Last Updated: September 6, 2023
A water-loving perennial native to the American southwest and Northern Mexico
Yerba Mansa in bloom in mid-July
About 10 years ago I built a small pond in the front garden of the Acre. It wasn’t long after that Yerba Mansa (Anemopsis californica) showed up and made itself at home.
I didn’t know what the plant was until a biologist who works at the neighboring Audubon preserve told me that it was a native that grew along wetlands and creek sides. Its trailing habit and ability to live in alkaline soils makes it an important part of the ecosystem.
The leaves provide shade and cover for insects and fish, and its roots improve the soil for other riparian plants like the red willow, which in turn, provide habitat for a number of native butterflies and birds. (The biologist was an entomologist with a focus on butterflies, so his excitement was understandable.)
Yerba Mansa, also known as “lizard tail”, is a perennial and native to most of the American southwest and northern Mexico. It lives in very wet soil or shallow water, so you only find it growing along waterways (uncommon in our dry, desert climate), which is why many people who live here have never seen it.
Yerba mansa growing along the perimeter of our fish pond
Yerba Mansa Description
The plant is interesting for a number of reasons. First, it’s the only member of its plant family (aka: monotypic), which is highly unusual.
In the spring and early summer, it produces a showy, white, cone-shaped flower, surrounded by a collar of white bracts.
The flower isn’t actually “a” flower but a false flower (a pseudanthium in science speak), made up of dozens of tiny flowers growing along the cone.
As the season goes on, the leaves and bracts develop red stains and streaks. By fall what was once deep green and white turns into a display of rusty reds and browns.
The “flower” turns into a hard little brown cone that floats on water, which is how it distributes its tiny pepper grain-sized seeds downstream. (How they got into my pond, which is uphill and not connected to the nearby creek, remains a happy mystery.)
The “flower” is actually dozens of tiny flowers on the cone
Uses for Yerba Mansa
The first Spanish settlers in the early 1700’s reported that the local Indian tribes used yerba mansa to make poultices to treat inflammation and sore muscles. It also has some antimicrobial effects. The roots were used in a tea as a diuretic to help treat gout.
While no one is certain, this may be where the plant got its name. “Yerba” is the Spanish word for “herb”, while “mansa” means “cultivated” or “tamed.” So, “yerba mansa” would be a reference to the “herb cultivated by Indians.”
Floral & Decorative
As mentioned above, the dried flowers (and stalks) are tough, but flexible structures with a rusty, red color. They can be woven into wreaths and used in dried flower arrangements.
The dried leaves are also supposed have a spicy scent that can be used in potpourris (although I haven’t confirmed this).
Not only is this plant used in water gardens, but because of its trailing habit and ability to thrive in desert climates (both hot and cold), it’s used as a low-maintenance, native groundcover in parks and gardens.
Here at the Acre, yerba mansa works both as a water plant and low-growing cover that provides a nice transition from the west side of the pond into the rocky, dry gardens of sages and succulents.
Yerba mansa petals with late summer splashes of red
Yerba Mansa flower turning red
Leaves of the Yerba Mansa turning red in mid-summer
Yerba mansa is attractive, low maintenance, and works well with both water and land plants. It has no pests that I’ve found and volunteers itself readily in any area with a bit of moisture.
The white, green and rusty red colors, and low growing habit makes it a great companion for taller plants, as well as a nice groundcover. I highly recommend it.
Yerba Mansa Plant Details
|Yerba Mansa, Lizard Tail
|Southwestern America / Northern Mexico
|12 inches tall and wide
|Full or Partial
|Damp soil, shallow water
|Any (prefers alkaline)
|Zones 5-10 (USDA)