Foraging for Chaparral--A Southwest Desert Shrub with Amazing Powers (Plus, What to Do With Chaparral)
This article is a quick discussion about foraging for Chaparral, how to use this potent desert plant, as well as its controversial medicinal nature.
As we prepare to move away from the Mojave Desert area where we have lived for 50 plus years, to head to the greener pastures and tall mountain pines of the panhandle of Idaho, I am realizing that soon I will no longer be able to forage for the many special and useful plants easily found in the Mojave Desert, including chaparral.
It's true the Mojave Desert plants are VERY different from the herbs and shrubs found in lusher areas of the country, and they are often more difficult to forage and use....but they have been part of my personal medicine for many years. I am truly going to miss them. One of these special Mojave plants is Chaparral, an incredibly strong and vibrant herb of the Southwestern Desert.
Note: You may also enjoy these other articles on foraging:
You may also enjoy So You Want to Be an Herbalist? Advice on Becoming an Herbalist.
What is Chaparral?
Chaparral (Larrea tridentata) is a desert plant indigenous to the Southwest, especially the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts. It is also known as Greasewood, Creosote, and Chaparro.
Chaparral can be a short scrubby plant or grow to be a very large shrub, over six feet tall, depending on the growing conditions. It has small, waxy leaves that are a fresh olive green. The small five petaled yellow flowers turn into little puff balls as the summer months wear on.
Chaparral has always been one of my favorite desert plants, and if you live in the desert, it’s probably yours too!
It has a strong scent that is especially delicious after a desert rainstorm. It's been around a LONG time, too. Some sources even cite there is a stand of Chaparral in the Mojave Desert that is over 11,000 years old!
If you are ever able to stand and look carefully at an area covered with Chaparral, you will observe the plants are spaced quite far apart. This is because the plant secretes a chemical that kills off young Chaparral starting to grow too near. There is so little water in the desert, you see, Chaparral has developed this merciless survival mechanism.
Although I grew up around Chaparral, loving its desert scent and lovely yellow flowers in the Springtime, it happens to be a rather controversial herb for medicinal use.
It has a long history of use by Native Americans. They used Chaparral for all kinds of ailments, including chicken pox, soothing skin issues, stomachaches, cramps, and to help alleviate mucous and cough. It’s a strong medicinal plant with some amazing properties.
Here are some things to know if you are interested in foraging for Chaparral---
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Foraging for Chaparral
The best time to forage Chaparral is in the Spring, after the yellow flowers have emerged. This happens around February to March in our area. The parts you want to use medicinally are the leaves and flowers. Small stems are ok too.
Depending on the stand of Chaparral you are harvesting from, be sure you take only a bit from each plant for sustainability purposes. The general rule is never to take more than a third of a plant when foraging, but I am way more conservative than this, taking only a sprig or two from each plant.
Note: If you are not able to forage for chaparral because you are in the wrong part of the country, you can also get it from Starwest Botanicals. That is what I will be doing after I move away.
Preparing Foraged Chaparral for Use
Chaparral is already a pretty "dry" plant, with its thick, waxy leaves, especially if it hasn't rained in awhile. I like to leave my sprigs of Chaparral on a towel on the table for a few days. Then I just remove the leaves and flowers by running my hands down the stem. They'll come right off.
Like most herbs, you can prepare chaparral in a variety of different ways. Here are my favorite things to do with Chaparral:
The tea of chaparral is how the Native Americans prepared this herb. Honestly, it tastes terrible, I'm not going to lie. You can use the tea as you would the liniment preparation (below), directly on your skin for irritations, or you can drink it. But, boy is it nasty!
Fill a jar about a third to half full with dried Chaparral leaves and flowers. Cover with 80 proof or higher alcohol, like Vodka. Set aside to infuse over a period of four weeks or longer. Shake once in awhile during this process.
I use Chaparral tincture whenever I'm feeling a urinary tract infection coming on. It's one of the plants in this area that has strong anti-microbial properties, and is useful for a number of infections.
Another way I use Chaparral tincture is as a mouthwash. I rinse my mouth with it daily. There is evidence that Chaparral is so powerful it may be able to keep tooth decay at bay, and some even say it heals infections of the teeth and mouth. I can't personally attest to this, but I do like to rinse my mouth with it. And I don't have many dental problems, either.
If you'd like to find out more about tincturing herbs for health, you might enjoy this article all about tinctures, how to make and use them.
Chaparral Infused Oil:
Oh, my gosh----This is one of my favorite ways to prepare Chaparral for use. For one thing, the chaparral infused oil smells absolutely incredible. If you've ever smelled a desert rainstorm, then you probably know the scent.
Besides that, the infused oil is excellent for skin conditions, including eczema, soothing chicken pox, and even oil pulling if you have dental issues.
Chaparral Salve is similar to the Chaparral infused oil in that you use it nearly the same way---externally for skin conditions and helping speed recovery from wounds. It's a thicker preparation, so it's easier to use, in my opinion. It's a great substitute for Neosporin, too, due to the chemical composition of the plant.
