Author Archives: darasaville

Desert Aromatics of the American Southwest

Milne Foothills Snakeweed Juniper

Aromatic plants have been an integral part of landscapes and human cultures, playing important ecological and ceremonial roles since the beginning of history and beyond. The deserts of the American Southwest are home to a wide variety of medicinal plants including many that speak through the language of scent and appeal to our love of certain fragrances. Sauntering through the Sage covered mesas, one can sense the aromatic particles upon the wind and feel the movement of energy across the land. This interaction has the power to transform our state of being by shifting our awareness away from our minds to a world of present moment sensory immersion. While these plants undoubtedly have their own unique personalities, ecological purposes, and herbal actions, they do have overlapping characteristics. The following selection of plants, ranging from lower elevation to higher elevation, all share the work of relieving congestion, dispersing stagnant energy, shifting our consciousness, and captivating us through potent aromatic communication.

 

Chaparral or Cresosote (Larrea tridentata)

Ranging across the greater Southwest, Chaparral (aka Hediondilla or Gobernadora) is found in all the major deserts and is a dominant plant in the Chihuahua Desert, sometimes forming expansive nearly monotypic stands where overgrazing has occurred. The sensory experience of becoming acquainted with Chaparral brings the seeker into vast desert basins where visible heat, the penetrating aroma of Chaparral leaves, and the humbling exposure of standing under endless blue skies and unrelenting sun may converge to create an altered state of awareness. Here the antiquity of the land resonates not only from pottery sherds, petroglyphs and pictographs, and ruined village walls, but also from Chaparral stands with ancient individuals reaching up to 11,700 years old. Having arrived in the Southwest from ancestral populations in South America, Chaparral has slowly advanced its range and, aided by cattle grazing in recent years, has transformed the region’s deserts often inhibiting the growth of grasses and other desert annuals. This plant’s relationship to the land reveals its medicinal workings as it usurps local resources, overtakes the local ecology, shifts biotic balances, and creates a new reality on its own terms. This observation helps us to understand its ‘brute force’ style of medicine and why it is so helpful for the most serious microbial infections or unrelenting deep body pain where significant transformation is necessary. If, in a geologically short period of time, it can transfochaparral quebradasrm the harsh and unforgiving environments of the major deserts of the Southwest, forming monotypic stands thousands of square kilometers in size, imagine what it can do in the human body’s ecosystem. (For a more in depth discussion of Larrea, see my previously published piece Ecological Herbalism, Part One in the Plant Healer spring 2016 edition.)

Until the historic cattle-grazing era, which often relegated Chaparral to the category of invasive shrub, it enjoyed a long history of being valued by local people as an important resource for making medicine and items of material culture. Dried leaves, flowers, seeds, and twigs are commonly prepared as a 75% tincture, infused oil, salve, soak, liniment, poultice, or as a purifying smoke (not inhaled). Larrea is so potent that I most often use it as a topical and recommend it internally only for short periods of time due to the extra work required by the liver to process it. Chaparral’s stimulating effect on the liver, however, makes it a useful herb for the easement of arthritis or other joint pains, as well as for allergies or other autoimmune conditions where bodily purification is called for. Furthermore, Chaparral’s powerful dispersive effect and potent activity against a number of stubborn microbes including fungus, yeast, and bacteria make it a useful first aid herb or an excellent addition to formulas for serious illneChaparral golden flowersses such as bronchitis, TB, E. coli, Staph, and MRSA. I have found it to be indispensable for treating athlete’s foot and other fungal infections and will sometimes add it to formulas to clear other unrelenting conditions. Recent studies have also shown Chaparral’s potential in cancer treatments such as breast cancer and melanoma as well as chemo protective applications for skin cancer. These research results seem well supported by Chaparral’s stubborn and relentless nature along with its propensity to spread across the land, transforming its ecology along the way.

