Ethnobotany of southern California native plants:

Creosote bush (Larrea tridentata)

What is the creosote plant used for?

Creosote bush (Larrea tridentata) is an extremely tough 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.

creosote bush medicinal uses

The drought tolerant creosote bush.

Creosote Bush Medicinal Uses

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 compounds isolated from this plant is called, NDGA – or nordihydroguaiaretic acid. 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.

creosote bush uses

A creosote shrub in bloom in the Sonoran Desert National Monument – south of Phoenix, AZ.

native plant King_Clone creosote

King Clone in the Mojave Desert. This is a 11,700 year old creosote bush ring. All sections of this enormous plant community are genetically identical.

creosote bush uses

photo credit: Eric in SF,CC BY-SA 3.0

Yellow creosote bush flowers.

Alcohol extracts from the leaves and flowers of the creosote bush can be purchased from HerbPharm. In general, HerbPharm is a well-respected brand of botanical supplements. They refer to their creosote tincture as ‘chaparral’. People use this tincture for different purposes. You can learn about the various applications on the customer review page of the product below.

Non-Medicinal Creosote Bush Uses

Creosote bush was used as firewood, feed for livestock, and thatch material for the roofs of adobe homes.

After burning, the creosote plant smolders down into charcoal, which has a green, blue color. This colored charcoal was applied to the skin to decorate tattoos.

creosote bush

Creosote bush after a winter freeze.


Castetter, Edward F. and Ruth M. Underhill 1935 Ethnobiological Studies in the American Southwest II. The Ethnobiology of the Papago Indians. University of New Mexico Bulletin 4(3):1-84 (p. 64, 65)

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On our main ethnobotany page, we present a clickable list of the southern California native plants that became a part of the culture of Native Americans and early European settlers. These plants were used for medicine, food, shelter, drink, tools and art.


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