The Tagetes Genus: Two Key Herbs in Mexican Herbal History & Tradition
Mexican and Mexican-American communities have a rich and vibrant history of herbal medicine traditions. Mexico has incredible biodiversity, with ecosystems that include both Pacific and Atlantic coasts, deserts, jungles, plains, valleys, and mountains. This biodiversity provides fertile ground for plants of all kinds to grow, including thousands of medicinal herbs. Across Mexico (including places in the so-called US Southwest which had been former territories of Mexico), people have been in close relationship with the flora and fauna of their regions for millennia. Over time, the people indigenous to these territories have developed sophisticated systems of herbal theory and practice. Many people of these regions continue to practice these systems of herbalism today.
Impact of Spanish Colonization
Spanish soldier Hernán Cortez and his army arrived on the coast of present-day Veracruz, Mexico in April of 1519. At that time, one of the largest populations of indigenous people in Mexico were the Mexica or Nahua people. Their central city was Tenochtitlan, the site of present-day Mexico City. The Mexica had very advanced medical and herbal knowledge equal to the wisdom of the world’s great herbal traditions in China and India. In addition, the Mexica people were expert botanists, cultivators, and gardeners.
Tragically, much of this medical and plant knowledge was destroyed by the Spanish colonization of Mexico, and the continued transmission of this knowledge to future generations was disrupted. When the Spanish invaded Tenochtitlan in November of 1519 they began their bloody rampage against the Mexica people. Spanish soldiers intentionally murdered thousands of people and decimated their homes, gardens, sacred sites, artifacts, and temples (called teocallis). Among the buildings that the Spanish destroyed were Nahua libraries where thousands of important and sacred texts were burned. These sacred texts were called amoxtli, or codices painted with colorful imagery on the bark of the tree called amante. We can only speculate on how many of these destroyed amoxtli contained medical, herbal, and healing knowledge. Only a handful of the thousands of pre-conquest amoxtli exist today.
Although the Mexica people resisted and aggressively fought back against the Spanish soldiers, they were overpowered by the colonizer’s weapons and weakened by the illnesses that the Europeans introduced to their indigenous population. On August 13, 1521, the Spanish captured, imprisoned, and tortured the Nahua leader Cuauhtémoc. Subsequently his people surrendered control of their beloved city Tenochtitlan to Spanish forces.
The impact of the Spanish colonization on the indigenous people of Mexico was catastrophic. Over 240,000 people were killed by soldiers & inhumane conditions. In addition, Spanish soldiers both unintentionally and deliberately infected the native people with the smallpox virus. In the following years, over 8 million people died of smallpox.
The history of the colonization of Mexico was horrific and had an immeasurable impact on the people, culture and healing traditions of Mexico. I cannot write about the plants indigenous to Mexico which are part of our culture and healing traditions without acknowledging this brutal history. Our plant knowledge is deeply entangled in this history. Before I dive into information about plants, I want to take a moment to honor the people who were killed during the colonization of Mexico and the knowledge that was lost. I offer this image of cempaosuchli (below), tagetes erecta, which is used traditionally as an ofrenda/offering on our Dia de los Muertos ancestral altars.
Cempoalsuchtli: In section honoring those killed during colonization
Today the indigenous people of Mexico continue to resist the impact of colonization and modernization on their communities. Currently, Mexico is home to a population of over 15 million indigenous people divided into 68 different ethnic groups. Many of the knowledge of native plants has continued to be preserved and practiced in these communities. As a person of mixed heritage (Mexican, Polish, Diné and Hungarian) who has been detribalized, I cannot pretend to represent these different indigenous people or their knowledge. Much of what I have learned comes from the Mexican curanderas who have been my maestras including Estela Roman of Cuernavaca and Zapotec healer Doña Enriqueta Contreras, of Oaxaca. I am also sharing knowledge sourced from the well of my ancestral memories as well as what I have discovered in my research. Much of what I am writing about comes from my direct experience of working with plants of the tagetes genus: tagetes erecta (cempaolsuchtli) and tagetes lucida (pericón).