Native Americans of the Southwest used Chaparral for a variety of ailments consistent with those described above and some regarded it as a panacea. Additional uses include drinking tea for bowel and gastric complaints, as an emetic, or for treating fevers, venereal disease, or menstrual cramps. Chaparral leaves were also powdered and applied to a newborn’s navel or to the mother to induce milk flow and used as bedding to ease postpartum or menstrual cramps. Charcoal from Chaparral was even used for tattooing. The Seris of Sonora, Mexico commonly prepared Chaparral either as a hot leaf or ash poultice, tea soak, or as a purifying smoke or steam of leafy branches for a person experiencing postpartum discomfort, headaches, stingray wounds, or other pains. The Seri also harvested and sharpened Chaparral wood for making useful tools such as nails and harpoon points and used the heated and cooled lac (produced by the insect Tachardiella larreae) as a plastic-like adhesive and sealant for many purposes including arrow making and repairing or sealing pots and baskets. The Hispanic herbal tradition continued many of these same uses especially as a poultice, soak, or salve (mixed with Osha ,Tobacco, and/or Trementina de Piñon) for arthritis, skin or saddle sores, and ringworm. Chaparral tea has also been used as an antiseptic for urinary inflammations.

 

Sand Sage (Artemisia filifolia)

Ranging across sandy soils of the greater Southwest and into the Southern Great Plains, Sand Sage or Romerillo is a defining and dominant plant in many areas. Sand Sage tends to grow in expansive and exposed places, like the volcanic mesas along the Middle Rio Grande, where vulnerability and perspective are on center stage. The plants that grow there offer an embrace of these and other qualities along with their herbal actions. This plant has a long history of medicinal use by native peoples, Hispanic communities, and others primarily for digestive and respiratory complaints as well as arthritis and antimicrobial treatments. Like its close relative Estafiate (A. ludoviciana), Sand Sage lacks the phytochemical thujone and thus distinguishes it from the common Sagebrush (A. tridentata) and Fringed Sage (A. frigida). While the more pungent Sagebrush and Fringed Sage are used as a bitter tonic to increase gastric secretions for cold and sluggish Sage filifolia PETRdigestive issues, Sand Sage is helpful for reducing gastric secretions in digestive problems caused by heat and inflammation. Sand Sage leaves chewed or prepared as a warm tea or poultice also promote digestive health by protecting gastric mucosa, healing ulcers, inhibiting H. pylori, and acting as a choleretic to increase bile production. The aromatic camphor present in the leaves make the hot tea, warm poultice, or steam inhalation of Sand Sage and other species useful for clearing respiratory congestion and infection and easing coughs and sore throats. Sand Sage also has a history of use for arthritis treatments, usually prepared as a warm poultice, infused oil, or soak. Additionally, Sand Sage is a mild but broadly effective topical and internal antimicrobial useful for wound care, bacterial, fungal, and parasitic infections. The Penitentes of northern New Mexico are said to have used Sand Sage as a healing wash for their self-inflicted back lacerations. Sand Sage has also been used for purification by burning the leaves or drinking hot tea for diaphoresis or cold tea for diuresis as well as regulating blood flow by stimulating delayed menses and controlling post-partum bleeding. Tewa and Hopi Pueblos have also used this widely abundant and important plant in sacred ceremonies.

Snakeweed (Gutierrezia sarothrae)

