Desert Lavender

posted by Jacqueline A. Soule

In the days before indoor plumbing, daily showers, and sanitation in general, the clean fresh fragrance of lavender was highly welcome. The name lavender is derived from the Latin “lavare,” meaning to wash. Leaves and flowers have been used for several millennia to do just that, wash. Fragrant baths, hair rinses, to cleanse and treat skin ailments, and, in the past, to help eliminate lice and bedbugs from the household. Tea made from leaves and flowers has been used to treat sleeplessness, restlessness, headache, flatulence, and nervous stomach.














Imagine the delight the Europeans experienced when first encountering this fragrant desert plant in our area. Here they were, after an arduous sea voyage, months of horseback travel along dusty deer trails, riding into progressively odder lands – strange towering saguaros, bulging barrel cactus, pungent creosote bush – to come across a gentle evocative fragrance of their childhood home, the sweet scent of lavender. Some, like Father Kino, may have seen it as a sign from God that their journey was blessed.


lavendula in Hungary













Native Seri use a tea of desert lavender (Hyptis emoryi) to help treat a cold. The Franciscans (who came to the area well after Padre Kino) were known to have harvested and used the leaves and flowers in the sick room, to soothe the ill with the fragrance and to bathe fevered foreheads.

Harvesting and Use.
Harvest stalks of desert lavender as the lower-most flowers open. This gives you buds with optimum fragrance. Dry these, like all herbs, out of direct sunlight. I have used desert lavender in all the same external applications European lavender is used for with no observed ill effects. Here are three ways you can use desert lavender.


Herbal sachets can be made with desert lavender.







Herbal Tisane
“Tisane” is the general term for a herbal tea not consumed as a medicinal tea.
1 tablespoons dried herbs or 2 tablespoons fresh herbs
1 cup boiling water
Pour boiling water over the herbs and steep for 3 to 5 minutes. Strain. Sweeten to taste. Serve warm or chilled. Serves 1.









Floral Water
In the Victorian age, floral waters became popular. Floral waters are made by steeping leaves and flowers in water until it becomes fragrant. The water can then be used in tea, pudding, cake, and pastries. There are a number of commercially available floral waters, such as rose water and orange water (made with orange blossoms).

Lavendula in vodkaelsnaps_(4917058844).jp








Herb Syrup
One of the more famous herb syrups is the mint syrup used in making mint juleps. But herb syrups can be used in many other ways, like topping cakes, ice cream, fruit, pancakes, waffles, or as a base in preparing other foods, like sorbet. In general herb syrups can be used to sweeten anything, including tea. Some herb syrups are used medicinally, like elderberry syrup. Desert lavender syrup makes a nice topping over poached pears, fresh figs or perhaps canned fruit for a quick yet elegant dessert.

1 cup water
3 cups sugar
1 cup chopped fresh herbs
or 1/2 cup crumbled dry herbs

Boil all ingredients together for 10 minutes, or until thickened into a syrup. Strain into a clean glass jar. Store in refrigerator for up to two weeks or preserve by canning.

lavendula syrup over figs








Planting and Care of this Sonoran native will be covered on August 17 in my blog on the Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens site.  The Sonoran butterflies that appreciate this shrub will be discussed in my blog on Beautiful  Wildlife Gardens site on August 5.  I will return to this site to post the links, or follow you can the thread on my Facebook page, Gardening With Soule.

Note:   This topic is covered more extensively in my book “Father Kino’s Herbs: Growing and Using Them Today” (2011, Tierra del Sol Press, $15).  If you live in Tucson, I hope you will consider purchasing a copy locally at Antigone Books, Arizona Experience Store, Magic Garden, Mostly Books, or Rillito Nursery.


© 2014, Jacqueline Soule.  All rights reserved. I have received many requests to reprint my work. My policy is that you are free to use a very short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact me if you have any questions. JAS avatar

Eclectic Ephedra


Ephedra is a lovely landscape shrub, but not one for you if you want a plant that can be sheared into an abnormal ball shape. Photo courtesy Mountain States Nursery.