Curanderismo: Traditional Medicine of Mexico
Despite the efforts by the Spanish colonizers to eradicate the plant and healing knowledge of the indigenous people of Mexico, miraculously much knowledge was maintained. Our precious knowledge was hidden, guarded, and secretly passed down between family members. In the home, people continued to work with the plants of their ancestors, the ones that existed in the American continents before European contact, such as nopal, agave, cacao, copal, datura, estifiate, and many more. People also began to incorporate plants into their herbal pharmacopeia that had been introduced by the Spanish, such as rosemary/romero, rue/ruda, chamomile/manzanilla and basil/albahca.
Curanderismo is a term to describe the traditional ancestral healing practices of Mexican and Mexican-American people. Throughout Latin America and the Latinx diaspora, the term curanderismo is also used to describe their traditional healing practices, although in article I will focus on Mexican and Mexican-American plants and traditions. In Mexican culture, a traditional healer is called a curandera, curandero or curanderx. The word curandera/o/x is derived from the Spanish word “curar” which means “to heal,” and a curandera/o/x is a person who heals.
Mexican and Mexican-American curanderismo has three primary cultural roots. In her book Woman Who Glows in the Dark: A Curandera Reveals Traditional Aztec Secrets of Physical and Spiritual Health, New Mexican curandera Elena Avila describes the roots of curanderismo as the “three headed serpent.”[i] These roots include the influence of people indigenous to Mexico/the US Southwest, the contribution of people from the African continent and the practices, plants and religious customs imported by the Spanish colonizers.
Within the tradition of curanderismo, each curanderx has their own specialized area of healing. Some curanderx have mastered more than one area of focus, such as my maestra Doña Enriqueta Contreras who was a skilled partera, yerbera, consejera and temescalera.
Different specialties within curanderismo include:
Partera/o/x: Midwives who support childbirth and pre and post-partum care.
Sobadora/o/x: Give therapeutic massage.
Huesera/o/x: Specialize in the adjustment of bones.
Conserjera/o/x: Offer emotional support and counseling.
Temescalera/o/x: Conduct healing ceremonies in the temescal, the “house of sweat.”
Hierbera/o/x: Herbalist who works with plant medicine for physical, emotional, and spiritual healing.
As I am an herbalist, this article will focus the practice of herbal medicine within curanderismo and I will discuss some of the primary herbs that have been used in Mexican curanderismo since antiquity.
Badianus codex: in section about Codex de la Cruz Bandiano (Pages from the Badianus Codex; photograph of open book Wellcome L0021272.jpg, Creative Commons Attribution 4.0)
Codice/Codex de la Cruz-Badiano, The Oldest Herbal Text in the Americas
As mentioned above, any written documentation of Indigenous Mexican plant and medical knowledge that existed before 1519 was destroyed. However, a few decades later in 1552, a manuscript was written in colonial Mexico which today is referred to as “the oldest herbal text of the Americas.” This manuscript, called the Codex/Codice de la Cruz-Badiano was created by two Nahua men, Martin de la Cruz and Juan Badianus. De la Cruz, a traditional Nahua doctor/curandero was the author, illustrator and Badianus translated De la Cruz’s text into Latin. Both men were students at the first Franciscan college for young men established in Mexico City.
At this time in early colonial Mexico (then called New Spain), the headmaster of the men’s college wanted to gain favor of the king of Spain. He decided to commission a book to be written on the indigenous Mexican plant knowledge which would be gifted to the Spanish king. This book was called Libelus de meicinalibus indorum herbis, or the Little Book of Medicinal Herbs of the Indies. Over the years the manuscript became more commonly known as the Codice/Codex de la Cruz-Badiano named after the two men who created it. The Codice de la Cruz-Badiano was sent to Spain, where it was housed in the royal library. Later it was housed in the Vatican library for four hundred years. In 1991, Pope John Paul II, during his papal visit to Mexico, returned this invaluable cultural document back to the Mexican people. Today this codex lives in the Museo de Antropología in Mexico City, and an electronic copy is available for all to view online.
