Sonoran Plant Profile: Desert Lavender

Hyptis emoryi - Desert Lavender

Other names:  Bee Sage, yerba del becerro, salvia reál, Viopal, Xeescl (Seri)

Origin:  Native to southern California and Arizona, and south into Baja California and Sonora, Mexico.  There are at least 5 additional Hyptis spp. found in the Sierra Madre of Sonora, Mexico (most of them are used for food or medicine).

Energetics:  Cool & Dry.  Pungent, Astringent, slightly Bitter.  Vital stimulant, Tonic Relaxant.

Properties:  Astringent, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, hemostatic, sedative, nervine, digestive, aromatic bitter, bronchial relaxant, relaxant diaphoretic

Organ Affinities:   Lungs, upper GI, skin, nervous system, female reproductive, liver, blood

Uses:  Internally: Indigestion, acid reflux, GERD, gastritis, enteritis, poor appetite, blood in the stool, cold, flu, chest congestion, allergies, asthma, lung inflammation, rapid breathing, toothache, internal hemorrhage, menorrhagia, or heavy menstruation, nervous tension, insomnia, anxiety, chronic inflammation, chemical sensitivities, hangover, automimmune dysfunction.  Externally: Smudging, wounds, skin inflammation, rashes, bee stings.

The Terrain

Hyptis covers a wide range through some parched desert terrain.  It lives primarily below 2000’ down to sea level, but I have found it nestled amongst large boulders at about 4000’ where it can gather the heat emitted overnight allowing it to avoid frost damage.  The past two years have seen huge swaths of plant communities die back to the ground (or entirely) throughout the Sonoran desert; first in early 2011, and again in early 2013.  I have seen Desert Lavender affected over a nearly 400 mile radius from deep into Sonora to the southern California desert.  Generally, Hyptis occupies rocky outcrops at higher elevations, and moves down into the bajadas, or alluvial fans and drainages at lower elevations across our deserts.  The image to the right was taken in the Pinacate Biosphere Preserve in northern Sonoran, Mexico.  Here

Hyptis thrives atop large black volcanic boulders or across flats made of volcanic debris.

The Supernatural

Desert Lavender has been used by various tribes (if not all) throughout the land in which it grows as a connection to the spirit world.  Those who know it speak of the plant with a sense of awe and reverence for its attributes.  The Akimel O’Odham who settled in the area of the confluence of three rivers in what is now called Phoenix, AZ once smoked the leaves of viopal.  The Cahuilla of southern California used it in various ways for healing.  It is currently well-respected and in regular use amongst the Seri, or Comcáac, of coastal Sonora near the island of Tiburón (shark).  As a smudge wand it is used to clear disease from one’s body, to clear the air of impurities, to prevent sickness from befalling an individual, protecting one from malevolent forces, and calling to oneself all the beauty and healing that one seeks.  Some Seri see it as one of the original plants in their area, and at one time huts constructed for vision quests were covered by its branches along with Elephant Tree branches.  There is a metaphysical power, a sense of purity, that surrounds this plant for the Comcáac.  A traditional healer, named Maria Luisa Molina, from the village of Punta Chueca, Sonora who comes from a family of traditional healers views Sálvia, or, xeescl, as capable of curing all disease.  This insight comes from her dreams and internal experiences she has had with the plant.  Once she dreamed of Desert Lavender.  The once dirt road which traverses 21 km of Sonoran coastal thornscrub is lined at various places with Desert Lavender - most often where it intersects a desert wash, or arroyo.  They were dusty and beige colored most of the year until occasional rains came to clear them off, now a paved road to the village keeps the dust down a bit.  Luisa dreamed of these plants and they were speaking to her, if not crying out to her.  They were sad for how the people no longer stopped to see them, how they seemed to not even notice them any longer.  The plant asked her to visit them more regularly and stop to gather them for medicine.  She learned in subsequent dreams that xeescl had the power to heal any illness they came across, and the plant was willing to share that with her.  No doubt, Luisa and Desert Lavender have a special bond.  That is developing relationship with plants.  Perhaps it’s in her blood.

