Yerba Buena (Satureja douglasii)

As a departure from the usual theme of this column, I’m writing today about a plant that is neither restricted in its distribution nor at the limits of its geographic range on the San Francisco Peninsula. Rather, it is a species that is interesting in its namesake and historical uses. Yerba buena (Spanish for “good herb”) was the source of the original name of the Mexican village that later became the great city of San Francisco. Yerba Buena Island was also named for the herb that is reported to have once covered its slopes. The town’s name was officially changed from Yerba Buena to San Francisco in 1847.

Described by Linnaeus in 1831 from collections made in the Presidio by Chamisso around 1816, yerba buena is common and widespread, being usually found in shady, moist places from coastal bluffs to foothill woodlands. It occurs generally near the coast from Los Angeles to Humboldt County, the Channel Islands, and with two disjunct populations recorded in Butte County. It ranges northward to the western Cascade Range of Oregon and Washington, to British Columbia, and east to Idaho and Montana.

The specific epithet of yerba buena, “douglasii” comes from David Douglas, who made more than 500 plant collections in California in 1823, when he was sent by the Royal Horticultural Society of London to collect species that would grow in England. No other collector has more plants associated with his name than David Douglas.

Yerba buena is a member of the mint family (Lamiaceae), and one of a group of plants commonly known as savory. The savories have long been considered to have healing powers. Leaves of this aromatic herb were used by native Americans and early settlers to brew a pleasant tea to cure stomach ailments, for reducing fevers, and for treating eye infections and colds. It is widely believed to be an effective tonic for the digestive tract, as are many of the mints, and to have antiseptic properties. Branches of the herb were tossed on the fire to create an aromatic disinfectant. Indigenous peoples wrapped the stems and leaves around their heads to treat headache, and used it in skin washes to treat rashes and prickly heat. Even today, because of its pungent oils, it is commonly used in toothpaste and soaps.

Savories also have a reputation as aphrodisiacs. In the first century A.D., the Roman naturalist and writer Pliny the Elder gave the herb its name “Satureja,” a derivative of the word “satyr,” the character from Greek mythology who was half-man, half-goat, with an insatiable sexual appetite. According to lore, the satyrs lived in meadows of savory, thus implying that it was the herb that made them passionate. In more recent times, the noted French herbalist Messeque claimed savory was an essential ingredient in the love potions he made for couples.

Within San Francisco, yerba buena was recorded in the 1958 San Francisco flora as occurring near the mouth of Lobos Creek, Laguna Honda, Twin Peaks, the dunes of the Sunset District, Pine Lake, and Lake Merced. It has been recently reported from several of San Francisco’s remaining natural areas, including Laguna Honda, Twin Peaks, Mt. Davidson, and Glen Canyon, and it is abundant in the Presidio. In San Mateo County, it is present on San Bruno Mountain and throughout the Santa Cruz mountains.

Yerba buena is readily discernible by its mat-forming habit. Of the three Satureja species native to California, it is the only one that is prostrate. It is a perennial creeper, frequently rooting along the stems. Its leaves are opposite, rounded, and 1/2 – 1.5 inches across. Stems are usually less than 3 feet long. It produces tubular, white to lavender flowers less than 1/2 inch long, which form in the leaf axils. Flowering season is from April to August.

Yerba buena is regarded as having excellent horticultural qualities, growing well in rich, moist but well-drained soils in partial shade or full sun near the coast. It will take light foot traffic, giving off a lovely minty fragrance. It is an attractive herb for ground cover and in shady garden borders. It is readily available at nurseries (please don’t pick plants from the wild!).