Desert lavender: Hyptis emoryii
Energetics: Cooling, calming, stimulating
Actions: Bitter, astringent, aromatic, diaphoretic, antimicrobial, styptic
With crunching footsteps, I walk steadily uphill, deeper and deeper into a desert canyon. It’s mid-morning in late winter. The ground is cool; the air is cool, and as the walls of the canyon grow rise and fall, plunging the wash I’m in into and out of shade, I’m grateful for my hat and sweater. While the rest of the country is buried in snow, the desert is at its finest: seizing the winter rains and respite in heat to burst into full bloom. Ocotillos are covered in leaves, star vines criss-cross the floor of the wash growing around flowering encelia bushes. And me? I’m on a mission. I have a picnic in my backpack and I’m heading for a big old desert lavender patch. My goal: a picnic and a nap.
There’s much to see. So many little details. An early cactus flower bud here; a pair of lizards there; the winter light, low and yellow, catching things in that hypnotic winter light way. I climb a small rock face and emerge into a wide, sunny wash. There’s a hum in the air. The hum is always there in this canyon, a combination of frenzied bee activity and the canyon walls that for some reason sing (all rocks do it to varying degrees but these ones are very loud about it), and in the middle of this, a big thicket of desert lavender. I find a spot right in the middle, on a patch of warm sand, eat my lunch, and then lay back to listen to the humming some more. Its a therapeutic hum, one that sinks into one’s body and makes one’s body hum at the same time. The bees are frenetic around me, darting from bush to bush as though the bushes are going to disappear. Their frenzied dance mimicked in the high pitched buzzing, almost electric in its tone. I start to drift asleep, and my brain in that half-asleep state starts thinking about the frenzied nervous bees and desert lavender and how intricately connected these two things actually are. I started picturing bees, drunk on desert lavender, happily flapping off to their hive, frenetic nervous buzz calmed down to sound a like the hum of the canyon, a deep pulsing earth hum. And despite the fact that it was a whimsical brain spasm caused by a nap, I’ve never been able to think of hyptis in any other way since. Because at its core, desert lavender DOES calm and sooth things, from livers to nervous systems to intestines.
Picture that buzzing; that frenzy of movement. Now picture that buzzing as an action, as heat or over-activity in an area, be it in your digestive tract, nervous system, liver, lungs. It is inflammation, and over-activity and it’s that frenetic buzz that’s an almost stagnant build up of excess energy that doesn’t have an outlet. That’s what desert lavender tackles beautifully. It is cooling and calming, but at the same time, its strongly aromatic, and so, like most herbs in the mint family, it simultaneously relaxes and stimulates activity, because that relaxation allows the free flow of energy and vital fluids.
Let’s look at the different areas in which this action can be applied:
Wound healing. Hyptis makes a top-notch wound wash (strong decoction), or applied to bleeding wounds in infused oil or salve form. I’ve used it for various wounds over the years (often combined with white sage), and it is effective not only in stopping bleeding, but because its also strongly antimicrobial, it helps prevent infection. Its proven useful as a haemorrhoid soak in sitz baths for a heavily pregnant friend: those astringent and hemostatic properties in combination with it being cooling, soothing, and anti-inflammatory really came in handy. She’d use the hyptis (with yarrow) in a sitz bath then apply the same in a salve directly to the area, and reported much relief.
Antimicrobial/ digestive: Hyptis is strongly antimicrobial with an affinity for the digestive tract. Internally, in infusion or tincture, it is highly effective for acute conditions like food poisoning, especially when it feels like someone’s taken a scouring pad to your intestines. I use it myself every time I have the scouring-pad-to-intestines feeling (which, given that I have an extremely sensitive stomach, happens quite frequently). I’ve used it in formulas for dysentery type conditions, norovirus, and numerous bouts of random food-related illness, all to good effect.
A notable recent case was for a client who had diarrhea for a couple of weeks straight. I’ve been trying to convince her to do some elimination testing for food allergies, as she really does exhibit signs of one (eczema and IBS type symptoms most notably), however (understandably) she’s really reluctant to completely change her lifestyle. I gave her a formula with desert lavender, evening primrose, plantain, blackberry leaf and ginger in a tea, and its been keeping her guts so happy that she’s put off eliminating any foods once more. I’m not entirely sure if this is a good thing…
For more chronic microbial issues like thrush and intestinal dysbiosis, hyptis proves to be a valuable part of any formula, often in combination with chilopsis linearis (desert willow), white sage, alder, yerba mansa, and ocotillo (in various combinations).
Diaphoretic: Desert lavender is a particularly delicious and effective relaxing diaphoretic. The antimicrobial properties come into effect well here, too.
