Yerba mansa is a native Southwest herb that has some proven anti-bacterial properties.
An Unusual Herb
This lovely herb is in the Lizard Tail Family (Saururaceae), an unusual plant family with only seven species in it, grouped into four genera. Yerba mansa is known more formally as Anemopsis californica.
Yerba Mansa Name
The name “yerba mansa” is one of those names which confounds linguists. “Yerba” is Spanish for herb, and thus one would think that “mansa” is also from Spanish, but all indications point to the fact that it is not! “Mansa” means calm or tranquil in Spanish, and the plant has no sedative effect, nor did Native peoples ever use it as a calming agent.
The primary uses for yerba mansa is as an antimicrobial, antibacterial, and antifungal agent. The most likely case is that “mansa” is a Spanish alteration of the original native word for the plant, now lost in the depths of time. Similar name change can be seen with the O’odham name “Cuk Son,” meaning “at the base of the black hill,” which got changed to the Spanish “Tucsón,” and now the English “Tucson.”
A “Yerba” of Many Uses
Yerba mansa is used as a medicinal herb, but it also makes a pretty pond plant. All parts of the plant have a distinct spicy fragrance, a blend of ginger, eucalyptus, a touch of juniper and a dash of pepper. The roots are especially fragrant, reminiscent of a cross between camphor and eucalyptus with a hint of pepper. One of the active compounds in yerba mansa is methyleugenol, an anti-spasmodic, similar in chemical structure to compounds found in other medicinal herbs.
Yerba mansa is valuable in the water garden. Koi and other fish do not browse it like they do many other plants, thus it can readily spread and help clean the water. It also appears to help keep fish from getting bacterial infections such as Pseudomonas fluorescens (causing fin rot and fish dropsy) and fungal infections such as Saprolegnia.
The charming white yerba mansa flowers do look somewhat like short stubby lizard tails, and they dry extremely well for craft uses. The cinnamon colored seed pods structures retain their spicy fragrance for a long time, making them useful in dried herbal wreaths, arrangements and potpourri.
In some areas of southern California yerba mansa is being used as turf in public parks and as a ground cover in gardens. It helps the soil ecology as decaying leaf matter and root oils help acidify and aerate the soil.
Cooler autumn weather can bring blotches of maroon to the leaves and stems. If the temperatures are cool but not freezing, the entire plant may turn color. If the temperature falls below 20 F, the leaves die. Not to worry, the plant readily comes back from the roots. The plant is considered hardy to USDA Zone 5.
Medicinal Yerba Mansa
Yerba mansa is versatile; it can be taken orally as a tea, tincture, infusion or dried in capsule form. It can be used externally for soaking inflamed or infected areas. It can be ground and used as a dusting powder. In New Mexico the leaves are used to make a poultice to relieve muscle swelling and inflammation. Spanish settlers in California used the plant as a liniment for skin troubles. They also made the roots into tea for “disorders of the blood.”
Harvesting and Use of Yerba Mansa
Roots for medicinal purposes should be collected in the fall preferably after the first freeze. After the first freeze the plant will begin to store the useful chemicals in its root system. Harvest the thick fleshy roots under the main part of the plant, not the thin roots on the runners.
Wash roots to remove clay and silt, then set them to wilt for several days. Once wilted cut them into small pieces roughly 1/4 inch square. Continue to dry the chopped roots until firm and dry. Store and use for teas through the winter.
Yerba mansa is covered more extensively in Dr. Jacqueline Soule’s book “Father Kino’s Herbs: Growing and Using Them Today”
Father Kino’s Herbs – Few Copies Left!
The last few copies of this out-of-print, award winning Southwestern book are now for sale. Father Kino’s Herbs: Growing and Using Them Today The review says:
“Award-winning garden writer Dr. Jacqueline A. Soule has pulled together a fascinating book on the life of Father Eusebio Francisco Kino and some of the plants that he brought to Southern Arizona and northwestern Sonora, and area called the Pimeria Alta.”
A steal at only $20! This link is to our sales site. The profits from the sale go to the local Horticulture Therapy non-profit Tierra del Sol Institute. We hope you will help support this great Southwest non-profit!
If you live in Tucson,consider purchasing your copy locally at Antigone Books, or Rillito Nursery (call first because they keep running out).
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The authors of this website have researched the edibility of the materials we discuss, however, humans vary in their ability to tolerate different foods, drinks, and herbs. Individuals consuming flowers, plants, animals or derivatives mentioned in this blog do so entirely at their own risk. The authors on this site cannot be held responsible for any adverse reaction. In case of doubt please consult your medical practitioner.