Yerba Santa

Using Santa Barbara’s Yerba Santa to Treat Cold, Flu, and Cough

         The most potent and appropriate remedy for inhabitants of any given region is arguably that region’s local native plants. For example, similar to how an unhealthy deer eats a certain native plant to rid itself of disease, humans have traditionally used herbal medicine endemic to where they live.  Some herbalists claim that local medicinal plants are better suited to treat the local human population.  According to Professor J. R. Worsley, “Anything that can be done with needles can also be done with herbs, but if you use herbs, for God’s sake use local ones, because they are not ten times stronger, they are not a hundred times stronger, they are one thousand times stronger than any plants that grow someplace else (Cowen 64).”

          In Santa Barbara, California, there are numerous local wild endemic and naturalized medicinal herbs.  Yerba santa is one of the most useful and prolific of the santa barbara herbs.  It is a phenomenal natural medicine.  This aromatic resinous evergreen shrub with thick leathery leaves grows virtually all over the Santa Barbara foothills and mountain ranges from Southern California to Southern Oregon along the coast and inland. 


                 Yerba santa, Santa Ynez mountains, Gaviota, California.

         Yerba santa, Eriodictyon crassifolium, is a wonderful remedy for respiratory illnesses and fevers, especially useful for cough. The leaf is an expectorant, bronchial antiseptic, and antiseptic diuretic (Homes 233). A decoction of the leaf is useful for respiratory tract infections including rhinitis and sinusitis, chronic bronchitis, TB, chronic asthma, digestive complaints including gastric dyspepsia, urinary tract infections, poison oak, and itchy skin (Holmes 233). The Spanish missionaries called this plant Yerba santa, meaning “holy herb,” denoting its amazing healing power (Timbrook 83).  Settlers used this plant in the nineteenth century for colds, cough, and asthma (Timbrook 83).

       The Chumash Native Americans called this herb wishap and made a leaf decoction used for cough, colds, fever and chest pain (Timbrook 83).  Chumash descendents still use Yerba santa in this way to expel mucus for respiratory illness and as a tonic (Timbrook 83).  The tea is very effective when taken at regular frequent intervals ((Timbrook 83). It breaks up the mucus in the lungs and allows it to be easily coughed up while simultaneously decreasing congestion and inflammation.

        The Cahuilla Native Americans used Yerba santa, Eriodictyon trichocalyx, as a blood purifier, to treat coughs, colds, sore throat, asthma, tuberculosis, catarrh, and rheumatism (Bean 71).  Externally it was used as a liniment, poultice, or tea bath for rheumatism, fatigued limbs, fever, and sores (Bean 71).  The Chumash used it externally also as a liniment for the feet, chest, and pain (Timbrook 83).  Yerba santa, Eriodictyon californicum, was also poulticed for wounds, insect bites, broken bones, and sores (Foster 278). A steam bath was used for hemorrhoids (Foster 278). 

       Yerba santa leaves were frequently used in the 20th century by physicians for asthma, bronchitis, pneumonia, cough, and allergies and were even listed once on the U.S. Pharmacopoeia (Foster 279).  It was then rediscovered in the 1990s as therapy for post-chemotherapy recovery and for vaginal dryness.  Yerba santa achieves its moisturizing effect by bonding the hydrogen of water with it’s mucopolysaccharide components.  Aloe vera is useful in this way as well, however, Yerba santa is stronger.

       The polysaccharide components of Yerba Santa have mucilaginous properties. Yerba Santa is anti-inflammatory containing flavonoids commonly known for their antioxidant activity. The combined moisturizing and anti-inflammatory properties have made Yerba santa useful in skin care health.  Many cosmetics and skin care products have been invented that include extracts of Yerba santa.

       Currently Yerba santa is on the FDA’s GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) for food flavoring list and is added to foods to mask bitterness.  This trait is especially useful when using bitter herbs such as Chinese herb Huang Lian. Yerba santa can be added to bitter teas, masking the bitterness, to make them more palatable and also add the benefit of it’s expectorant properties for lung congestion.  Many strong Chinese herbal formulas for lung, ear, nose, and throat conditions contain very bitter herbs that are unpleasant to drink.  Adding Yerba santa is a great alternative to gagging.

       A recipe for Yerba santa cough medicine is as follows: Wash and boil 3 leaves of Yerba santa combined with a cup of water, strain, and add one half teaspoon sugar. Take one teaspoon every four hours (Bean 71).

       To make a decoction of Yerba santa leaf combine 30 grams of dried leaf or 60 grams of fresh leaf and 3 cups of water in a glass or enamel pan, bring to a boil, cover and simmer for 10 minutes then let steep for another 10 minutes and strain. Drink the resulting liquid in small amounts frequently in one day. Use 9-12 grams of dried leaf if adding to a formula that contains other herbs.

      The primary constituents in Yerba Santa leaves are five phenolic bodies; eriodictyol, homoeriodictyol, chrysocriol, zanthoeridol and eridonel.  Yerba santa leaves contain several active flavonoids including eriodictyol (a bitter masking flavonone which has antibiotic, anti-inflammatory, and expectorant properties), homoeriodictyol, pinocembrin, sakuranetin, and cirsimaritin (Adams 143).  The leaves are also composed of bitter resins, eriodictyonine, eriodictyol, ericolin, eriodictonic acid, acidic and formic acid, and tannin (Holmes 232).  It is further comprised of butyric acid, cerotic acid, chrysoeriodictyol, chrysin, chrysoeriol, eriodonol, hispidulin, naringenin, pentatriacontaine, phytosterols, triacontane, xanthoeriodictyol, and trace volatile oil.


Adams, James D. Jr. and Cecelia Garcia. 2005. “Palliative Care Among the Chumash People.” Evidence Based Complementary Alternative Medicine 2(2):143-147.

Bean, Lowell John, and Katherine Siva Saubel. 1972. Temalpakh: Cahuilla Indian Knowledge and Usage of Plants. Banning: Malki Museum Press.

Cowen, Eliot. 1995. Plant Spirit Medicine. Columbus: Swan Raven & Company.

Foster, Steven and Christopher Hobbs. 2002. Peterson Field Guide to Western Medicinal Plants and Herbs.  Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Holmes, Peter. 1997. The Energetics of Western Herbs: Volume 1. Boulder: Snow Lotus Press.

Timbrook, Jan. 2007. Chumash Ethnobotany. Santa Barbara: Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History.

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