You see them all over - scraggly-looking desert bushes that smell like turpentine after rain. Native tribal people here used them safely and effectively for thousands of years for a wide variety of ills, including colds and flu, viral infections of all sorts, and even cancer.

Chaparral is the most common name given to this plant, although that is a misnomer. Chaparral is actually the name of the desert ecosystem dominated by the bushes we often call chaparral, but which are correctly known as greasewood or creosote bush. Cowboys who rode through this ecosystem realized they needed protection for their legs from the stiff bushes growing several feet high in this region, and they evolved leather leggings to wear, which they called "chaps," after chaparral.

Nature's Way Herbs, presently out of Utah, began in Mesa years ago. A man - Tom Murdock - who knew about herbs, had a wife who got cancer. He decided to give her chaparral or creosote bush for this, in the raw herb form. After some time of taking this, her cancer went into remission. Years later, her cancer came back. She refused to take the raw herb anymore because of the taste, and he decided to have it made into capsule form. He approached the Phoenix Suns, since they had their own line of supplements being made into capsules, and asked if he could make a run of capsuled herbs for his wife. They agreed. She took the capsules, and again her cancer went away (she lived another 25 years). Other people came to the man for herbal help, and he started making herbal capsules for them. Thus, Nature's Way Herbs was born.

Presently there is controversy about the safety of chaparral. Many years ago a couple of people grossly overdosed on chaparral and had liver problems. They thought, "A little's good, a lot's better." This is like thinking that since cooking something at 350 degrees for 30 minutes makes it come out well-cooked, cooking it at 700 degrees for an hour will make it much better. Uh, no. Professional herbalists presently agree that judicious use of chaparral is safe and effective - for detoxification, herpes simplex, venereal warts, colds and flus, and potentially cancer.

Lalitha Thomas, a locally-trained longtime herbalist and author of "Ten Essential Herbs," recommends this regimen: Pick several stems and flowers of chaparral, which is ripest at this time of year. Cut the stems/flowers into small pieces and cover with a screen in a cardboard box for a week until dry. Take one teaspoon's worth of dry herbal matter and put into a teacup. Add hot but not boiling water and cover overnight. In the morning, drink, saving the herbal dregs. Re-use the herbal matter for two more days in the same way, then discard. Repeat this process for a total of 21 days. This is a chaparral liver detox, which is wonderful in springtime.

• Joseph Garner, L.Ac., has been practicing acupuncture and Chinese medicine for 15 years, as well as teaching in higher education and serving on the national Acupuncture College Accreditation Commission. Contact him at (602) 295-3080 or

(2) comments


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Anyone interested in the proper uses of Chaparral (Creosote bush) should get Charles Kane's Herbal Medicine of the American Southwest. It discusses the proper uses of the bush (makes a great topical application for pre-cancerous skin patches from too much sun) as well as cautions - liver irritation. It's not necessarily the best herb to taken as a 'cleanse' due to its potential toxicities, but used properly for a number of problems, it's more powerful than many other herbs used for similar things. Anyway...excellent book, covering most of our desert plant life...highly recommended.

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