Putting out the Fire

I first learned from Michael Moore Desert Lavender’s capacity to cool down our metabolic fire, or the response to environmental stressors.  Given so many irritants in our local climate from inside the home, to down the street, or in our groundwater we our nearly constantly dealing with chemical irritants and a perhaps heretofore unknown level of internal combustion in our genetic history.  There are several mechanisms in the human body to deal with these irritants like innate free radical scavenging or the glutathione peroxidase system, and there are several plants known to assist us in optimizing these native functions.  I believe it’s a beautiful relationship.  We are built to deal with irritants and pathogens in our environment, but we are also dependent upon nutrients and compounds found primarily in the plant kingdom to help us augment these systems.  Desert Lavender is one of these plants.  Its effects are profound if not subtle and consistent.  Despite its emphasis on the respiratory, digestive, and nervous systems its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects can be experienced systemically.  This, no doubt, gives it wide-ranging applications.  But isn’t that just like a mint?  In other words, it’s likely that you can find something similar (if not, in fact, equivalent) from the Mint family in your own particular area if you’re not in the Sonoran desert.  That said, Desert Lavender’s unique blend of terpenoids and polyphenols seem to create its ability to cool down the system and promote cellular protection and regeneration.  This goes for chronic allergic respiratory conditions, chronic excessive digestive fire, or where autoimmune conditions are creating a level of chronic heat even when the individual is presenting with signs of cold.  That’s another attribute of Desert Lavender.  For all the metabolic cooling the plant can do it does not overly cool the individual.  I would say it is similar to Chamomile in that way, but perhaps just a bit cooler in energy overall.

Applications:  This plant lends itself very well to either tea or tincture.  However, the polyphenols will be derived much more efficiently (if at all) through an alcohol tincture.  Some traditional external uses require chewing the plant before application which would likely activate the polyphenols, also.  I really like this plant as a bath herb.  This can mean a traditional in-the-tub bath or a ritual pouring of tea over the body for its cleansing and rejuvenating effects.  These often overlooked methods are simple, and powerful applications.  The spiritual cleansing of a Desert Lavender bath is coupled with its ability to ground the person, cleanse and cool the skin, and create a sense of relaxation.  This is a wonderful therapy in any hot climate (for either dry or damp weather).  Drinking the tea cold proves to be an excellent tonic.  It works magic for a liver overworked by alcohol, drug abuse (illicit or prescribed), stress, and environmental toxins.  Not to mention how relieving it is to acid reflux, or to allay a hot, irritated stomach lining.  The cold infusion will greatly enhance the appetite.  I wouldn’t hesitate to use it with gastric ulcers.

Merging with the Blood

Desert Lavender has a special affinity for the blood which appears across various tribes and cultural usages.  More than one tribe has traditionally employed it in cases of internal hemorrhaging, or cases of excess menstruation.  Sonoran herbalist, Olga Ruiz Cañez, uses Sálvia, in formula, to treat a variety of female reproductive complaints (in particular, vaginal discharge, excessive inflammation, excess or abnormal bleeding).  She has also recommended it as a sitz bath, particularly post-partum.  You could employ it as a salve or sitz bath for bleeding hemorrhoids or piles.  There is a Hyptis sp. used in traditional Taiwanese medicine for increasing blood circulation.  There they have also noted cytotoxic effects from at least one species of Hyptis.  That was found in trials with Hyptis emoryi, as well.

I wouldn’t hesitate to use it with systemic infections of the blood (in that rare case) as a helping herb with something else like Echinacea, Oshá, or Garlic.

Settling Down

No, Desert Lavender, won’t rid you of your wanderlust but it will provide you with a sense of relaxation and ease after a strenuous day or length of activity.  Just 5-10 drops of the tincture can cause a pleasurable, relaxed feeling.  The breathing becomes relaxed and expanded and the body experiences an overall sense of ease.  When you’ve been going and going all day and it’s hard to turn off the switch this herb can bring you down into a place of quiet and stillness.  I have seen it happen to a group around a campfire or after a long day of driving and negotiating many things.  It’s a place to be in, and is not necessarily an overt sedative that precludes one from taking it during the day.  It seems to be situational in its effects.  I know many people who have taken it daily for extended periods of time to help calm chronic inflammation and irritated states.

More Traditional Uses

Go ask anyone in northern Sonora what Sálvia is used for and you should invariably hear that it’s for cough, colds, and flu.  It is not uncommon to see a jar of the dry leaves and flowers on someone’s kitchen counter during the winter season ready to be boiled into tea when a cough is first heard.  I feel it is helping to improve respiration and calming to the lungs much as Chokecherry would.  Alternatively, you could add several squirts of the tincture to a cup of hot water for a similar effect.  The Seri are very fond of Cinnamon, and combine it with xeescl as a tea for colds.  Also, they like to use it for toothache when combined with two other desert natives:  Yerba Mansa root and Jumping Cholla stem.  The tea is held in the mouth over the painful tooth.  My friends also use it for throat infections, and to help people with nervousness, anxiety, and insomnia.

