Ask Your Herbalist - Creosote  by J. Zane Walley

Writing about medical herbs is an exacting responsibility. As herbalist and writer, I strive to provide a balanced prospective. Along with identifying proven and potential medical use, side effects and warnings are noted. At times, I study an herb having a long history of medical use, then find it shouted down by the FDA, and conventional medicine.

The plant we will examine this time is one lauded and used by folk doctors and native Americans for hundreds of years. Oppositely the FDA has damned one of its active chemicals, NDGA, (nordihydrogauiaretic acid) when used orally because it caused experimental animals to develop kidney and lymph-system problems

Conversely and very confusingly, the U. S. Department of Agriculture approved NDGA's use as a preservative in lard and animal based shortenings. Some principle facts are presented so you may draw your own conclusions, or have a basis for further study.

Larrea tridentata "durned old creosote bush", or chaparral, also called Greasewood, that covers vast portions of the west, had a prominent place in the healing kits of native Americans, Spanish and Anglo settlers. It was listed as a bronchial antiseptic in the U.S. Pharmacopoeia from 1842 to 1942. Dr. J.M. Bigelow, surgeon of the U.S. Border Commission, in 1848 detailed creosote as an effective liniment for rheumatism and bruises. The United States Bulletin, Trees And Shrubs, states it was used in bathes as a domestic medicine for rheumatism, arthritis and sore or injured muscles

The Journal of Dental Research published a paper demonstrating creosote tea mouthwash reduced tooth decay and tooth loss by an astonishing 75%. They tested it against the bacteria causing cavities, and microorganisms causing gum disease. The findings were rigorously documented. The rinse was made by boiling a tablespoon of dried leaves and stems for one hour in a quart of water. If you try this, expect your breath to smell like you ate a utility pole. Fortunately the odor only lingers a few minutes.

That brings us to the New Mexico nickname, Hediondilla, or "Little Stinker." Creosote bush smells like its name but isn't related to the chemical creosote in any form or fashion. (The wood preservative is a by product of pine oil and coal.) Many people find the smell objectionable, others enjoy the fragrance filling the desert after a rain. For those of us that believe good medicine must smell bad, and taste worse, creosote must be a splendid remedy.

The entire plant, (minus root) makes an amazing pain and inflammation relieving bath for rheumatism, arthritis, and sore muscles. Boil three quarts of leaves and stems in a gallon of water of one-half hour. Strain through an old pillow case into hot bath water, fold the case and add to the bathtub like a giant tea bag, then soak your aching body until the water is cool.

This bath sounds mild but isn't. A nighttime creosote soak leaves you dishrag limp, and the following day inflammation, pain and sore muscles are much relieved. If you suffer from the ailments described, this bath could be a great relief.

A friendly warning. If you prepare this brew in your home, the whole house will smell like creosote for a couple of days. I boil my concoction outside on a Coleman stove. You should also be prepared to scrub your bathtub after the soak.

Simmering equal parts of shorting or lard, beeswax and creosote for several hours makes a salve for similar purposes. Strain, let harden and apply to the affected area. This salve also works very effectively on skin infections, ringworm, and insect bites. It is qualities cause infections and skin eruptions to heal quickly.

The salve works well for man or beast. The bad taste has a real advantage when used for animals. Many pets will lick medication from effected areas, but they will not want to lick this stuff off.

Simmer equal parts of creosote and mineral oil for hours to create a lotion that works well for massage, ointment, or even a mild sunscreen. A friend uses this oil daily on his arthritic hands. He swears by its pain and inflammation relieving qualities.

If you decide to make the salve, lotion or bath potion, don't use kitchen utensils unless they will be devoted to creosote cooking. The oils are so powerful, you will be tasting them for months.

A considerable body of folk medicine documents the internal use of creosote for a variety of aliments. Southwestern Indians used it for arthritis, venereal disease, tuberculosis, and colds. Anglo and Hispanic settlers used creosote for diarrhea, upset stomach, menstrual problems, and cancer of the liver, kidney and stomach.

Modern research lends credit to many of those uses. NDGA is a powerful antioxidant. (Prevents damage to body cells.) Scientist believe damaged cells eventually cause cancer. Early studies in laboratory animals showed NDGA did inhibit growth in some tumors. Contradictory studies indicate NDGA can actually stimulate the growth of cancer cells.

The border abounds with stories of creosote cures. The Hot Springs at what is now Big Bend National Park was a spa devoted to using creosote and thermal waters to cure various cancers and other diseases. Patients were put on a strict regimen of creosote tea and hot mineral water fresh from the earth. Cancer cures were documented but not reported.

Creosote may be picked any time of the year, but is most potent in the spring. After picking, hang upside down in a shady location to dry. It will keep a couple of years if stored in a brown paper bag.