The Codice de la Cruz-Badiano documents dozens of medicinal plants used in colonial Mexico. Each plant monograph includes its Nahuatl name and is accompanied by a colorful illustration of the plant along with a description of the plant’s healing properties. Plants are organized into categories of the illnesses they treat, such as “curations of the head,” “curations of the eyes,” “catarrh,” or “chest trouble.”[i] This Codex showcases the sophisticated system of taxonomy used by the Nahual people, which was as advanced as the European Linnean system of Latin binomial nomenclature. The Linnean system organizes plants by genus and species, such as artemisia vulgaris for mugwort or passiflora incarnata for passionflower. In Nahua herbalism, the scientific categorization of each plant is encoded in each Nahuatl name for each plant. Nahuatl is a compound language, in which descriptive words are joined together to create new ones. The compound Nahuatl word for each plant is first categorized into a few basic groups: quah to describe plants that are woody, like trees and bushes; xiuh to describe herbaceous plants, or xochitl to identify flowers. The rest of the Nahuatl plant name contains within it a description of the plant’s color, texture, taste, habitat, and use. For example, quahtlahuitquilitzil is the Nahuatl name for artichoke. It translates to a “spiny edible plant that grows in the forest,” and is composed of three Nahuatl words: quahtla (forest), huitz (spiny) and quilitl (edible plant). [ii]
For the hundreds of years while the Codice de la Cruz-Badiano was locked away in the Vatican, knowledge about it was mostly unknown in both Europe and in Mexico. Since the manuscript was sent away from Mexico soon after it was written, very few people in Mexico knew about its existence. Across the ocean in Europe, the herbal knowledge of the codex was rarely referenced because the herbs in the book were named only in Nahuatl, an unfamiliar language to most Europeans. Furthermore, most of the herbs in the book were not available in the European continent, so practical application of the book’s herbal knowledge was inaccessible to European herbalists. The codex mainly collected dust in the Vatican library until it was rediscovered in 1929 by a historian from Columbia University named Charles Upson Clark. In 1930, William Gates, a researcher at John Hopkins University received a photographic copy of the manuscript which he then translated to both Latin and English. The English version, titled An Aztec Herbal, was published in 1939. Simultaneously, another scholar named Emily Walcott Emmart published a more robust version of the manuscript which included full color illustrations.
The Codex de la Cruz-Badiano is tangible proof of the extensive and highly developed herbal knowledge of indigenous people in Mexico before the arrival of the Spanish. Yet I believe that its importance is undervalued in herbal medicine education in North America. I was never taught about this important herbal manuscript when I was in herb school. Yet at the same time, so many of both the foods and herbal medicines that are part of herbalism in the so-called US and the world originate from Mexico and the Americas; including tomato, cacao, chili, nopal, epazote, agave and many more. Our herbal history in North America has been influenced and informed by the traditions of Mexico and one way to understand this history is to study the material in this codex.
Cempoalxochitl Codex Florentino: In section on this codex (Image of Cempoalsuchtli, Tagetes erecta, Florentine Codex. Laurentian Library manuscript. Bernardino de Sahagún / Digitalized by Digital World Library (US Library of Congress)
A few decades after the Codex de la Cruz-Badiano was commissioned another codex was written that also documented herbal medicine traditions of colonial Mexico. This codex, called the Florentine Codex was written by a Franciscan monk called Bernardino de Sahagún. Sahagún originally titled his manuscript La Historia General de las Cosas de Nueva Espana, or The General History of Things of New Spain. Sahagún collaborated with Nahua college students to gather his information about flora, fauna, medicine, religion, and culture of the Nahua people. Since Sahagún was a Spanish Catholic monk, we cannot underestimate his implicit bias as an outsider and colonizer writing about the indigenous Nahua culture. Over the years the authenticity of his findings has been debated by both academics and cultural practitioners. However, in the Florentine Codex, Sahagún did document some important herbal medicines used by the Nahua people including members of the tagetes genus. For herbalists, especially for those of us of Mexican descent, this codex also provides important clues to the herbal practices of the people of central Mexico that existed before 1519.
