Adapted from Jim Conrad's
Naturalist Newsletter of April 7, 2007
issued from Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve,
QUERÉTARO, MÉXICO

DESERT LAVENDER
STEPPING FORWARD

Our dry-season landscape changes week to week and it's fascinating to see how things come and go. There's always at least one species seeming to "step forward" from the landscape, drawing attention to itself as other species recede. Maybe for the whole year it'll quietly and retiringly blend with the rest of its community but then one day you're walking along and suddenly you'll notice it doing something so special that your first thought is, "Where did THIS come from?"

Desert Lavender, HYPTIS ALBIDAOne species stepping forward now is "Desert Lavender." Ever since I got here this plant has been just one nondescript bush among many but right now it's very eye-catching. That's it at the right.

In that picture there's no doubt about which plant I'm referring to because the bush's intense silveriness imparts a sense of the plant being afire, of being like surging froth on a breaking ocean-wave. The silveriness is caused by its leaves and flowers being abundantly invested with short, soft, white, matting hairs -- "canescent," a botanist would say. You can see a close-up of Desert Lavender's pale-purple corollas arising from very hairy, canescent calyxes below:

Desert Lavender, HYPTIS ALBIDA, flowersIf you know your wildflowers, a glance at the  picture at the left will convince you that Desert Lavender is a member of the Mint Family. However, you might remember that Garden Lavender's flowers are arranged in an almost continuous spike -- which you can see here. However, Desert Lavender's flowers are clumped in whorls, or verticils, widely separated from one another along the hairy stem. Therefore, our plant isn't a "real lavender."

The local folks' Spanish name for Desert Lavender is "Salvia." Well, that's fitting, since the plant looks like a member of the genus Salvia, which is the genus for Garden Sage, which also is in the Mint Family and has hoary leaves like Desert Lavender's. Also, Desert Lavender's crushed leaves emit a very pungent, eucalyptus-like odor that could be considered sage- like. However, flowers of the genus Salvia bear only two fertile stamens while Desert Lavender's tiny blossoms clearly have four. Our "Salvia" isn't a "real salvia."

So, what in the heck is "Desert Lavender?"

It's HYPTIS ALBIDA, a Mint-Family member of a genus not occurring in North America except along the Deep South's Coastal Plain, and the US's Desert Southwest. Hyptis has over 300 species is mostly tropical America, is mostly found in arid, sunny regions, and its species are mostly unarmed herbs, subshrubs and shrubs bearing essential oils.

It's those oils that make the crushed leaves smell like eucalyptus or menthol, and which assure that backcountry Mexicans regard the plants as medicinal. People here make a tea of the leaves for sore throats. The scientific literature often mentions the plant in connection with arthritis studies.