My first lesson in ethnobotany was in 6th grade. Mr. Robbins took the entire class on a field trip into the hills across the street from the school. We scurried across the highway chaperoned by Mr. Robbins and his assistant. I’m sure he talked about the ecology of the region. It’s frequently visited by geologists because one of the defining features of the area is the San Andreas fault. If you stand on a peak looking down into the narrow valley, you will be struck by the image of two worlds thrust together. One side of the valley is blanketed by the evergreen of Ponderosa and Jeffrey Pines; the other is punctuated by the spiky limbs of Joshua Trees.
Mr. Robbins probably also listed the wildlife of the area: black bears, mountain lions, coyotes, jack rabbits, blue jays, and beware of rattlesnakes. He might have even spoke of fire ecology, how some plants have developed resilience or dependence on the element of FIRE. Southern California is a tumultuous land of earthquakes, lightning storms, and forest fires. Many people don’t realize that the landscape includes snow-capped mountains, ski resorts, and sandstone formations; instead they mostly imagine beaches, surfers, and Hollywood. It is a landscape of drama in more ways than one.
Back to Mr. Robbins.
We are carefully navigating the rocky slope watching for rattlesnakes, avoiding the spiky leaves of Yucca, and crushing the fragrant leaves of Sagebrush* between our fingers. Mr. Robbins then directs our attention to a shrub with long dark green leaves. I notice that the leaves are shiny and I crush and sniff them. They smell pungent and sweet. He says the plant is called Yerba Santa, a Spanish name meaning “sacred herb,” “holy herb” or “herb of the saints.” The scientific name is Eriodictyon californicum.
Many herbs around the world have been given similar names because of their healing qualities. Yerba Santa is a sweet and spicy herb that nourishes and warms tissues. The Sacred Herb stimulates tissues that have become cold and congested, helping the body move and expel thickened or infected fluids. Mostly the records indicate that this Herb of the Saints was used for respiratory conditions, like Mullein (in our lesson on AIR), but in my herbal practice I have found that the body’s Vital Force will take this medicine and use it where it is needed. So if congestion is in the lungs, it will act as an expectorant. If congestion is in the head, it will act as a decongestant. If congestion is in the kidneys and bladder, it will act as a diuretic. If digestion is slow, it will act as digestive stimulant.
But more on this later, because I need to get back to Mr. Robbins and the 6th graders assembled on the sunny slope of the San Gabriel mountains.
Honestly I don’t remember much about what Mr. Robbins said that day. I’ve always been more captivated by the natural world than the human world, so although he probably created a thorough multidisciplinary lesson in biology, ecology, botany, and geology, he probably didn’t talk much about the medicinal uses of Yerba Santa. What he did say was that it was called Indian Gum. Although the bitter sweet and spicy leaves are indeed sticky with resins and waxes, they do not fulfill a sixth grader’s expectation of “gum.” Because what I remember the most from that day is this: as we traversed across the slope back toward the school one of the boys, trying to get one of the leaves unstuck from his teeth loudly said, “Mr. Robbins is full of sh*t!”
This story is an excerpt from the Fire Element lesson in my online class called “Crafting Transformation: Connecting with the Elements.” This class is part travelogue, part treasure hunt, part kitchen witching, part medicine making – all with the intent of creating a stronger connection with the elements of AIR FIRE WATER EARTH and SPIRIT.
*Sagebrush, despite the name, is not related to Sage. It is in the family of Artemisia plants, many of which are burned in ceremony to facilitate visionary states and communication with the ancestors by people throughout the world. Learn more about these plants in my online class “Herbs for the Thinning Veil.”