Spotlight on Two Important Plants from the Tagetes Genus
Both historical texts I mentioned above documented the use of plants in the tagetes genus. The tagetes genus houses several key plants in traditional Mexican herbalism, all of which have been used since antiquity. The native range of tagetes genus plants are most concentrated in Mexico and span from the southwest US to Central America and down to South America. The tagetes genus includes dozens of species, hybrids, and cultivars and tagetes plants are cultivated and/or naturalized in many continents. In the English language, tagetes plants are sometimes called marigolds, which can be confusing because calendula (calendula officinalis) is also commonly referred to as marigold.
Nahuatl name: Cempoalsuchtli, many spellings exist including Cempohualxochitl
Spanish name: Flor de Muerto
English name: Aztec or African Marigold
Tagetes erecta or cempoalsuchtli, which was documented by Sahagún in the Florentine Codex, is a beloved and well-known flower in Mexican culture. Tagetes erecta has been used traditionally in Mexico as a medicine and as a dye plant, but it’s most well-known for its connection to our celebration of Días de los Muertos (Days of the Dead). During the ceremonial time of Días de los Muertos, we honor those in our lives who have died by building altars to remember our beloved dead. We decorate our altars with photos, food, candles, and dozens of colorful cempoalsuchtli flowers. One may choose to place the long-stemmed flowers in vases or cut off the vibrant orange or yellow flowers to create elaborate designs. The flowers of cempoalsuchtli are full of life force and keep their color for a long time after they’ve been picked.
Tagetes erecta flowers grow in orange or yellow orbs that range from about two to five inches wide. Its colorful, cheerful flowers on our Días de los Muertos altars can help uplift our spirits as we mourn those we have lost. The vibrant hue and pungent aroma of cempoalsuchtli flowers help alleviate sadness, grief, and other heavy emotions. The flower blossoms are traditionally used in baños (herbal baths) and for limpias (energetic cleansings). A flower essence of cempoalsuchtli brings comfort and support to our grieving process.
Tagetes erecta is also a versatile medicinal herb. It has been used traditionally to treat “cold in the stomach” and can address of digestive issues, including inflammation, pain, gas, bloating and diarrhea. Like calendula, it is soothing to the skin and can be used topically to treat skin inflammation like rashes or eczema. Tagetes erecta also benefits the nervous system and is a traditional remedy for nervios (anxiety) and insomnia. It supports the respiratory system, alleviates “coldness in the lungs” and is used to treat cough, colds and bronchitis. Maestra Doña Enriqueta, who has been a partera (midwife) for decades, uses this plant for ritual baños to support her birthing clients during their post-partum period. Doña Enriqueta also uses this herb to promote lactation.[i]
I have been cultivating cempoalsuchtli for several years now in my Albuquerque garden. It attracts beneficial insects and can be used to repel pests. Cempoalsuchtli grows well in our high desert environment but cannot handle frost. Often the first freeze in Albuquerque occurs before Días de los Muertos (November 1-2), so I have scrambled to harvest as many flowers as possible before our temperatures drop and the plants die. I dry the flowers and save them for teas or baños throughout the year.