Snakeweed or Escoba de la Vibora is a common and wide-ranging plant on the high mesas, grasslands, and other sandy or overgrazed areas of the Mountain West and is a highly valued medicinal plant in Southwestern herbal traditions. A similar species, G. microcephala, is less frequently encountered and limited to the Southwest. It is distinguished by having only one or two ray flowers compared to G. sarothrae’s three to Snakeweed Mesa 1eight ray flowers. As a late-summer or early-fall blooming plant, Snakeweed brightens up the mesa at a time when few other plants are flowering and its intoxicatingly wonderful scent fills the air just as we begin our transition into the darker time of year.   While G. sarothrae is currently widespread across the American West, prior to cattle grazing this plant was once far less abundant than it is today. This may account for its scant presence in archaeological sites but its high importance in more modern herbal traditions across cultures. Snakeweed is a frequent member of plant communities in Oak Juniper woodlands and desert grasslands and was among the first specimens collected by Lewis and Clark along the Missouri River. Its semi-resinous aromatic foliage and profuse golden blossoms are commonly collected and dried to prepare soaks, liniments, infused oils, and teas for arthritis treatments, inflammation, joint soreness, and musculo-skeletal pain. Snakeweed is sometimes combined with other signature plants of the region including Datura and Chaparral for this purpose. Additionally Pueblo People use soaks, poultices, tea and/or vapors as an emetic, treatment for eye conditions, rattlesnake bites, bruises, colds and coughs, fevers, diarrhea, venereal disease, bathing newborns, postpartum care, and general purification.   For the Navajo, Snakeweed is a Life Medicine employed in previously mentioned forms or as plant ash rubbed on the body for upset stomachs, diarrhea, fever, headaches, nervousness, cuts and scrapes, swollen bites, during childbirth for delivery of the placenta, painful urination, and ceremony. Hispanic communities have similar and overlapping uses including colic, post-partum sitzbath or douche, malaria recovery, and menstrual regulation. Snakeweed has also been used in broom-making, yellow dye for Navajo weaving, Hopi prayer sticks, insecticide, and as filler for wall construction.

Juniper (Juniperus monosperma)

Juniper or Sabina is among the most widespread and habitat-defining plants in the Southwest (especially New Mexico) and ethnobotanists Dunmire, Tierney, and Moerman list more uses for it than any other plant. While some might accuse Juniper of impersonating a Cedar, they are actually part of the Cypress family and there are numerous species inhabiting vast middle-elevation acreages of the Southwest and others found across the country. Many Juniper species are used medicinally (excepting the Alligator Juniper) but since the One-Seed Juniper is most common in New Mexico that is Juniper and yucca petrthe species I know best. I sincerely enjoy drinking Juniper tea but others find it abhorrent so you might want to let folks try it for themselves before recommending is as part of any treatment. Many herbalists think of Juniper berry tincture or tea as an antiseptic diuretic for urinary tract infections and inflammations. Some may also include Juniper in digestive formulas as a carminative and to increase gastric secretions, in topical oils for eczema or psoriasis, or even use leaves and berries in incense. In Native American herbal practice, however, Juniper is legion. Among the Southwestern tribes, Juniper berry tea is a diuretic and leaf spring tea is used for clearing colds and coughs, calming digestive problems including diarrhea and constipation, soothing general aches and pains, and has many associations with the birthing process. Juniper tea serves as both mother’s muscle relaxant tea and as a cleansing bath for mother and baby, plants or ashes may be rubbed on newborns, and tea or smoke is sometimes used to aid difficult births. Furthermore, Juniper plays a major role in general gynecological care including teas for postpartum, contraception, and menstrual regulation. Bark baths soothe itchy bites or sore feet and heated twigs have been applied as a topical treatment for measles, bruises, and swellings. The bark powder is even used for earaches. Burning Juniper branches is also a treatment for colds and general pleasantness. Juniper’s association with cleansing and purification is strong and includes preparing diaphoretic baths, emetic or laxative leaf and twig teas, and serving as a protective charm against negativity or evil spirits. While many herbalists think of Pedicularis for muscle relaxation, Juniper is far more common and can also be used both internally and topically for this purpose. Indeed, I find Juniper’s invitation to open up the heart and mind through relaxation of the body an irresistible one, especially when there is a need for protective space and a desire for increased flow of thoughts and creativity.  Additional uses include cooking the berries with meats and stews, basketry, dye making, body paint, firewood, bows, ceremony, and prayer sticks. Hispanic communities adopted many similar uses including for urinary infections, stimulating digestion, soothing stomachaches, and its role in birthing and postpartum care.   Juniper is contraindicated for kidney infections, chronic kidney weakness, and pregnancy due to its vasodilating effect on the uterus.

