Lizard Tail Plants

yerba mansaIMG_6196 (4)

Yerba mansa is a member of a tiny plant family. Our Sonoran Desert has many such unique plants in it.

Jacqueline Soule here to tell you of a very unusual plant blooming in my garden right now – a member of the very unique Lizard Tail Family, the Saururaceae. This distinct plant family has only seven species in it, grouped into four genera. I am writing today about Anemopsis californica, also called yerba mansa.

yerba mansaIMG_6196 (1)

What looks like a single flower is technically a cluster of tiny flowers.


Yerba mansa is used as a medicinal herb, but it also makes a pretty pond plant. All parts of the plant have a distinct spicy fragrance, a blend of ginger, eucalyptus, a touch of juniper and a dash of pepper. The roots are especially fragrant, reminiscent of a cross between camphor and eucalyptus with a hint of pepper. One of the active compounds in yerba mansa is methyleugenol, an anti-spasmodic, similar in chemical structure to compounds found in other medicinal herbs.

yerba mansa IMG_6212 (8)

Even when they are newly emerged, the leaves bear a tracery of the red pigments they feature in fall.

Yerba mansa is versatile; it can be taken orally as a tea, tincture, infusion or dried in capsule form. It can be used externally for soaking inflamed or infected areas. It can be ground and used as a dusting powder. In New Mexico the leaves are used to make a poultice to relieve muscle swelling and inflammation. Spanish settlers in California used the plant as a liniment for skin troubles and as a tea for disorders of the blood.

Planting and Care.

While it is a pretty garden plant, yerba mansa would not appear in xeriscape books. It requires consistently moist soil and will not tolerate drying out between waterings. But by definition a xeriscape should include some oasis, and this is often a water garden.

yerba mansa IMG_6205 (3)

Yerba mansa features large leathery leaves when it gets ample water.

Yerba mansa is valuable in the water garden. Koi and other fish do not browse it like they do many other plants, thus it can readily spread and help clean the water. It also appears to help keep fish from getting bacterial infections such as Pseudomonas fluorescens (causing fin rot and fish dropsy) and fungal infections such as Saprolegnia.

yerba mansa IMG_6212 (19)

Great for the water garden, yerba mansa’s antibacterial properties can help keep your fish healthy.

Cooler autumn weather can bring blotches of maroon to the leaves and stems. If the temperatures are cool but not freezing, the entire plant may turn color. If the temperature falls below 20 F, the leaves die. Not to worry, the plant readily comes back from the roots. The plant is considered hardy to USDA Zone 5.

yerba mansa IMG_6212 (2)

Yerba mansa will send out runners seeking to colonize new territory. It will not take root where there is not ample water – like in the desert outside the water garden!

In our area the plant is gaining popularity and can now be found in a number of nurseries that carry water garden plants.

Harvesting and Use.

Roots for medicinal purposes should be collected in the fall preferably after the first freeze. After the first freeze the plant will begin to store the useful chemicals in its root system. Harvest the thick fleshy roots under the main part of the plant, not the thin roots on the runners.

yerba mansa IMG_6212 (5)

The smaller white roots are the ones harvested and dried for their medicinal properties.

Wash roots to remove clay and silt, then set them to wilt for several hours before cutting them into small pieces (roughly 1/4 inch square). Continue to dry the chopped roots until firm and dry.

About Jacqueline Soule

If you live in Southeastern Arizona, please come to one of my lectures. Look for me at your local Pima County Library branch, Steam Pump Ranch, Tubac Presidio and more. After each event I will be signing copies of my books, including the latest, “Southwest Fruit and Vegetable Gardening,” written for Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico (Cool Springs Press, $23).

All text and all photos (except where noted) are copyright © 2015 by Jacqueline A. Soule. All rights reserved. I receive many requests to reprint my work. My policy is that you may use a short excerpt but you must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Photos may not be used.