Yerba mansa 'calming herb' may be next echinacea

ByABC News
July 26, 2008, 6:42 PM

ALBUQUERQUE -- The plant has been described by local residents as magical, its qualities almost mythical.

The native herb yerba mansa, translated from Spanish as the "calming herb," has been used for centuries throughout the Southwest by American Indians and Hispanics for ailments ranging from toothaches to sinus infections.

Though the herb is relatively unknown outside the region, those in the folk herb industry say yerba mansa could become as popular as goldenseal and echinacea.

But before the ancient herb can get its day in the sun, researchers must find a way to protect the ecologically threatened plant from depletion by habitat loss and urban development.

Charles Martin, a researcher at New Mexico State University's Sustainable Agriculture Science Center, has found a solution. He has made yerba mansa a viable agricultural crop for New Mexico's small farmers.

"As far as I know, our center is the only place in the U.S. conducting production research (on yerba mansa)," Martin said. "We targeted native herbs in an effort to find alternative crops for small farmers that are drought-tolerant and have a built-in pest resistance, and yerba mansa is an ideal plant that meets that criteria."

Also called yerba del manso, lizard tail or swamp root, the small plant with large white flower spikes is a perennial native to riverbanks and wetlands in the Southwest and northern Mexico.

The effort to grow yerba mansa for commercial cultivation benefits farmers, but it is also an attempt to protect the plant's future.

The herb is on the "to-watch" list by United Plant Savers, a Vermont-based organization dedicated to protecting native plants used as folk remedies.

Many herbal products that have been scientifically studied have not lived up to their claims. And many, like yerba mansa, have not been rigorously studied at all. Herbal supplements do not require government proof of safety and effectiveness to be sold.

Martin said it's hard to quantify how much yerba mansa, or Anemopsis californica, remains in the wild. Researchers look to the plant's shrinking habitat as an indicator of its well-being.