Piñon (Pinus edulis)

Piñon Pine is a plant of the Four Corners states and is one of the plants I most strongly associate with the land and culture of the Southwest. Its rich green tones dot the landscape and contrast with the red soils of the Colorado Plateau to create one of the iconic Southwestern vistas. This slow growing conifer resides in lower more arid elevations from about 4,000 to 9,000 ft and may take 75-200 years or more to reach maturity. Its resin or pitch is a prized medicine and the nuts have been a staple of thePinon resin 2 region’s food since the earliest human settlements. This woodland habitat has seen significant losses over recent years at the hands of persistent drought, massive wild fires, and bark beetle outbreaks that have devastated vast acreages of Piñon Pines. Nevertheless, it remains at the center of culinary and herbal traditions wherever it grows. Piñon nuts have been found at nearly all ancestral Pueblo archaeological sites, later became a valuable commodity for Spanish colonists, and can be purchased from local harvesters from roadside pickup trucks today. Although good crops occur only every 6 or 7 years and 18 months are required for the nuts to develop, it is well worth the wait. This high caloric wild food has protein levels comparable to beef, all 20 amino acids (making it a complete protein), and can be eaten raw, roasted, or ground into flour. Needles, inner bark, and pitch are also collected for herbal preparations with the resinous pitch forming the foundation of one of the finest aromatic herbal oils. Trementina de Piñon, a local New Mexican herbal specialty, is prepared by warming fresh pitch and using as is or further processing into a salve. This famous remedy causes local inflammation to bring splinters to the surface for easier removal and is also a wonderful warming treatment for arthritis or otherwise sore muscles and joints. The soft citrus-like scent and warming effects of the resinous rub are enough to melt away tensions held in the heart, mind, and body.  Spanish New Mexicans may also add some native Tobacco and salt and apply it topically for headaches. Pueblo natives used the pitch similarly but they often mixed it with tallow to draw out infections from wounds or simply chewed and swallowed a small piece to clear up head colds. Navajo burned the pitch to treat colds and also used it as glue for broken pots and to seal woven baskets or jugs. Hopi applied resin to the forehead to protect against sorcery. Many Southwestern tribes have used Piñon in these ways and also used needle tea or inner bark decoction as an expectorant, diaphoretic for fevers, and flu treatment. Some also used the seeds to make pudding or seed butter and used the resin in dye making. Piñon also provides aromatic firewood and makes lovely citrus scented incense.

General References:

Carolyn Dodson, A Guide to Plants of the Northern Chihuahua Desert, (Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 2012).

Charles Kane, Medicinal Plants of the American Southwest, (Lincoln Town Press, 2011).

Daniel E. Moerman, Native American Ethnobotany, (Portland, OR: Timber Press, 1998).

L. S. M. Curtain, Healing Herbs of the Upper Rio Grande, (Los Angeles, CA: Southwest Museum, 1965).

Michael Moore, Medicinal Plants of the Desert and Canyon West, (Santa Fe, NM: Museum of New Mexico Press, 1989).

Michael Moore, Los Remedios, (Santa Fe, NM: Museum of New Mexico Press, 1990). Michael Moore, Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West, (Santa Fe, NM: Museum of New Mexico Press, 2003).

William W. Dunmire and Gail D. Tierney, Wild Plants of the Pueblo Province, (Santa Fe, NM: Museum of New Mexico Press, 1995).

William W. Dunmire and Gail D. Tierney, Wild Plants and Native Peoples of the Four Corners, (Santa Fe, NM: Museum of New Mexico Press, 1997).

References Specific to Chaparral:

Frank J. Vasek, “Creosote bush: long-lived clones in the Mojave Desert,” American Journal of Botany 67 (1980): 246-255.

