Creosote/Chaparral (Larrea tridentata)

Chaparral, or Creosote, of the Zygophyllaceae family, is found in the Sonoran, Mojave, and Chihuahuan Deserts of California, Nevada, Arizona, Mexico, New Mexico, and Texas below 4000ft. It typically grows as a shrubby bush, anywhere from 3 to 9 feet tall, with waxy resinous leaves that appear greasy yellow-green during the rainy season, and a dull olive during times of drought or extreme cold. The leaves grow opposite each other and are lanceolate, almost canoe shaped. The branches are brownish red to black and the plant flowers in small yellow radial flowers with five petals which bloom April to May. It prefers to grow in loose soils, sometimes in washes or on slopes. If your area is prone to rain, plant it on a well draining slope. It can tolerate sandy soils and prefers them to be slightly alkaline. In Mexico, it is known as Gobernadora, or “The Governess”, named for it’s habit of forming a monoculture in many parts of the desert due to it’s root’s efficiency at absorbing water, preventing any other plant from growing close by. The common name Chaparral is often used to refer to an entire plant community, not a singular plant, so sometimes this will need clarification. It’s best to collect from healthy plants with strong foliage, stripping the leaves, flowers, and seeds off the branches.

Medicinal Uses
Creosote, when applied to the skin as a salve or liniment, slows the rate of bacterial growth with it’s anti-microbial properties. Taken as a tincture, it aids liver metabolism. It also helps with dryness in the skin, hair, and nails if your body isn’t absorbing oils from your diet (like olive, coconut, etc). It has also been known to inhibit liver and lung damage due to free radicals when combined with milk thistle, and is helpful for joint pain, allergies, autoimmune disorders, and pms. It can also make a good, anti-cavity and anti-bacterial mouthwash. However, it has a strong unpleasant taste and smell, so often lemon or honey are added to cover up the taste. For external oils, a small amount of creosote oil (about 4 tablespoons per quart) added to vegetable oils help stabilize them if they are going to be sitting out for long periods of time, like in massage oils, salves, and ointments. It can even be used as a mild sunscreen. It should be used internally with caution, however, as some studies have shown it can cause hepatitis and liver problems. Externally, a salve or liniment of Chaparral is a great addition to a herbal first aid kit.

Folk Uses
Creosote was used by the Cahuilla Native Americans in the Southwest as a tea to treat colds, bronchitis, chickenpox, snakebites, and arthritis. It was also used externally to treat burns. The tips of the branches were heated up and hot resin was applied to painful teeth. When the colonizers arrived in the area, they adopted the plant and used it externally for bruises, rashes, dandruff, wounds, and internally for diarrhea, stomach problems, menstrual complaints, venereal disease, and cancers of the liver, kidneys, and stomach. It was listed in the U.S. Pharmacopoeia from 1842 to 1942 as an expectorant and bronchial antiseptic.

Dosage
As a mouthwash or infusion, 1 tablespoon of dried herb per quart of boiling water, steeped for an hour, and strained. This can be gargled or taken three times daily. It has an unpleasant taste, so raw honey and lemon may be used to disguise it. Pregnant women, children under two, and the elderly may use creosote as a gargle, but internally is should be taken at lower or doses or avoided all together. For external preparations, older plants are best, where as for internal preparations, collect the younger, brighter leaves.

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A creosote desert landscape in the Mojave.

A creosote desert landscape in the Mojave.

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