For an unusual herb in your landscape, why not try a unique desert-adapted shrub that was around before dinosaurs roamed the earth — Ephedra.  In fact, there is some evidence that dinosaurs fed on this unusual herb, and it has lived on while the dinosaurs are gone.  You gotta respect a history like that.  Human history with this herb is also extensive, well over 5000 years.  As with many long used herbs, the common name and scientific name are the same, Ephedra.  In the Southwest, ephedra is also known as Mormon tea or joint fir.


Ephedra_trifurca_by_Derrick Coetzee

Ephedra trifurca is the species most common in the Tucson area. Photo by D. Coetzee


The ephedra around Tucson, Ephedra trifurca, is ideal for the full sun landscape featuring native plants.  Its leafless olive green branches reach skyward with a dichotomous branching pattern that is a joy to trace with your eye.  Ephedra is a low-water plant, and does best in a well-drained soil.

Ephedra Graham Co IMG_2764

Ephedra is a “dinosaur plant.” Rather than flowers, it produces cone-like structures that protect the tiny plant embryos. Timing has to be just right to get them to germinate. Or they can be toasted and eaten, as native peoples did.


Ephedra is very easy to grow, but tough to get started.  If you find some in a nursery, be very careful to transplant it with the root ball intact.  You can try it from cuttings, and I have had the best success with young wood cuttings taken after the first monsoon rain has soaked the plant.  You can also grow it from “seed” (technically cone-like structures, not true seeds).  As soon as the tiny hairs exerted from the cone have dried up, harvest these cones and plant them in a blend of three parts sand to one part potting soil.  Keep evenly moist for three months and you should see results.


Dried ephedra, and all your dried herbs, should be used within the year, before their phytochemicals degrade.


If you wish to avoid coffee or Chinese tea because of the very “ungreen” way these products are grown, harvested, and shipped, ephedra tea can serve as a morning beverage.  Steep a tea using one heaping teaspoon of finely broken dried branches per cup of water.  This makes a brew similar to green tea in intensity of flavor.   Harvest and dry your own ephedra in early spring.  Just remember that moderation is key.  Another use is to finely grind ephedra twigs and use in an exfoliating skin wash.  The plant is relatively high in silica, a compound used to make glass.

Ephedra Graham Co IMG_2761

Plants like ephedra protect themselves from being eaten by creating phytochemicals that can be useful in moderation. Photo by J. A. Soule


The active compounds in ephedra include ephedrine, pseudoephedrine, and phenylpropanolamine.  These compounds are used today in clinical settings, including in local anesthetics and surgical vasoconstrictors.  A number of drugs contain pseudoephedrine, including flu, allergy and cold remedies.  You have to sign for these drugs now because pseudoephedrine can be converted into methamphetamine.  In the last days of World War II, many of the Japanese Kamikaze pilots were given injections of a highly refined and potent ephedra extract just prior to their final flights.  The excessive dose mimicked the effects of methamphetamine, including, in some cases, death by stroke or heart attack.

Known locally as Mormon tea, ephedra has long been used as a morning “pick me up” by Mormons and gentiles alike who wish to avoid caffeine.  In The Consumer’s Guide to Herbal Medicine (1999), Steven B. Karch, M.D., evaluates Ephedra along with 67 other medicinal herbs.  He mentions that ephedra is used to treat asthma, bronchospasm, and colds.  “. . . [ephedra affects] . . . the heart and lungs, causing bronchial dilation, and the blood vessels in the nose to shrink.  [It] also exerts influence on the central nervous system.  In very large doses, five to ten times the amounts found in most food supplements, ephedrine produces effects very much like methamphetamine.  Ephedrine, like methamphetamine, [can affect] the heart and blood vessels, leading to stroke and heart attacks.”

Ephedra-nevadensis-cones_by_ Joe Decruyenaere

The cones of ephedra have historically been used as food by peoples around the globe where ephedra occurs.

Note: the information in this article is for your reference, and is not intended to be used as a substitute for qualified medical attention.

Jacqueline Soule has a number of lectures on native herbs this spring at various Pima County Public Library locations.  Ask at your local library or check the events listing on the library website (  As well as writing and speaking about plants, Jacqueline works as a garden coach – making house calls to help you with your plants or landscape design. More information at

Post Script. (P.S.):  for the stamp-lovers out there, here is ephedra celebrated on a stamp from Moldavia.  ephedra_Stamp_of_Moldova