Submitted by Dara Saville
August 18, 2022
Status: At-Risk, 41
Anemopsis californica (Nutt.) Hook & Arn. (SEINet, 2022)
vavish (Pima) (Curtin, 1949-1984), chivnish (Cahuilla) (Bean and Saubel, 1972), ’onchoshi (Chumash) (Adams and Lemos, 2003), matacha (Acoma and Laguna Pueblos) (Swank, 1932), cahpanï-l (Tübatulabal) (Voegelin, 1938), wawic (Papago) (Castetter and Underhill, 1935), cheu-pahn-iv (Moapa Piute) and chew-pon-iv (Shoshone) (Train et al., 1941), yerba mansa, yerba del manzo, swamp root, lizard tail
Part(s) of Plant Used:
roots, leaves, flowers
Yerba mansa is native to the American Southwest and adjacent regions of the Southern Plains and Mexico. Its range includes the US states of Oregon, California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas (BONAP, 2014).
Yerba mansa is classified as a wetlands obligate throughout much of its range and is found in bosque (riparian floodplains), ciénega (spring-fed wet meadows), and other wetland habitats. It is accepting of both alkaline and saline soils at elevations usually below 6,500 feet.
Yerba mansa’s uniqueness is expressed through being one of only seven species in the global Saururaceae family and singular in its genus Anemopsis. Furthermore, it is considered a paleoherb, believed to be one of the earliest flowering herbaceous plants evolving during the early Cretaceous period and thus sharing characteristics with monocots (Carlquist et al., 1995). All above and below-ground parts of yerba mansa are uniquely aromatic, especially its perennial roots. It has waxy almost rubbery oval-shaped leaves which are attached by long peduncles and often develop brick-red splotches as fall approaches. White flowers typically appear in mid-summer but bloom time may vary. The spikelike inflorescence is comprised of numerous tiny bisexual flowers with six stamens, three carpels, and an inferior ovary. The floral structure lacks a perianth (sepals, petals) and is instead accompanied by white petal-like bracts. Charles Quibell (1941) described yerba mansa’s floral anatomy and morphology in detail and Shirley Tucker (1985) examined inflorescence and floral initiation and development. Yerba mansa cannot self-pollinate and requires pollination from other plants to promote genetic diversity, species health, and evolution (Schroeder and Weller, 1997). Vegetative reproduction is common and large stands may form through rhizomatous and stoloniferous spreading when adequate and consistent water is available. Yerba mansa may cohabitate with numerous other plant species and is commonly found underneath coyote willow (Salix exigua or other Salix) thickets, in cottonwood (Populus sp.) forest understory, or in association with saltgrass (Distichlis spicata) meadows.
Yerba mansa’s activity in the landscape contributes to important ecological functions that facilitate the growth of other species and invigorates the overall vitality of wetland ecosystems. These ecological influences and their implications for land health and human health have been described in The Ecology of Herbal Medicine (Saville, 2021). Yerba mansa improves the quality of soil and water in historically wet, boggy, slow moving environments. Its rhizomes and roots spread laterally and horizontally through intractably dense soils, aerating, purifying, and altering soil chemistry while moving water, oxygen, and nutrients through the ecosystem. Like many wetlands plants, it absorbs environmental contaminants including arsenic (Del-Toro-Sanchez et al., 2013) and heavy metals (Karpiscak et al., 2001). Wild stands of yerba mansa are also known to interact with and provide habitat for numerous endophytic organisms (Bussey et al., 2015), creating nested ecologies within its structure.
At Risk with overall at-risk score of 41 (United Plant Savers, 2022). The largest number of points earned in this rating were derived from habitat threats (Castle et al., 2014), which are expected to escalate as the effects of intensified water demands, Southwestern water restrictions, and increased temperatures of climate change converge.
Priority for Further Study (TRAFFIC/The Nature Conservancy, 1999). Criteria for selection include: substantial commercial trade, demand increase, population decline, and species decline.
Global Status: Secure, listed as needing review due to habitat limitations, vulnerability to changes in hydraulic conditions, and increasing market demands; State Status for Oregon, California, Nevada, New Mexico, Kansas, and Texas: No Rank; State Status for Utah and Colorado: Imperiled; State Status for Oklahoma: Possibly Extirpated (NatureServe, 2001).
Ability to Withstand Disturbance:
Yerba mansa is a hearty groundcover that spreads rhizomatously and stoloniferously but requires a high water table, surface flows, or otherwise consistently moist soil for establishment and reproduction. Having evolved in riparian zones, it is accustomed to flood disturbance. Yerba mansa is able to withstand a variety of disturbances including floods, low intensity fires, agricultural activity, and grazing while retaining its ability to recover if its water needs are met. As economic water use and climate change conditions converge in the Southwest, reduced water availability will likely impact this plant’s ability to regenerate after disturbance.
