California Yerba Santa

California yerba santa (Eriodictyon californicum) is a perennial shrub or wildflower native to and found in California and Oregon. Other names for this member of the Waterleaf Family include mountain balm and bear weed. Usually found in clonal stands, California yerba santa grows in sunny to moist locations in woodlands, chaparral and disturbed areas at low to mid elevations. Although usually around three to five feet tall, California yerba santa can reach 10 feet or more in height.

California yerba santa has a woody stem, the bark of which begins to shred with age. The alternate leaves are lance-shaped to oblong and leathery with toothed margins. Dark green above, the leaves have a fine “felt” between the veins on the underside. This pattern of light hairs on the leaf underside gives the genus, Eriodictyon, its name  – from the Greek meaning “woolly net”. The leaves have a pleasant odor when crushed. The foliage and smaller branches of California yerba santa are coated with a sticky resin.

The California yerba santa inflorescence is an open cluster of lavender to pale blue (rarely white) flowers at the end of the stems. Five sepals surround a tubular corolla with five connected petals. The five stamens are epipetalous (attached to the petals). The two-chambered ovary with two styles matures into a  capsule with two sections, each of which contains many seeds.

Native Americans and contemporary herbalists regard yerba santa preparations as one of the best expectorants and decongestants available. The early Spanish missionaries noticed the Mexicans using E. californicum for medicinal purposes and gave the plant its common name – “yerba santa” meaning “sacred herb”.

California yerba santa leaves can be chewed like chewing gum. When dried yerba santa leaves were also used as a tobacco substitute.

The California yerba santa plant and flowers were photographed on May 7th along the Turtle Bay hiking loop near the Sundial Bridge in Redding CA. On May 20th Leonard and I found the immature fruits on plants on the Chemise Peak Trail, also in Redding CA (Shasta County).

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