Updated: Dec 24, 2021
A creosote shrub in bloom in the Catalina Foothills of Tucson, AZ.
What can the creosote plant be used for?
Indigenous people rely on creosote as a ‘cure-all’ plant with wide reaching applications.
Creosote bush (Larrea tridentata) is an extremely hardy and drought resistant plant. This evergreen shrub, often called ‘greasewood’ flourishes under the intense daytime heat of the Sonoran, Chihuahua and Mojave Deserts. Creosote bush thrives under 5,000 feet. The plant displays green, waxy leaves and small yellow flowers. These flowers mature into into small grey fruits that are enjoyed by desert mammals.
A strong scent emerges from this plant. This pungent odor is a combination of hundreds of volatile compounds secreted from the plant. This smell was one of the cues that led Indians to test this plant for medicinal properties. For millennia, leaves from this plant have been used to prepare medicinal teas and a creosote bush salve.
Historically, creosote bush has served many medicinal purposes. Indigenous people rely on creosote as a ‘cure-all’ plant with wide reaching applications. Ethnobotanical notes mention creosote was used as a cure of fever, colds, stomach pains, a general pain killer, diuretic, arthritis, sinusitis, anemia and an anti-diarrheal.
Creosote bush is also antimicrobial. Thereby the plant is useful for cuts and bacterial or fungal infections.
Tea was made from the plant. The waxy leaves and small branches were gathered, dried and stored in the sun. When dried, the material was pulverized and steeped into tea.
Parts of the Creosote plant were also smoked for various reasons. In northern Mexico, the Seri smoked insect galls that grew as infectious growths from creosote branches. These galls were caused by an infestation of a desert midge. Apparently, inhaling this smoke offered the Seri great pleasure.
The Pima of North America also inhaled smoke from burning creosote as a remedy for laziness. Another North America tribe, the Papago held their feet above smoldering creosote branches to ease the pain from sore feet.
After learning of the medicinal use of creosote from Native Americans, scientists began to explore the medicinal nature of this plant. One of the many bio-active plant compounds isolated from this plant is called, NDGA. Clinical studies have demonstrated the ability of this compound to inhibit cancerous growth. However, other studies have shown detrimental effects, such as toxicity. Hopefully, future studies will further elucidate the benefits of this plant. It is possible, that dosage is the difference between benefit and detriment.