yerba Santa lies here or in another family. I have read that it was placed in the Waterleaf (Hydrophyllaceae) family at one point, which is now considered a subfamily under the Borage family. This comes down to if new scientific studies favor those botanists that 'split' vs. those that 'join' things together.
Medicine of Yerba Santa
I first learned of Yerba Santa far from its native range when I was interning at the United Plant Savers Goldenseal Sanctuary in 2011. I had two interactions with it. First, I had terrible seasonal allergies that Spring tucked into the humid dank forest of the Sanctuary, pollen falling from all directions, and it was making life practically miserable. I started to develop a respiratory infection, with a low grade fever from all the uncontrollable sneezing, hacking and eye itching. We did some classes with Caty Crabb through the internship and after class I asked Caty to provide me with a formula to deal with the allergies and impending infection. Caty made me a formula that included Yerba Santa but also gave me a bag of old leaves that they weren't using in their practice anymore because of the degraded quality from age. But, in these circumstances, the leaves had some worth, as I could use them as a steam with what medicine they had left, at least. I did use the plant in tincture and as a steam and it helped keep the infection at bay and dried up some of my dripping mucous membranes, at least for a few hours at a time. (Strangely, I first recognized Yerba Santa in the west based on my memory of those bagged leaves) That same season, a friend of mine came to visit me at the Sanctuary who has asthma and was having trouble breathing and didn't want to use their inhaler if they could help it. My friend Ashley who was on her way to Naturopathic School in Portland, OR after the internship, and had worked at an herb store in Colorado for five years before this time, suggested Yerba Santa for my friend's difficulty breathing. My friend was cautious, and had never encountered the plant, but took a little tincture to see if it would help. She noted 30 minutes later that she indeed did feel a bit better with her breathing.
The flavor and smell of Yerba Santa is complex, sweet yet bitter and and feels medicinal and 'thick.' It invokes something magical and indescribable, and is hard to put into words. It's drying but it doesn't feel overtly astringent or dry in the mouth, you just suddenly realize awhile after ingesting the herb that your face feels calm again (ha!).
Literally, Yerba Santa was perfect for my exact condition. It is a great decongestant, specifically for drying up overwhelming and annoying moist respiratory secretions that can be on hyperdrive during the constant mast-cell irritation of the seasonal allergy inflammatory response. Its interesting to think about now that I have been hung out with Yerba Santa in the west, an incredibly dry environment most of the year. Even during the rainy season, the air does not have the thick moist quality that the eastern air has during Spring and Summer. I attach this plant's drying effect and high concentration of resins to the dry and tough environment, on top of where Yerba Santa prefers to live. In the South, I noticed issues of folks not being able to 'dry out' and the bogginess of Spring allergies is hard to combat with many regional native herbs (this is not a rule or anything, and there are plenty of useful herbs out there, especially ones that you can grow in your garden for this purpose) in the way that Yerba Santa can.
The plant was traditionally used as a tea or chewed fresh. It's medicine is not as strong as a tea versus a tincture in many instances, due to its high resin content and resins insolubility in water, but is still extremely useful. You make a tea of the leaves and flowers by putting the herb in boiling water and letting it sit for 10-20 minutes, before straining and drinking. It tastes really good with a dab of honey as a sweetener, and also makes a good infused honey to add to teas during the time its medicine is needed. Alicia Funk cites in Living Wild and it noted in other sources, that the Miwok, Pomo, Yuki, Yurok, Kawaiisu, Karuk, Atsugewi, Nisenan, Maidu, Concow, Cahuilla & Chumash native tribes used the plants in California and into Mexico. On the book/project's website here, they site some native names used for the plant. They even include recipes in their book on making Yerba Santa chocolate and ice cream, a good combo with Yerba Santa's rich dynamic flavor. Even an ice cream shop in Nevada City has carried Yerba Santa ice cream, based on this recipe.
Michael Moore cites in his book Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West, his protocol for tincturing Yerba Santa depending on the year and the quality of the leaves. But generally, the fresh tincture is a standard 1:2 extract. I have tinctured the plant's fresh new leaves as well as old toughened leaves and have gotten decent useful medicine either way.
