This inconspicuous, trailing plant is one of the most prized herbs of the west coast. It has a strongly sweet, slightly minty flavor that made it valuable for both cooking and medicine. The city of San Francisco was named Yerba Buena until 1847; in Spanish, the phrase literally means “good herb”.
Yerba buena (Clinopodium douglasii) is a dainty little plant. It is widespread in the area, growing in the coastal scrub and deep under the redwoods. You can find it from Alaska to Los Angeles county. The paired leaves are a light spring green but often are tough and slightly sandpapery to the touch–though in sheltered, shaded places they can be quite delicate. In the spring, tiny white flowers appear along the stem, at the base of the leaves. It spreads from woody rhizome, but the prostrate stems also can grow roots, which is why you’ll often see it growing as a sparse, leggy mat.
The plant was used to season food, as a tea, and as a perfume; hunters would rub the leaves on their skin to disguise their odor from game. Yerba buena was taken medicinally to treat colds, fevers, pinworms, insomnia, kidney problems, toothaches, colic, upset stomach, thinness, and to become thin. It was also used as an aphrodisiac.