Vulnerabilities and Threats:
(The following section is an excerpt from the Anemopsis californica (yerba mansa) Monograph by Dara Saville originally published in The Journal of the American Herbalists Guild, spring 2020 issue. See article link below.)
Yerba mansa’s range is characterized by desert habitats in the American Southwest and Mexico and in some neighboring dry zones. It is relegated almost entirely to moist habitats with alkaline soils such as riparian floodplains, springs, and associated wetlands within this arid region. Riparian forest (bosque) and spring-supported bog (ciénega) habitats cover only a very small percentage of land within its range. Desert bosque environments including the Rio Grande and the Colorado River are considered to be among the most severely altered and endangered ecosystems anywhere (Brinson et al., 1981; Crawford et al., 1996). More than two decades ago, Crawford et al. noted that “changes in the [Middle Rio Grande] bosque’s ecological dynamics are rapidly leading to an ecosystem that, in terms of structure and functioning, will undergo irreversible change in the absence of a new management paradigm” (p. 1). The US Army Corps of Engineers (2003) reported that flood control measures and urbanization along the Rio Grande have resulted in 60% loss of habitat, river flows decreasing to 1/6 of their historic levels, a significant reduction in channels and wetlands, the invasion of many non-native species, increased wildfires, and a dramatic decline in the reproduction of the native keystone species. Riparian habitat loss is also well documented along the Colorado River with the Bureau of Reclamation estimating that a mere 6,000 acres of such habitat remains from what is thought to have been 400,000 acres before dams (Cohn, 2001). The lower Colorado, once the most extensive wetlands in the Southwest, has been reduced to scattered relics of native riparian vegetation separated by vast dry barren expanses and a plethora of invasive species (Stromberg, 2001). Ciénegas are also critically threatened environments. Sivinski and Tonne (2011) and others (e.g. Hendrickson and Minckley, 1985; Unmack and Minckley, 2008) have described their “almost universal destruction or diminution during the last two centuries” (p. 34). Climate change models add to the concerns around habitat degradation and loss of land. For example, Gutzler (2013) predicted the Rio Grande Basin (already at 1/6 historic flows) to have 14% less water within the next decade and as much as 29% less water by the 2080s. Furthermore, greater extremes in water availability are expected to become the norm and, as described below, yerba mansa’s health and reproduction are dependent on reliable moisture.
Due to these extensive water diversions and environmental controls, wild populations of yerba mansa have been adversely affected. Botanist J. R. Watson (1912) described the riparian plant communities in north central New Mexico more than a century ago. He observed that Populus deltoides wislizeni forests (Cottonwood) and Juncus-Houttuynia (Juncus balticus or Mountain Rush and Houttuynia californica, renamed Anemopsis californica) filled meadows were dominant in river valleys. Additionally, Watson (1908) documented the common plants of Bernalillo County in central New Mexico and described yerba mansa as “exceedingly common in alkali soil in the valley where it often forms a turf” (p. 90). Yerba mansa is no longer a dominant plant in this ecosystem today and these statements illuminate the population changes that have already occurred for this species. More than 70 years ago Curtin (1949-1984) reported that yerba mansa was “rapidly disappearing” (p. 78) from Pima reservations due to groundwater pumping. More recently, Adams and Lemos (2003) reported on yerba mansa populations in coastal California and stated: “This plant is found at alkaline seeps in the desert and used to be found in marine estuaries and sloughs. Unfortunately, as urban development occurs along the seashore, Anemopsis disappears” (p. 2). In addition to being relegated to wetland habitats within the desert Southwest, Kane (2011) noted that yerba mansa is locally abundant, but isolated in distribution. He further noted that “The plant’s largest threat is not over-harvesting but habitat loss through development and lowering of the region’s water table” (p. 277). He added that “vast expanses, stretching for scores of miles were once reported for this plant. Due to today’s much lower water table these great yerba mansa swaths have been reduced to isolated pockets” (p. 277).