As a steam, you can throw dried or fresh leaves from any time of the year into a pot of boiling water and put a thick towel over your head to capture the essential oils. Its good to be cautious here, you don't want to burn your face or mucous membranes from the steam, so make sure the decoction has cooled down enough. The essential oils in the leaves are released and coat the mucous membranes, drying them and providing relief.
As a syrup or elixir, you can combine a decoction of the leaf with an infusion of the leaf in honey along with other herbs to make an amazing allergy or asthma relief syrup. James Green published an amazing book on medicine making techniques here.
Some use the leaf of the plant as a smoke for asthma, lung congestion or general lung opening. It has a good flavor smoked, but also I wouldn't smoke this plant or any plant on a regular basis.
Harvesting Yerba Santa
I would spend time with this plant before thinking about harvesting it. Notice its flowers, its color, its smell, its characteristics. Sit with it and watch how it works in the world. Only then consider harvesting if needed for yourself or your practice. Consider that the ability for this 'sacred plant' to be used by the original inhabitants of the land where it grows was taken from them along with their culture and life ways. We do not want to become herbal 'miners' that take without regard for the future or the past. We should be careful how we might continue to 'take' plants by over harvesting, harvesting with unsustainable practices, or wasting the plant matter after harvest by not processing property or being attentive to the state of the herb. I would also pay attention to the soil of the area, if there is any possibility of pollution or contaminants. Gold mining was a horrible practice done up and down the California foothills and beyond in the 1800's without regard for future consequences and sometimes using mercury in the process. Yerba Santa likes to grow on these disturbed sites, but they are not good locations for getting medicine, unfortunately. I like to watch these places and see what birds, bryophytes, fungi and plants are taking it into their own hands to patch the land that humans messed up. Yerba Santa is a land holder and patcher, so your harvesting of her should not disrupt what she needs to do for the land. So take heed. With careful attention, we can be recipients of Yerba Santa's powerful medicine for our lungs and respiratory tracts.
Harvest the fresh leaves when possibly in Spring when they first bloom out after the rainy season starts to subside. Dry them separated from one another because the leaves can stick together and ferment. Tincture fresh when possible, too. Michael Moore mentions liking to percolate the herb, which requires fine powdering the plant matter completely dry before continuing with the percolation process.
You can harvest the leaves outside of its freshest time like I have mentioned earlier in this article, but the medicine is not quite as strong.
Harvest the aerial herbaceous tops including some of the flowers, if they are present. You can pull off individual leaves and lay them out or pull them off the stems after drying. You can hang to dry too if that is easier for you, but remember the part about Yerba Santa sticking together with its surface coating of resin.
Slatterly, John. "Sonoran Plant Profile: Yerba Santa." Blog post. 1 Dec 2016. Web. 18 Feb 2018.
Kloos, Scott. "Yerba Santa Holy Herb." Blog post. 6 June 2017. Web. 1 Feb 2018.
Moore, Michael. "Yerba Santa folio." Downloadable PDF. no date. Web. 4 Feb 2018.
Moore, Michael. Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West. Museum of New Mexico Press. Santa Fe: 1993.
Funk, Alicia & Kaufman, Karin. Living Wild: Gardening, Cooking and Healing with Native Plants of California. Flicker Press. Nevada City, CA: 2013.
Funk, Alicia & Kaufman, Karin. "Yerba Santa." no date. Web. 8 Feb 2018.
Stuart, John D. and Sawyer, John O. Trees and Shrubs of California. The University of California Press. Berkeley: 2001.
Grieve, Maude. "A Modern Herbal : Yerba Santa." Botanical.com. Website. no date. Web. 8 Feb 2018.
HAALO herb shop. "Tips for Harvesting Yerba Santa." no date. Shop Website. Nevada City, CA. http://www.haalo.org/tips-for-harvesting-yerba-santa/
Wikipedia article. Eriodictyon californicum. Most recent plant family classification. Web. 18 Feb. 2018.