Plant of the day: yerba santa

Beside a rocky trail, a tall spike of leathery green leaves topped by a cluster of white flowers peeks up through the chaparral. This is yerba santa, or Eriodictyon californicum. It is known as a medicinal plant (tea now available at Amazon as well as in the great outdoors), though personally I haven’t been attracted by the descriptions of a bitter, menthol-like taste. Traditionally, the tea was used for colds and other respiratory troubles, though it also has been used to treat maladies as diverse as stomach aches, headaches, bruises, eye troubles, and gonnorhea.

The leaves are often dusted with an unappealing black mold, but without this yerba santa is a handsome plant. The white flowers cluster loosely at the top of the spike of leaves. Each blossom is tubular and flared at the mouth, with petals that taper off into points. If you look close, you’ll see that each flower has two styles (and no, that isn’t sweats and slacks. The style is the shaft of the female reproductive parts).

You commonly find yerba santa on rocky slopes or in chaparral, among the dense scrub of manzanita or ceanothus. It can reproduce by seed, but only does so after a fire or other disturbance of the soil surface. Since fires aren’t common in today’s era of fire suppression, it usually reproduced vegetatively. They can grow a rhizome (rootlike structure) up to eight feet long in a single summer! That rhizome will put up new plants every 8 to 10 inches — an effective way to raise a family indeed.

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Filed under Edible, Native, Plant of the day

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