Yerba buena is a rambling aromatic herb of western North America, ranging from maritime Alaska southwards to Baja California. The plant takes the form of a sprawling, mat-forming perennial, and is especially abundant close to the coast.
The plant’s most common name, the same in English and Spanish, is an alternate form of the Spanish hierba buena (meaning “good herb”). The name was bestowed by pioneer Catholic priests of Alta California as they settled an area where the plant is native. It was so abundant there that its name was also applied to the settler’s town adjacent to Mission San Francisco de Asís.
In 1846, the town of Yerba Buena was seized by the United States during the Mexican-American War, and its name was changed in 1847 to San Francisco, after a nearby mission. Three years later, the name was applied to a nearby rocky island. Today millions of commuters drive through the tunnel on Yerba Buena Island that connects the spans of the San Francisco Oakland Bay Bridge.
In general, in most Spanish speaking countries, the term “yerba buena” refers to the particular local species of mint, which varies from region to region. The term has been used to cover a number of aromatic true mints and mint relative. All plants so named have medicinal properties, and some have culinary value as teas or seasonings, as well. Perhaps the most common variation of the plant is spearmint.
In parts of Central America yerba buena often refers to Mentha citrata, a true mint sometimes called “bergamot mint” with a strong citrus-like aroma that is used medicinally and as a cooking herb and tea. In Cuba, yerba buena generally refers to a popular plant also known as large apple mint, foxtail mint, hairy mint, woolly mint or, simply, Cuban mint.
In Puerto Rico a close relative of traditional culinary savory, Satureja viminea, is sometimes used. In Peru the name is sometimes applied to a shrubby aromatic marigold known as huacatay or “black mint”. In this case, despite some similarities of flavor, the herb in question is in the Sunflower family and is quite unrelated to any of the mints or mint-relatives with which it shares a name.