You need to use the infused Chaparral Oil to make the salve, and here are excellent directions for how to make Chaparral Salve, along with more information about Chaparral.
This is the tincture above, used externally on the skin for soothing skin conditions and speeding recovery of wounds, just like the infused oil. The liniment, because it's made with alcohol, will evaporate very quickly, leaving the chemical constituents of the plant to do their natural work. This is great for using on boils, cuts and scrapes, and other skin issues.
What Issues Does Chaparral Support?
Chaparral may help with cramps and gas. This is one of the Native American solutions to this uncomfortable problem. You would take about 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon of the tincture, or make a little tea to drink (Native American style--they generally made tea infusions). I've never actually used chaparral for digestion because I just love my ginger for this (and ginger is safer taken internally).
This is where chaparral becomes controversial. There have been studies pointing in both directions---that it can exacerbate certain types of cancers, yet may help improve other kinds of cancers. Skin cancer, especially, show very good results from using chaparral externally.
Again---I have no personal experience with this, having never suffered from cancer. I have read these facts in my studies. I can say this, however: If ever I suffer from skin cancer, I plan to use chaparral salve or tincture on it. Personal opinion.
Chaparral has expectorant properties as well as being anti-microbial. This is one of my personal favorite tinctures to use if I'm feeling congestion in my lungs and I've tried my other herbal antibiotics, like Goldenseal.
Urinary Tract Infections:
As I mentioned above, Chaparral (along with Juniper Berry) in combination, is one of my personal best natural remedies for a UTI. In fact, if ever I feel a UTI coming on, I immediately begin taking my chaparral tincture. I have not experienced a full-blown UTI in many years, and I used to have them chronically as a young school teacher many years ago (you know, because teachers can't just leave their students to use the restroom as needed).
These are the main issues I have used or heard chaparral supports. There are others, I'm sure, as in soothing skin problems.
Safety Factors for Chaparral
You do have to be careful with Chaparral. It's some powerful plant medicine.
Chaparral is hepatotoxic, which means it can harm the liver. If you are pregnant, nursing, or are taking other drugs that are hard on the liver, or if you drink alcohol, or if you have liver or kidney problems, you should stay away from taking chaparral internally.
Some herbalists feel the evidence for chaparral being toxic to the liver is simply circumstantial. Modern herbalists like to make capsules out of herbs, and this creates a potentially stronger preparation, and it becomes easier to take too much. The traditional form of using chaparral as a tea or tincture has not been thoroughly researched and may not be as dangerous.
In a nutshell---I definitely wouldn't use chaparral in capsule form, and if you do decide to drink the tea or tincture, please take it with a LOT of water so the kidneys are more protected. Also, I would not use chaparral for longer than a week. Just in case.
I like to err on the side of caution with more powerful herbs like chaparral. There are many other herbs that act similarly on the body that are safer to use. In fact, webMD states chaparral is UNSAFE in capital letters.
This is an example of one of those areas, where as individuals, we must do thorough research before deciding to take or use any plant medicine, including essential oils.
Final Thoughts on Foraging and Using Chaparral
Wouldn't it be nice to have some firm guidelines about how and when to use what plant or medicine? I always think this as I'm watching the commercials on T.V., where the company is explaining about a new wonder drug...then the LONG list of side effects and warnings comes on at the end. I always have to laugh---because why on earth would anyone take THAT medicine? Jeesh!
With herbal medicine, just like with other medications, you MUST exercise caution, no matter what kind of herb you are using. Just as prescription and OTC medications have side effects, so do herbs. Even an herb as innocuous as peppermint can have negative reactions if too much is used.
Anyway, I LOVE my chaparral. I tend to use it mostly externally, and mostly because I love how it smells. I have found that for me, it is highly effective to use in a pinch for helping knock out infection, but it's my heavy hitter herb, and I turn to it last because of the safety issues.
This incredible desert plant is one of the ones I will miss the most after we move. It won't be growing anywhere near us after the move. And I will sure miss the way it smells after a rain most of all.
If you want to experiment with chaparral, you can purchase it at Starwest Botanicals. This is my favorite place to buy herbs.
Also, if you want to learn more about herbalism and learning to make your own remedies, I highly recommend The Herbal Academy of New England. They also have a new foraging course!
Have you ever used chaparral? I'd love to know your experiences with this plant--so leave a comment!
You may also be interested in Tips for Wildcrafting and Foraging Herbs with Safety & Success, as well as Foraging for Juniper Berries: A Mojave Desert Herb.
Hugs, Health, & Self-Reliance,
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Easley & Horne, The Modern Herbal Dispensatory: A Medicine Making Guide. Copyright 2016. North Atlantic Books.
Gladstar, Rosemary; Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner's Guide. 2012. Storey Publishing.
Moore, M., Medicinal Plants of the Desert and Canyon West, 1989. Museum of New Mexico Press.
Slattery. J., Southwest Foraging. 2016. Timber Press.