Nahuatl name: Yauhtli
Spanish name: Pericón, yerba de ofrenda
English name: Mexican tarragon
Tagetes lucida or pericón is also a valuable plant in Mexican history or culture, although currently is less known outside of Mexico than tagetes erecta. Tagetes lucida has been used since antiquity in Mexico as both a medicinal and ceremonial plant, and as a natural dye. This plant is included in the Codex de la Cruz-Badiano under its Nahuatl name quauhyyauhtli (although I have found it often referred to as yauhtli). It is referenced several times in this codex, as a plant that helps with hiccups and also used in baños to treat espanto (fright, usually of a supernatural nature). The Codex describes that this plant, when mixed with other herbs, could treat the burns caused by a lightning strike, and when carried with other plants, helps people to safely cross a body of water.[i]
Pericón is associated with Tlaloc, the sacred energy of rain, as it is often the first plant to sprout from the earth after rainfall. It’s Nahuatl name, yauhtli, can be translated as “something offered up,” and it historically has been used in ceremonies as an incense offering to ancestors and sacred energies. Traditionally, pericón has also been mixed with cacao as a ceremonial beverage. The practice of using pericón for ritual continues to today in Mexico, where on the feast day of San Miguel, people make crosses of pericón to protect their homes.
Pericón is commonly used to treat digestive complaints such as empacho, stomach aches, colic and diarrhea. A tea of pericón can ease menstrual cramps and promote more blood flow from the uterus. Doña Enriqueta recommends using pericón for muscular aches and pains.[ii] Like its sibling species tagetes erecta, tagetes lucida is also used traditionally in our limpias. As a limpia plant, pericón can help us to release heavy emotions like fear, anger, resentment or jealously. It also helps to clear away negative energies which in curanderismo we call mal aire.
Tagetes lucida can grow as a perennial in mild climates. It grows about one foot tall, with small oval leaves and petite yellow composite flowers. It has an aroma similar to tarragon, hence the English name “Mexican tarragon.” I have been working on cultivating tagetes erecta in my Albuquerque garden, with variable success. Some years my plants have been able to fully mature and flower, and other years they have been stressed by extreme weather or attacked by pests before they could bloom. I will keep on trying, as pericón is an important plantcestor to me, and I hope to continue building a relationship to it.
Honoring Our Plantcestors
My herbalist colleague, Layla Kristy Feghali of River Rose Apothecary coined the term “plantcestor.” A plantcestor is a plant that has been well loved and utilized by one’s ancestors as food, medicine and/or in ceremony for generations. Both cempoalsuchtli and pericón have been used since antiquity in Mexico and are important plantcestors to Mexican and Mexican American people. Due to the long-term impact of the colonization of Mexico, the working knowledge of these two plants has not been thoroughly incorporated into herbal medicine in the so-called US. My hope is that by sharing the history and traditional use of these plants more herbalists, especially those of Mexican ancestry, will be inspired to connect with these plants and incorporate them more into their herbal practice.
Read More in Atava’s Book: The Curanderx Toolkit
Arranging ofrendas. Brewing pericón into a healing tea. Releasing traumas through baños and limpias. Herbalist and curandera Atava Garcia Swiecicki spent decades gathering this traditional knowledge of curanderismo, Mexican folk healing, which had been marginalized as Chicanx and Latinx Americans assimilated to US culture. She teaches how to follow the path of the curandera, as she herself learned from apprenticing with Mexican curanderas, studying herbal texts, and listening to her ancestors. In this book readers will learn the Indigenous, African, and European roots of curanderismo. Atava also shares her personal journey as a healer and those of thirteen other inspirational curanderas serving their communities. She offers readers the tools to begin their own healing—for themselves, for their relationship with the earth, and for the people.
I. Avila, Elena Avila R.N., MSN with Joy Parker. Woman Who Glows in the Dark, A Curandera Reveals Traditional Aztec Secrets of Physical and Spiritual Health. New York: JP. Tarcher/Putnam, 1999
II. William Gates, An Aztec Herbal, The Classic Codex of 1552, Dover Publications, Inc, Mineola, New York, 2000.
III. Davidow, Joie. Infusions of Healing, A Treasury of Mexican-American Herbal Remedies. Simon and Schuster: 1999.
IV. Guerra Falcón, Aida. Medicina Tradicional Doña Queta Y El Legado de Los Habitantes de Las Nubes. Self-published: Oaxaca, Mexico, 2009.
VI. Guerra Falcón