Joshua D. Lambert, Shengmin Sang, Ann Dougherty, Colby G. Caldwell, Ross O. Meyers, J. M. J. Favela-Hernandez, A. Garcia, E. Garza-Gonzalez, V. M. Rivas-Galindo, M. R. Camacho-Corona, “Antibacterial and antimycobacterial ligans and flavonoids from Larrea tridentata,” Phytotherapy Research 26 (2012): 1957-1960.

Richard Felger and Mary Beck Moser, People of the Desert and Sea: Ethnobotany of The Seri Indians, (Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 1985).

Severine Van Slambrouck, Amber L. Daniels, Carla J. Hooton, Steven L. Brock, Aaron R. Jenkins, Marcia A. Ogasawara, Joann M. Baker, Glen Adkins, Eerik M. Elias, Vincent J. Agustin, Sarah R. Constantine, Michael J. Pullin, Scott T. Shors, Alexander Korkienko, Wim F. A. Steelant, “Effects of crude aqueous medicinal plant extracts on growth and invasion of breast cancer cells,” Oncology Reports 17 (2007): 1487-1492.

Shakilur Rahman, Rizwan Ahmed Ansari, Hasibur Rehman, Suhel Parvez, Sheikh Raisuddin, “Nordihydroguaiaretic acid from creosote bush (Larrea tridentate) mitigates 12-O-Tetradecanoylphorbol-13-Acetate-induced inflammatory and oxidative stress responses of tumor promotion cascade in mouse skin,” Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine 2011 (2011): 10 pages.

The Teachings of Saxifrage and Orchid

Saxifrage 5-stamen Mitrewort closeup ultra 2

Saxifrages and Orchids are some of the most otherworldy plants you might encounter in your herbal path. They are known primarily for their inherent beauty and not widely used in Southwestern herbal traditions. Nevertheless, they have much to offer the attentive herbalist in the field. North American Saxifrages include over 60 species and the genera Chrysosplenium, Ciliaria, Conimitella, Heuchera, Hirculus, Lithophragma, Micranthes, Mitella, Muscaria, Saxifraga, and Sullivantia. They are usually associated with more remote, less disturbed wild areas such as healthy forests and less trodden alpine meadows. They have a scant history of therapeutic usage that focuses primarily on applications to the urinary system. The name Saxifrage means ‘rock splitter’, referring to its diuretic action and use in ridding the body of gall and urinary stones. Alumroot (Huechera spp.) leaves and roots are a potent astringent used for vomiting, diarrhea, sore throats, mouth sores, wound treatments, and hemorrhoids, although not as abundant as other herbs available for these purposes.

Photos from top to bottom: 1. Five-Stamen Mitrewort or Green Bishop’s Cap (Mitella pentandra), 2. Stripped Coralroot Orchid (Corallorhiza striata), 3. Angelica (A. grayi), 4. Mitrewort or White Bishop’s Cap (Mitella stauropetala), 5. Snowball Saxifrage (Micranthes or Saxifraga rhomboidea), 6. Brook Saxifrage (Micranthes odontoloma), 7. Five-Stamen Mitrewort or Green Bishop’s Cap (Mitella pentandra), 8. Rattlensnake Plantain Orchid (Goodyera oblongifolia), 9. Northern Green Bog Orchid (Platanthera), 10. Spotted Coralroot Orchid (Corallorhiza maculata), 11. Lady Slipper Orchid (Cypripedium parviflorum), 12. Coral Bells Alumroot (Huechera pulchella), 13. Spotted Saxifrage (Saxifraga bronchialis).

