Yerba Santa the Holy Herb

Here is the Yerba Santa monograph from Pacific Northwest Medicinal Plants: Identify, Harvest, and Use 120 Wild Herbs for Health and Wellness

yerba santa
Eriodictyon californicum
parts used: leaf
other common names: California yerba santa, consumptive’s weed, mountain balm

The leaves of this “holy herb” clear mucus, relieve coughing, and speed the healing of urinary tract infections.

Tubular flowers, pollinated by bees and butterflies, unfurl on stalks resembling a scorpion’s tail. © Scott Kloos. 2015. All Rights Reserved.

Tubular flowers, pollinated by bees and butterflies, unfurl on stalks resembling a scorpion’s tail. © Scott Kloos. 2015. All Rights Reserved.

How to Identify

Woody lower branches with shredding bark stand erect. Sticky, yellow-green new-growth stems produce lance-shaped, 2- to 6-inch-long, usually hairless leaves. These toothed or smooth-edged leaves are dark green, sticky, and glossy above with hairs between the veins that form a net-like pattern on their lighter-colored undersides. Flowering stalks, lined with 1/3- to 2/3-inch-long tubular flowers that vary in color from white to pink to purple, unfurl like a scorpion’s tail from late spring to early summer. Small seeds that can lay dormant for decades awaiting a fire or mechanical disturbance to stimulate their germination ripen in small capsules in late summer.

Where, When, and How to Wildcraft

This shallowly rooted, 2- to 8-foot-tall evergreen shrub forms stands in dry, sunny fields and open woodlands on south-facing, rocky slopes, and along roadsides at low to middle elevations. Its spreading roots help stabilize the soil on burn sites or in disturbed areas. From the northern limit of its range in Oregon’s Josephine and Jackson Counties, yerba santa extends south into California.

Harvest the vibrant, new-growth leaves from early to late summer. Cut the twig ends just above an outward-facing bud to encourage bushier growth. Lay the stems with attached leaves flat to dry. Turn them regularly so the leaves don’t stick together and turn brown. Remove the leaves from the stem for tincturing, teas, or smoking; leave them on the stems for smudge sticks.

Glossy-topped, lance-shaped leaves line the stalks as the seeds ripen. © Scott Kloos. 2015. All Rights Reserved.

Glossy-topped, lance-shaped leaves line the stalks as the seeds ripen. © Scott Kloos. 2015. All Rights Reserved.

Medicinal Uses

Yerba santa leaves warm and stimulate the respiratory system; reduce inflammation in the sinuses, throat, and lungs; and dry excessive secretions of the lungs or upper respiratory tract. Take the leaf tincture to relieve chronic asthma, bronchitis, or seasonal allergies accompanied by copious and easily expectorated mucus discharge, but keep in mind that yerba santa leaves can be very astringent. If taken in higher doses—more than about 45 drops—the drying effect may make your tongue feel like it’s been wrung out, but if taken in smaller doses, you will find that yerba santa first gently dries and then remoistens and refreshes the mucous membranes.

The cooled tea or the tincture in room temperature water speeds the healing of urinary tract infections characterized by mucus discharge. The tea drunk hot or the tincture in hot water promotes sweating and increases circulation to the extremities and the surface of the skin.

Also known as consumptive’s weed, yerba santa leaf has a history of use for treating tubercular cough and wasting away. Its high flavonoid content, represented by its sweet taste, points to its ability to nourish, build, and maintain the integrity of tissues.

Yerba santa has a very interesting taste characteristic—it starts out bitter and slowly gets sweeter. It teaches us how to find sweetness in the bitter experiences of life by bringing awareness to the initiatory power of trauma. In a similar way through its association with fire, yerba santa aligns us with the myth of the phoenix rising from the ashes.

Burn the leaves as smudge to purify spaces and to clear heavy or dark energies from people. Crush the leaves and add them to herbal smoking mixes to help clear mucus from the lungs.

Herbal Preparations

Leaf Tea

Standard infusion

Because resins are not soluble in water, yerba santa leaf is best prepared as a tincture for its mucus-clearing and respiratory-stimulating effects.

Drink 3–4 fluid ounces up to 5 times per day.

Leaf Tincture

1 part dried leaf

5 parts menstruum (65 percent alcohol, 35 percent distilled water)

I prefer making the tincture with dried leaves because the fresh leaves tend to clump up, making it more difficult to get a full extraction.

Take 10–30 drops up to 5 times per day.

Cut the twig ends to an outward-facing bud to stimulate bushier growth. Note the distinct patterning on the undersides of the leaves. © Scott Kloos. 2015. All Rights Reserved.

Cut the twig ends to an outward-facing bud to stimulate bushier growth. Note the distinct patterning on the undersides of the leaves. © Scott Kloos. 2015. All Rights Reserved.

Future Harvests

Harvesting leaves stimulates new growth. The seeds will store for years if kept cool and dry. To fire treat the seeds to enhance germination, sow seeds in a wooden box (plastic pots will melt), cover the soil with small bits of bark and leaves and/or pine needles, and set aflame. Transplant seedlings to dry, rocky soil.