I’ve always thought that California has a particular fragrance. I grew up near the Santa Monica Mountains in Southern California and even though it’s been well over twenty years since I lived there, I can still vividly remember the smell: a subtle aromatic cacophony of all the fragrant plants growing in the hills — wild sages, Artemisia species, and Yerba Santa.
Yerba Santa (Eriodictyon californicum, Eriodicctyon spp.), also known as mountain balm, consumptive weed, gum bush and holy herb, is an aromatic, resinous evergreen shrub with white-to-purplish flowers. Native to California, Oregon, and Arizona, it has a rich history of traditional use and was prized for its medicinal properties by various native communities throughout the western coast, including the Chumash and Cahuilla. Apparently, when the Spanish arrived in the area they were so taken by this plant’s medicinal power that they named it Yerba Santa, or “holy herb,” and it was used extensively in the missions.
Yerba Santa is best known for its affinity to the lungs. Chumash and Cahuilla used a strong decoction of the sticky, resinous leaves for all types of lung and chest complaints, including respiratory infections, bronchitis, chronic asthma, colds, tuberculosis and more (Timbrook, 2007; Bean and Saubel, 1972). It has been used by various peoples as a powerful decongestant and for acute conditions, such as colds and congestion and excess mucus from seasonal allergies, and for deep-seated infections such as bronchitis, opening the lungs and loosening stuck phlegm. Research indicates that it decreases the amount of phlegm while also addressing the underlying inflammation of mucosal tissues (Moore, 1993). It is extremely rich in flavonoids. These have been researched for their antioxidant and protective properties and also help to strengthen fragile and irritated mucus membranes.
Yerba Santa has been used in the past as an antibacterial, as it contains eriodictyol, a phytochemical known to be an effective antibiotic. Some herbalists use Yerba Santa as a urinary antiseptic and for urinary tract infections and chronic cystitis. Traditionally, the crushed leaf was also used externally for bruises, sprains and muscle tension.
In the early 20th century, Yerba Santa was included in the US Pharmacopoeia and used by physicians to treat bronchitis, asthma, cough and allergies. Yerba Santa has a sweet and slightly bitter taste and extracts are used as a flavoring agent.
Ceremonially, Yerba Santa leaf was traditionally included in smoking blends, along with tobacco and mullein. Because of its powerful aromatics, it is also used for smudging along with white sage (Salvia apiana), osha (Ligusticum porteri), cedar (often Calocedrus decurrens but other species too), and other aromatic plants.
Bean, LJ and Saubel, KS. (1972) Temalpakh: Cahuilla Indian Knowledge and Usage of Plants. Banning: Malki Museum Press.
Timbrook, J. (2007) Chumash Ethnobotany. Santa Barbara: Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History
Moore, M. (1993). Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West. Santa Fe: Red Crane Books.
Writer Erin Smith has been working with plants for 25 years and is medical herbalist and ethnobotanist. She is the creator of Plant-Passionate Living™, an interactive program designed to help people find greater health and vitality through a deeper relationship with plants. Erin is the Founder and Director of the Center for Integrative Botanical Studies.
For educational purposes only. This information has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease, or to sell any product.