Baseline population information is based on generalized reports of local abundance in various ethnobotanical texts from the Southwest (e.g. Munk, 1913; Romero, 1954, and others) and some specific locations are documented by herbarium records. There is very little data regarding changes in wild populations over time. We simply do not know precisely how wild stands have fared as a result of all the habitat changes this species has experienced. What we do know is that the nature of this plant is to spread rhizomatously and stoloniferously, forming large stands when water requirements are met. Reliable and consistent water is necessary for this reproductive process and as Moore (1989) and others (e.g. Watson, 1908; Saville, 2021) have observed, this species always grows in expansive stands. My observations are consistent with what Kane (2011) described in the previous paragraph. Although some large stands do exist in the Middle Rio Grande Bosque, most often I have observed small isolated patches of only a few plants. These appear to be remnant populations that remain from wetter times in the floodplain. This is not what one would expect as a growing pattern for yerba mansa and such observations made by myself and others fuel a growing concern about the ongoing, under-recognized, and undocumented declines in wild populations that are occurring. There are additional concerns, too. As already noted, yerba mansa populations may be locally abundant but remaining stands are likely to be under water-related stress and are isolated from one another through loss of habitat. Local abundance creates a potentially false positive impression of the overall health of the species range wide. Furthermore, yerba mansa is known to be self-incompatible (Schroeder and Weller, 1997), creating a reliance on cross-pollination from other populations to maintain species health and resiliency. As habitat conditions for individual stands continue to decline, the isolation that results from increasing habitat loss raises additional concerns about the ability of yerba mansa to adapt to escalating environmental pressures.
Wild Harvesting Impact on Other Species:
Considering the extensive degradation and loss of wetland habitat across this plant’s range and the resultant water stress of species sharing this habitat, care should be taken to identify any rare or locally declining or stressed species from these areas. Given yerba mansa’s spreading groundcover nature, engaging in responsible wild harvesting from within healthy stands reduces the likelihood of negatively impacting other species.
While there are no true lookalikes within its habitat, it is possible that a cursory observation might confuse non-flowering plantain (Plantago major) or yellow dock (Rumex crispus) leaves for those of yerba mansa. Yerba mansa leaves have a waxy appearance and a net-like venation pattern as compared to plantain. Yellow dock leaves are typically longer with a pointed tip compared to yerba mansa. Marsh marigold (Caltha leptosepala) has a similar generalized appearance and does grow along streamsides but is a higher elevation Rocky Mountain plant community member and is not known to share habitat with yerba mansa.
The existing market demand for yerba mansa is not clearly documented. According to the 1996 National Market Analysis for Southwestern Herbs (Falk et al.) incorporating results from 98 commercial herb buyers, 44% of wholesalers/retailers were purchasing yerba mansa and nearly 20% indicated they were seeking additional suppliers. The 1999 TRAFFIC report, Medicine from U.S. Wildlands: An Assessment of Native Plant Species Harvested in the United States for Medicinal Use and Trade and Evaluation of the Conservation and Management Implications (Robbins), identified yerba mansa as a medicinal plant in commerce prioritized for further study. It met all four of their criteria for concern: significant commercial trade, increasing demand with the last decade, declining populations within the last decade, and overall species decline within the last decade. Yerba mansa is often cited as a substitute for the endangered and popular herb Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) (e.g. Moore, 1989). As pressure mounts on that herb, there is an increased likelihood of rising demands on yerba mansa. Fortunately, yerba mansa can be cultivated to meet herbal market demands (Kleitz et al., 2003; Martin and Steiner, 2007). Although there are known differences between wild and cultivated yerba mansa plants (summarized by Saville, 2020), small scale growers could alleviate pressure on wild populations and meet rising commercial trade needs.
Status Recommendations for Use:
The United Plant Savers recommends that At-Risk plants should be used in cultivated forms whenever possible. Because of pressures facing these plant populations and significant variability in abundance, wild harvesting should be very limited and carefully monitored. Any wild harvest of these plants should align with rules established by federal, state and local governments.
Additional Source(s) of Interest:
- Anemopsis californica Monograph by Dara Saville in the 2020 spring issue of The Journal of the American Herbalists Guild (https://yerbamansaproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/Anemopsis-californica-monograph.pdf)
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- BONAP. (2014). Anemopsis californica. Available at http://www.bonap.org/. [Accessed on 8/15/22].
- Brinson, M. M., Swift, B. L, Plantico, R. C., & Barclay, J. S. (1981). Riparian ecosystems: their ecology and status. FWS/OBS-81/17. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
- Bussey, R. O., Kaur, A., Todd, D. A., Egan, J. M., El-Elimat, T., Graf, T. N., Raja, H. A., Oberlies, N. H., & Cech, N. B. (2015). Comparison of the chemistry and diversity of endophytes isolated from wild-harvested and greenhouse-cultivated yerba mansa (Anemopsis californica). Phytochemistry Letters, 202-208.
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- Robbins, C. (1999). Medicine from US wildlands: an assessment of native plant species harvested in the United States for medicinal use and trade and evaluation of the conservation and management implications. TRAFFIC and The Nature Conservancy.
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- Saville, D. (2021). The ecology of herbal medicine: a guide to plants and living landscapes of the American Southwest. University of New Mexico Press.
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