Chaparral by Natalie Pastor
(Larrea tridentata) Zygophyllaceae
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Some of the common names are Greasewood, Gobonadora, Hediondilla,
Chaparro and Creosote Bush, because of the strong smell and taste.
It is found all over the desert Southwest from Utah down into
northern Mexico. It originated in the deserts of South America
and was transplanted to our Southwest tens of thousands of years
ago by unknown means.
It is said to be one of the oldest living organism on the planet. I found a reference that indicated Chaparral found in the Imperial Valley of California has been carbon dated to 11,500 years old.
How this plant got the name of Chaparral is not known but the word chaparral is commonly used to describe shrubby plants capable of coping with desert conditions. It is a true xerophyte, a plant totally adapted to desert life. Chaparral can survive for 2 years without precipitation because the resinous coating on the leaves prevents evaporation.
It's a large shrubby plant with small, dark olive green leaves that are quite aromatic. Chaparral gives off a wonderful aroma right after a rain and it produces bright five-petaled yellow flowers that remind me of popcorn and which develop into small fuzzy fruit of no value. It has a very wide and deep root system and can grow to 8 feet. This is an important plant in desert ecology. The deep root system provides stability to the desert surface so it plays a major role in stopping erosion, plus the plant provides shelter and food for small desert animals and birds. It is also the host plant for the creosote lac scale insect.
There is a O'odham legend about Chaparral that says when Earthmaker made the world, a ball of dirt in Earthmaker's hand sprouted a 'creosote bush'. Then the first animal was created, the creosote lac scale insect, whose resinous lac was used to hold the world together. The lac scale was also collected and used to waterproof basketry by many of the Southwestern American Indians.
Chaparral is a controversial medicinal herb. The leaves and flowers are the parts generally used, and it is both an antioxidant and an antibacterial. Local Indians historically used Chaparral for rheumatism, sciatica, tuberculosis and other respiratory problems. It is most widely known as a cancer treatment. Chaparral tea is not very tasty but that doesn't stop many people from drinking it daily in the belief it will ease intestinal pain, arthritis, bronchial pain and cancer. A Chaparral steam is good for bronchial and pulmonary conditions. It is often used in salves for skin conditions such as severe bruising and as a rub for arthritic joints. It does sometimes cause contact dermatitis. Its antibacterial properties make it a good ingredient in any first aid salve kept in your herbal medicine chest. If you like to make your own lotions and creams, an extracted oil made with Chaparral is a very effective antioxidant to add to your recipe to prevent your creams from going bad.
A huge amount of research has been done on Chaparral. The reason for its controversial reputation is that research studies on animals using Chaparral for cancer have shown it to both inhibit and aggravate cancerous growths. The best results have been its use for skin cancers. It has also been stated to cause liver damage although only a few cases have been verified. There is no evidence that Chaparral is toxic and many modern herbalists do use this herb in tincture or tea form for impaired liver metabolism, autoimmune problems, urinary tract infections and PMS.
Chaparral can make a super landscape plant for desert areas under 5000 feet. Most varieties are hardy to zero degrees and all are extremely drought tolerant. Seeds are obtainable but it is difficult to grow them from seed as the germination rate is very low. It's best to buy nursery plants in containers. Check at your local native plant nursery. Transplanting from the wild is seldom successful because of the many branched, long tap root, but if you have the opportunity to rescue young plants from areas that are under development, it is certainly worth trying. The shrub is slow growing when first put in the ground and can be somewhat straggly looking. Give it at least one year to put down its deep taproot, another year to adjust and then by the third year it will begin to grow fairly rapidly and eventually become 6 - 8 feet wide and as tall.
They have a wonderful natural shape and with a little pruning they will make a graceful addition to your landscape. Chaparral makes a great wind break or fence line screen as it is fire resistant and once established requires absolutely no care. It will also make an attractive focal point in a xeriscape garden. It will be most happy in an alkaline soil, sand, decomposed granite or clay. It is resistant to Texas root rot. Chaparral should be deep watered once a month, no more. Our tendency is to over water native plants and that is how we lose them. If you want to fertilize do so only once a year in early spring.
If you decide you want to use it medicinally, harvest the leaves, small branches and flowers when it's blooming. I usually harvest Chaparral during April or early May . If you want to make a tincture, do so as soon as possible using the folkloric method. First chop the herb as small as possible, you may find freezing Chaparral before chopping works best because it is so gummy. If possible grind the chopped pieces to a coarse powder, again freezing it first will help. Pack the herb into a quart mason jar and cover it with the strongest vodka (or Everclear) you can buy. Let the jar sit for two weeks, turning and shaking it daily. Strain and bottle in dark blue or amber bottles. Store out of the sun. I would not recommend taking Chaparral internally without first consulting with a qualified herbalist.
For creams, make an extracted oil using the same method as above but substituting olive, grapeseed or sweet almond oil for the vodka. Let it sit for up to six weeks before straining and use the oil in your favorite cream recipe.
You might like to try making a simple petroleum jelly (Vaseline) salve with your Chaparral. While Vaseline is inorganic it does make salve making easy. Simply chop your herb as fine as possible and simmer 3 TB of the chopped herb in 8 ounces of petroleum jelly for about 12 minutes. Strain it through several layers of cheesecloth lining a kitchen sieve or strainer and pour into a sterilized jar. Let it cool before capping. Use this for bruises, strains, insect bites and as a rub for aching joints.
Copyright N. Pastor 1999