Cools the fire: For headaches, irritability, overheating, itchy and irritated eyes, hangover bellies, nausea and all other symptoms that you’d associate with liver fire, desert lavender swiftly comes to the rescue, cooling and calming things down. Systemically its incredibly useful for people who tend towards constitutional liver heat, and I reach for it to try first every time I’m presented with a liver heat type headache because it works probably 70% of the time. Desert lavender calms the stomach and is especially effective for those mornings after you’ve drunk a little too much and feel like your stomach lining is going to consume itself and that there aren’t enough fry up breakfasts in the world to help. Internally its lovely used in tea blends for ulcers and for nausea, applying that calming-of-overactivity action to the stomach.
Anti inflammatory: Used externally as a wound wash, or as a soak for swollen joints or aching swollen and tired feet, desert lavender absolutely excels. It really helps to relieve pain and reduce inflammation. It can also be combined with white sage in this manner, especially if there is more pain (white sage, among other things, is analgesic). Internally, because it tastes so good (in small quantities), it a great daily anti-inflammatory infusion, and is a nice humble antioxidant that doesn’t come in a plastic bottle from halfway around the world. Systemically, it is cooling and calming, making it a great addition to any regime for people with chronic inflammatory conditions.
Bitter: One of the nice things about hawking my wares to a variety of people is the feedback get en masse for certain products or combinations. I made a desert lavender (with white sage) bitters blend last year that I’ve been getting some great reviews from people about— as a digestive bitter, it stimulates, but not overly so. I also married a strongly anabolic man who eats himself into a food coma regularly and this often results in some pretty wretched indigestion followed by terrible gas. Its in my best interest to treat these things as quickly as possible as we share a bedroom. Desert lavender bitters come to the rescue on a regular basis, easing the indigestion and calming the flatulence to the point where I can sleep without feeling like I’m in a gas chamber. Small blessings. I also have a customer with IBS used to use Swedish Bitters on a daily basis but had to stop because it irritated her intestines too much. She now uses hyptis bitters in their place and finds them as effective at aiding digestion without causing the purging that Swedish Bitters did. Once again that cooling, soothing and stimulating action in effect.
Calming: That frenetic buzzing, the same thing that bees do, that nervous systems do, desert lavender has a strongly calming action on, bringing it down to a manageable level. I’ve seen this time and again, with people who tend to go into stress-mode, who drink too much coffee, are wired hours later, and generally seem to be in a state of sympathetic nervous system excess. A half dropper or so of hyptis tincture will really take the edge off, tone down the frenzy and chill a person out. Its a nice smoking herb for this kind of thing too, especially mixed with pedicularis.
Other: Use it as a smudge (you could combine it with white sage, or with pine pitch, or juniper berries, or all of the above), in a sick room for help fighting airborne microbes, or, for respiratory illness, add it to a steam. Try cooking with it (I use it in a spice blend with bee balm, white sage, black sage, rose petals, sumac, and California bay leaves), or making a desert lavender syrup to add to sodas. Its flavour is enough like true lavender that you can substitute it in a lot of recipes, though keep in mind desert lavender is slightly stronger tasting and lacks the sweetness of some types of true lavender.
As a digestive bitter, it is particularly effective in combination with white sage, with ginger, cinnamon and some lemon peel.
With any combination of white sage, yerba mansa, ocotillo, alder: Immune boosting, antimicrobial, infection fighting.
With rose and monkeyflower: uplifting, liver moving, gently calming and relaxing. A really lovely little blend.
With evening primrose: cools inflammation and soothes digestive tract.
With elderflower and a wild mint (I’m particularly fond of it with one of our local monardella species) in hot infusion: great diaphoretic blend. Especially because the desert lavender is so strongly
antimicrobial and immune system stimulating.
With chilopsis (desert willow): a particularly nice combination for candida or gut dysbiosis.
The bits and bobs:
Desert lavender grows in the sonoran and mojave deserts, in sunny washes. Its common and abundant in most places within its growing range. You can harvest hyptis year round, though it’s most likely to be gather-able in the winter and spring, after the rains but before the desert gets too hot. Gather it when its flowering, pinching off the top 8 inches or so with freshest growth. As with most mints it’ll actually grow back bushier as a result. California hyptis, probably due to there being less rain than in Arizona, is remarkably smaller than Arizonan species unless you gather it in a shady canyon. I highly recommend finding a shady canyon.
Preparation: Tincture (fresh 1:2; dry 1:5). While Michael Moore says 95% I’ve personally found it to be so dry usually that I don’t need to waste my [hard to come by in California] 95% everclear; 70% works really nicely. Luckily those who live in Arizona with more lush plants also have access to higher percentage alcohol on a regular basis. I’m assuming this is some sort of ‘Arizona government loves herbalists’ conspiracy.
Try preparing hyptis as salve, infused oil (both for external use and ingestion as food), vinegar, oxymel, honey (which is beyond delicious).
Medicinal Plants of the Desert and Canyon West, Michael Moore
Medicinal Plants of the American Southwest, Charles Kane
Personal conversations with Shana Lipner
Sonoran Plant Profile: Desert Lavender, by John Slattery