Yerba del Manzo: Medicine Cabinet in a Swamp Plant

by Jessa Fisher

One of our favorite things to do at the Arizona Ethnobotanical Research Association (AERA) is to go on field trips looking for plants. In October of last year, the AERA had a special opportunity to investigate a flourishing native population of Anemopsis californica at Brown Springs in the Verde Valley. Yerba del manzo, the common name for this plant in Spanish and English, is a veritable medicine chest that was honored, traded, and grown by many tribes in the Southwest. Other spellings of the common name are yerba manza, yerba manso, and yerba mansa. This little gem of a plant has as many uses as it does spellings of its name.

For centuries the native peoples of California, Arizona and the greater Southwest have used the roots and leaves of “vavish”, as the O’otham call it, for medicine. There is also a suggestion in the ethnobotanical literature that the seeds were collected and ground, then mixed with water and mesquite flour to make a mush or were baked in underground ovens for bread. The seeds were collected along with the roots and dried for travel and trade with other tribes along the southern California coast and with lower Colorado River tribes. It is a very hardy plant and was probably taken and planted by peoples who traveled and traded. Some other populations of the plant in Arizona can be found as far north as Canyon de Chelly, Love Lake in the White Mountains, at Lyman Lake, and down to the Hassayampa River south. It is too cold for this plant to grow in Flagstaff. One of the closest populations might be on the Little Colorado River near Petrified Forest National Park.

There is only one species of Anemopsis in North America. It is in an odd little plant family called the Saururaceae or Lizard Tail Family. It seems to be a very primitive plant, which was probably very prolific in the times when Petrified Forest was actually a swampy jungle. Now, because of climate change, draught, and the decrease in trading, populations of this plant are very rare to come by. When the plant is found, though, there are often many individuals thriving together, since they are connected by a network of underground runners.

Yerba del manzo is a very important medicinal plant used for everything from upset stomach to the treatment of colds and cough to the prevention of infection in wounds. It is boiled and a decoction is used for cough, menstrual cramps, and to treat sores on the body. The dried, powdered root is sprinkled on wounds as a disinfectant and a strong tea is made to wash the mouth to help heal gum infections. The most famous use for the plant is for stomach ulcers. This use comes from Mexico via the Yaqui tribe, who live in small settlements in southern Arizona. At Winter Sun Trading Company in Flagstaff, they sell the cut roots, as well as the plant in tincture (fluid extract) form. Yerba del manzo is also featured in one of their most popular formulas, the Propolis Complex. This formula is great for sinus infection and allergies, because it helps to dry up excessive mucus.

On our fieldtrip, we found the yerba del manzo growing right along the Verde River corridor. The patch was shaded by several huge sycamore trees, and was growing up through blades of green grass.

In spring and summer, the beautiful flowers are visible, presenting themselves as tall, white cones with white bracts radiating out from the bottom of the cone. Since it was fall, the plant had long passed flowering, but some old, rust-colored flower stalks remained. The most noticeable plant parts were the upright, verdant green leaves sticking up from the ground. It was encouraging to find such a healthy, extensive population of this powerful plant growing along the Verde River. Perhaps it was planted long ago by tribes living in the area who had acquired seeds or young plants from traders. Surely whoever came upon this garden was as excited as we were to find this most useful and special of plants.