T. rex at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History | Credit: E. Avery Reed

Being in Santa Barbara, one of the highest-traffic tourist towns on the scenic California coast, required visiting a few art, science, and history museums, a passion of my wife Caroline’s. The Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, founded in 1916, was next on our list of places to see, and this is one that I was looking forward to because natural history is my nirvana.

The museum is unique as it is off the beaten path — not in the downtown area but about a half-mile directly north of the Santa Barbara Mission in an isolated oak tree forested and native-scrub-wooded campus location, almost deserted in the rolling hills below the Santa Ynez Mountains that are part of the geologic western Transverse Ranges.

Excitement was in the air as I parked the car between oak trees in a large asphalt paved parking lot constructed over rolling terrain, seemingly as an afterthought to save certain oak or pine trees. We walked past the first blue whale over 70 feet long that I have ever seen up close preserved as a skeleton for public display. Yes, that did take our breath away.

We paid the senior entry fee of $32 ($16 each, senior rate) to tour the museum. The Bird Hall exhibit there is the greatest exhibit of native species of birds that I have ever seen. Yes, the taxidermist has been busy — the birds are stuffed — but the exhibit is so unique, you will soon get over it.

Although we did not learn of the Prehistoric Forest exhibit and unusual reptile and native plant exhibits while inside the museum, on our way outside to the restrooms we discovered them located in the south side of the property. Yes, we had to see what was going on there.

Walking on a decomposed granite walkway into what has been designed to be a Jurassic Park dry-forest replica, various large animated prehistoric reptiles on exhibit not only moved, but they talked or roared, some loudly, as you set off what was probably an electric eye-derived system in front of each. No word could describe our joy and that of many children and their parents walking on our pathway with us — try a single word “amazing.”

After seeing and living the historical geology world of Tyrannosaurus rex and other prehistoric reptiles, you might think our amazement was satisfied. Not yet.

As we walked back to our car, we passed through a garden area of native plant species with name tags posted and special qualities of each plant — presumably, those qualities found by the native Chumash tribe that called this their home thousands of years before the Spaniards arrived with a land expedition in 1769.

When reading each placard posted near most plants, and certainly impressed by each, I stopped, read, and studied one that intrigued me, which said something like “Yerba santa, a plant used to relieve colds, foot pain, and was a general tonic.” The note said the Spanish missionaries called it the holy herb.

I had a pen and piece of paper in my shirt pocket, and I wrote down the following: “Yerba santa, Eriodictyon crassifolium.” The words relate to the thick leaves of the plant known as “yerba santa,” a native-indigenous shrub to California in the Boraginaceae family. After some internet research, I found photographs of this flowering plant: flowers bloom that vary from white to purple in color; leaves can be long and fuzzy.

Caroline was eager to learn more about a plant that was known to her Latin genetic ancestors to cure illnesses over 250 years ago, that neither of us knew had medicinal uses before we visited the museum.

What we learned in researching native California plants could fill a book — many must have done this before, but I am not qualified to write such a book or anything definitive about yerba santa. But in researching the plant, I called the museum to ask a few questions. They referred me to Jan Timbrook who I learned has been the manager of the museum’s garden for many years and is quite knowledgeable about this herb. My primary interest was in the yerba santa and the illnesses it may help to treat, adding that we have a daughter with an incurable disease, rheumatoid arthritis. I will note here that the museum discourages general readers from using the herbs as they can represent a health risk and danger to those not disciplined in use, application, or dose.

Ms. Timbrook stated that the Chumash garden has three plants called “yerba,” or “herb,” that were historically believed to have possible or potential medical illness remedies: Yerba mansa (infectious blood purifier, antibacterial properties, cuts and sores, and possible liver remedies); Yerba buena, creeping mint plant for tea (stomachache, and rheumatism); and Yerba santa, tea and hot bath soak (respiratory conditions, cough, cold, tuberculosis, asthma, inflammation of airways of lungs, and it may also relieve muscle spasms). As a word of caution, she said, “Taking too much might be bad for the liver.”

She certainly is an expert on this plant. The next part of my plan is to purchase some seeds for all three varieties and raise the plants to the size that can spare a few leaves and shoots to first try the tea (in low dose). Finding a Chumash healer would work. If you know of one, please send their name and email address.

Correction: An earlier version of this piece erroneously attributed to the Natural History museum an exhibit on Spanish dress in the 16th and 17th centuries that is on view at the Santa Barbara Historical Museum. Also, “yerba mate” is not related to the “yerba santa.”


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