Chaparral (Larrea divaricata) is a desert shrub that grows in Mexico and the southwestern United States. It is also known as greasewood and creosote bush, because of the distinctive tar-like fragrance of its tiny leaves. The odor is very strong after a rain, a unique and pleasing desert smell. Native Americans made tea from the leaves of this plant to treat chicken pox, colds, diarrhea, menstrual cramps, pain, snake bites, skin disorders, and rheumatism. Others have promoted it for an even longer list of ailments ranging from acne to dandruff, diabetes, PMS, sciatica, rheumatoid arthritis, ulcers, urinary tract infections, and cancer. Chaparral is available today in capsules and tablets as well as tincture form.
Chaparral contains a powerful antioxidant called NDGA (for nordihydroguaiaretic acid) that has been used as a food preservative and may account for some of its medicinal properties. But I don’t recommend taking chaparral internally (as a tea or supplement) for any indication. Although it has been linked to rare cases of kidney and liver dysfunction, it appears to be generally nontoxic. It does not cause hepatitis, as some sources state. But the tea tastes terrible and tends to give you nasty burps, and I haven’t seen any scientific evidence showing that it is effective for any of the conditions for which it is so often recommended, including cleansing the body of toxins.
I do recommend chaparral for topical use. Mexican herbalists have long valued it for healing eczema and other kinds of skin irritation and inflammation, and I find that it works well, better than many pharmaceutical products. You can buy chaparral lotions or salves from stores that sell herbal preparations. If you live in an area where chaparral grows, you can make your own remedies from it. To make a poultice, steep leaves in hot water until the liquid has a strong smell, then soak a cloth in it and apply it to the affected area. If a large portion of the skin is involved, add a liter or so of strong chaparral tea to a bath that you can soak in.
Andrew Weil, M.D.