The Seri employed the large flexible branches in their region for a variety of food gathering tasks.  It was used to make a shaft for a fish harpoon, and a hunting staff with a hook for desert tortoises to grab them from their cave dwelling.

Powerful Pairings

Desert Lavender  &  Malva   (moistening, immune-stimulating)

Desert Lavender  &  Brittlebush  (chronic asthmatic cough with inflammation, rhinitis)

Desert Lavender  &  Chamomile  (stomachic, allay acid reflux, relieve gut inflammation, sedative)

Desert Lavender  &  Yerba Santa  (chronic asthmatic cough, labored breathing)

Eriodictyon angustifolium - Yerba Santa

* Bursera spp. combine well here, also

Desert Lavender  &  Estafiate  (poor appetite, gastric inflammation, with lingering respiratory inflammation, sedative)

Desert Lavender  &  Holy Basil  (chronic lung weakness, inflammation, and congestion)

Nuts & Bolts

A slew of terpenoids, polyphenols, and other plant compounds (carnosic acids, pinene, limonene, cineole, thymol, rosmarinic acids, betulinic acid; lignans; flavonoids, etc.) make this simple, ubiquitous, and genial plant quite profound in its abilities to scavenge free radicals, reduce inflammation, and bring down the metabolic noise brought on from environmental and dietary sources.

Collecting & Preparation

Desert Lavender can be collected year-round, it simply depends on the conditions.  It is opportunistic to flower so any time there’s significant moisture and it’s not freezing you can find it in flower.  I gather the herb by stripping the new leaf and flower growth by pinching down on the stem and pulling outward allowing it all to fall into a paper bag or basket.  Alternatively, you can coppice new growth from the base of the plant in areas which are receiving greater amounts of moisture (or after a deep freeze which kills it back to the roots so all new growth will come from here).  In this case, I use the young, flexible stem, also.

Dry the herb loosely in paper bags out of the sun for tea or dry plant tincture, oil, or oxymel later.  To prepare fresh, chop up the fresh herb on a cutting board with a large, sharp knife.  Tincture at 1:2, 95% (full-strength) alcohol.  You can also fill a pint or quart jar up with mostly flowers and some leaves and cover with honey allowing to steep in a warm place for about 2-4 weeks.  This honey infusion can be added to medicinal teas or taken as a daily supplement in a variety of ways.

To prepare smudge wands gather fresh, leafing stems and bundle tightly with thread or yarn.  Allow to dry in the shade.  Light when ready.

Infusion is taken 4-8oz/day.  Tincture dosage is 30 drops to 1 tsp, daily in tea or water.

All topical applications are to be repeated several times a day (acute wound or sting therapy) or daily, as indicated.

Desert Lavender can be used in the following ways:  Decoction, Infusion, Tincture (fresh or dry), Oxymel, Honey Infusion, Oil, Salve, Wash, Poultice, Fomentation, Douche, Pessary, & Smudge.

“Desert Salve”  (Donna Chesner, Michael Moore)

Desert Lavender

White Sage

Yerba Mansa

Copperleaf

Yerba Mansa

*combine the dry herbs and blend.  cover with 1/2-1 part alcohol and let macerate, covered, overnight.  Blend with 6 parts olive oil until warm.  Strain and combine 5:1 with beeswax (by weight) dissolving over flame.  Pour into jars while still hot.

 

Desert Tortoise Botanicals Products featuring Desert Lavender:  Desert Lavender tinctureHay Fever FormulaNerve Restore tincture formulaSonoran Spring TeaAutumn/Winter TeaSonoran Sleep Tea.

References

Bean, Lowell John & Saubel, Katherine Siva.  1972.  Temalpakh: Cahuilla Indian knowledge and usage of plants.

Bigfoot, Peter.  2010.  Natural Remedies for Bites and Stings.

Felger, Richard Stephen & Moser, Mark Beck.  1985.  People of the Desert & Sea: Ethnobotany of the Seri Indians.

Kane, Charles.  2006.  Herbal Medicine of the American Southwest.  

Li, Thomas S.C., Ph.D.  2006.  Taiwanese Native Medicinal Plants:  Phytopharmacology and Therapeutic Values

Moore, Michael.  1989.  Medicinal Plants of the Desert and Canyon West.

Moore, Michael.  2005.  Southwest School of Botanical Medicine: Class Notes.

Rea, Amadeo M.  1997.  At the Desert’s Green Edge.

Ruiz Cañez, Olga.  2007-2013.  Personal Communication.

Sheth, K., Jolad, S., Wiedhopf, R., Cole, J. R.  2006.  Tumor-inhibitory agent from Hyptis emoryi (Labiatae)


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