Coralroot Stripped Orchid closeupOrchids are a large family with many species and are much more widely used as medicine in the herbal practices of China and India. Europe also has longstanding traditions of medicinal applications for orchids including being a famed aphrodisiac. Many orchids around the world are endangered or threatened due to overuse and habitat loss. They are difficult to propagate and cultivate due to their relationship with underground mycorrhizal communities. All orchids are dependant on these soil fungi to germinate and some, like Corallorhiza, remain parasitic throughout their lives. While I have seen a variety of orchid species in my nearby mountains, the populations are always quite sparse. This might be a contributing factor as to why they are seldom used here in New Mexico. Lady Slipper, Coralroot Orchids, and Rattlesnake Plantain, however, all have some history of medicinal use in the Southwest despite having limited populations. Lady Slipper (Cypripedium spp.) is an antispasmodic and sedative for cold, achy pains accompanied by depression. The more common Stream Orchid (Epipactis gigantea) has similar properties. Coralroot orchid roots (Corallorhiza maculata, spotted and C. striata, striped) are a treatment for certain types of fevers as well as nervous system agitations that stir up anger and frustration. Blue Vervain (Verbena spp.) often functions as an effective and more abundant alternative to Coralroot. The leaves and roots of Rattlesnake Plantain (Goodyera oblongifolia) are mucilaginous and used similarly to Plantain, Mallows, and Slippery Elm. In spite of their limited use as medicinals in my herbal training, Saxifages and Orchids have brought invaluable lessons to my plant journey. They illuminate how the core of herbal health emanates from within.

Angelica Greys plant cropped

Saxifrage and Alpine Meadows: Delving Inward

In a small wooded area not far from the headwaters of the Rio Grande I found everything in the cosmos waiting for me. Walking across a high alpine meadow a rainbow of colors waved in the wind as a multitude of miniature wildflowers announced their presence. Passing through a grassy bog punctuated by magenta flashes of Pedicularis groenlandica, I was drawn further into this high country’s magic. The allure of Arnica latifolia’s golden blossoms peeking out from the forest’s edge beckoned me into another world. Scanning the forest floor for familiar friends, I was guided from one spot to another and then another and …. I was everywhere all at once. There were old friends, new friends, strangers, and more. Valerian’s cluster of tiny pinkish flowers shouted out ever so politely for attention amongst the chatter of all the plants cohabiting the busy forest floor. Over there, Anemone invites me to discover something new. ‘Come see how I transform from petaled flower to bare seed head, from flower fresh flow to producing the fruits of lifeSaxifrage Mitrewort closeup ultra ,’ called the Anemone. From there I felt the elusive wisdom of Angelica grayi through the cacophony of forest whispers. I looked and saw the small whitish umbels floating in the air, a multitude of sphere-like shapes emanating from a central point like a child’s model of some far away solar system. Only Angelica has that call. Sitting with her is like having a cup of tea with the old woman of the woods. Sharing memories since our last long-ago meeting on another mountain range, it was like no time had passed. Finding comfort in old friends is good medicine. Moving onward through the dense green that is this place, I saw a tiny whiteness at the base of a large pine tree and I felt its distinctive tugging on me. I was immediately pulled into something totally new and unknown. Who is this plant? The tiny flowers of Bishop’s Cap Saxifrage (Mitella sauropetala) guide me into closer observation and deeper connection as I lay on the forest floor peering into the heart of the plant. The miniature flowers simultaneously resemble the most minute and intricate snowflakes while also reflecting the infinitely expanding grandeur of a star in the far reaches of space. Finally I am quiet enough to settle into stillness, contentedness, and perfect appreciation of this moment. Awareness deepens and the flow between us is unmistakable, eternal, enveloping. Interbeing with the plants, birds, mammals, earth, and air is all that exists. The peacefulness of the mountain is imprinted on me and becomes a greater part of who I am, more readily accessible in moments of need. Mindful of the intimate moment shared with Saxifrage, I am health, vitality, balance, and contentedness. This is herbal medicine, at its core.

 

Saxifrage Snowball flowerhead closeupExiting the rich greenness of the woods and emerging back into the open alpine meadow, vistas of treeless snowy peaks greet me. White chickweed, deep purple alpine violets, creamy paintbrush, yellow potentilla, golden alpine sunflowers, and lavender fleabane all seemed to harmonize with one another creating a new symphony of life, in celebration of today. It was, however, the lavender fleabane that outshined them all on this afternoon. With a gust of wind, a purple wave rippled across the mountain with dizzying potency that almost threw me off balance as I was swept away into the collective flow of all life. At that moment, my awareness was drawn over the next hummock and I saw Snowball Saxifrage (Micranthes rhomboidea) standing out on the meadow amidst the polychrome panorama. Her orb of creamy white flowers once again called me in for closer inspection. Looking into the flowers clustered tightly around each other, I saw infinite potential as if looking into a kaleidoscope of life. Potential to be anything, everything, in many lifetimes and lifeforms. There are no limits to how far the spirit can go while the feet are still firmly planted in this meadow.

 

Mindful Bog: Saxifrage, Orchids, and the Wilderness Within

Saxifrage Brook closeup 2The streamside bogs of snowmelt tributaries to the upper Rio Grande are the kind of place where one can loose sight of all the things that bind us in life. They are conduits to the wild places within ourselves, places where anything is possible. They ultimately draw the seeker into another dimension of shared consciousness in which one is simultaneously deeply within and infinitely outward. It is a state of being in which time does not exist and space does not matter; only this moment is real. Sitting on a small dry stone and taking it all in, each inhalation brings the richness of the bog into myself while each exhalation releases the grime of everyday life. Each breath brings me closer to the transformation that occurs when I notice something beautiful and perfect in the natural world. One glance at the twirling inflorescence of Brook Saxifrage (Micranthes odontoloma) and I have slipped away, into the wilderness within me. The freeness with which this plant moves and dances in the slow breeze is as elegant as Saxifrage 5-stamen Mitrewort closeupanything you can imagine. It takes me to that place of freedom, comfort, and beauty; that place where creative forces surge to refresh our most inner selves. It is in this landscape that self-renewal happens and maintains us though our everyday lives. Who knows how much time passes before I feel the tiny tug of Miterwort Saxifrage (Mitella pentandra). This small plant could be easily missed, even when in full bloom. Its flowers are no bigger than a few millimeters across and appear as alien as anything I have ever seen on earth. Miterwort Saxifrage can take you to the most distant and feral places within yourself; places you might not ever have known existed. With this plant, you can see infinite depths and soaring heights, and even explore the tiniest crags and lost corners of your inner landscape. What you find there might surprise yourself. This moment is perfect, eternal, and full of wonder. The beauty and mystery that I see in these Saxifrages exists within me and within everyone, everywhere. It is the common thread that entwines all life. It is the lifeblood of every wild place, without and within.

 

Rattlesnake Plantain closeup

Along with the minuscule magic of Mitrewort and Brook Saxifrage flowers, come the bog orchids. Often sharing the same habitats with Saxifrage, Rattlensnake Plantain (Goodyera oblongifolia), Northern Green Bog Orchid (Platanthera huronensis), and Heartleaf Twayblade Orchid (Listera cordata) also conspire to contribute to the magic of the Rio Grande headwaters. Rattlesnake Plantain is an orchid that prefers the drier forest floor on the peripheries and is easily recognizable when it dons white stripes on its basal leaves. Like many other orchids whose flower coloration and markings can vary greatly within a single species, Rattlesnake Plantain may or may not have these leaf decorations. Positive identification of orchids is based upon lip shape rather than flower color, stripes, dots, or other colorations. Each tiny flower along its central stalk is a kiss from this bountiful scene. Its embrace welcomes me into this dreamy world where there are new discoveries to be had at every turn. Both the Northern Green Bog Orchid and Heartleaf Twayblade Orchid blend into the luxurious greenery of the bog and reveal themselves to the observant and mindful visitor. With green leaves, stems, and blossoms, they are perfectly camouflaged, but when noticed they beam their personality across the forest. Each has a unique flower thBog Orchid closeupat draws the seeker into the minuscule world of wonder that these beings share with Bishop’s Cap and Miterwort Saxifrages. In order to peer into the heart of Northern Green Bog Orchid, one must immerse herself in the bog, absorbing the cool dampness, enveloped in the life of the streamside.   From this position, the allure of Heartleaf Twayblade Orchid is strong. The extended lower lip of this unusual green flower seems to reach out to me, pushing me into the depths of my own imagination. After just moments together, it is apparent that the smallest of beings are sometimes capable of creating the greatest effects.   Even the subtlest of efforts by these plants was enough to shepherd me into a place of peaceful exploration within myself. The landscapes deep inside of me become as welcoming and inviting as the act of looking deeply into these tiny plants to see who they are. Indeed it is a continuum, the inner realm of these plants and the wilds within me. Trusting in the journey, I leapt completely into unknown territory. I traversed a multitude of thoughtscapes, trudged through endless fields of emotion, and finally arrived in a place of both nothing and everything, loneliness and companionship, desire and fulfillment. It was a terrain of dualities that completed one another and provided for everything. Ultimately in discovering them, I find myself. In knowing them, I become whole. In spite of the journey to find it, this inspiring place is accessible via many avenues at any moment. Looking deeply into Saxifrage and Orchid brings me there and I know that the wilderness within is the heart and home of my herbal health and vitality.

Orchids’ Unexpected Gifts for the Seeker:

Coralroot Spotted Orchid closeupThe magic of orchids is not relegated to high altitude bogs as I discovered one afternoon in the Sangre de Cristo Range of northern New Mexico. These mountains, along with the Jemez described below, form the southern terminus of the Rocky Mountains and are an extension of the wild wonders found further north. Here is a place where orchids grow in somewhat drier habitats including semi-shaded pine needle beds and more open meadows of middle elevations. Hopeful for such an encounter, I was gifted with the unanticipated meeting of Lady Slipper Orchids, Stripped Coralroot Orchids, and Spotted Coralroot Orchids all in one hike. Having only seen Lady Slippers through the lens of someone else’s camera, I longed to experience this plant for myself for some time. On this particular day Lady Slippers offered me the experience of learning to let go of my own ideas or imagined realities and being open to the perfection of the present moment. Releasing myself from the constraints of desire, I stumbled across a single Stripped Coralroot Orchid not far from the trail. As strange-looking as a candy cane growing out of the forest floor, this plant called my attention away from Lady Slipper Orchid closeuphopes, wishes, and other thoughts that prevented me from obtaining satisfaction in the here-and-now. It lured me into the magic of the present moment and sharpened my appreciation of the place where I stood and breathed in harmony with the forest. As soon as I absorbed and experienced this gift, I turned and saw the Lady Slipper’s yellow flash through the vast greenness. It was as if these plants conspired to provide me with a much needed realization about releasing ourselves from focusing on what we do not have or have not achieved so that we can instead become mystified by what is already around us and within us. As the day continued many more perfect moments were to be had in the company of the closely related Spotted Coralroot Orchid and a menagerie of other beautiful forest beings. Once again, the orchids shepherded me back to the foundations of what herbal practice means to me: finding medicine and mindfulness in the beauty and teachings of living plants and rediscovering that inside of me.

 

Saxifrage Family Brings Me Home:

The Saxifrages seem to have my number. They pop up again and again in my plant adventures, always offering themselves as a catalyst for my personal growth and ability to find contentedness and wellbeing in life. As you may already know from my previous writing, I am deeply connected to the place where I live, having fallen in love with my closest wild places including the Sandia and Jemez Mountains. What draws me so profoundly into this world around me is the distinct and unparalleled beauty of the landscapes, the plants, and the interactions between the two. Coral Bells (Huechera pulchella) is one Coral Bells flowers 2 croppedof the plants that reveals the entrancing and unique world that is central New Mexico. Growing among Permian era sea fossils atop Sandia Peak, Coral Bells presides over the land of enchantment, as New Mexico has come to be nicknamed. Endemic to only the mountains outside of Albuquerque, Coral Bells is a treasure to behold as it grows out of limestone rocks made from ancient ocean beds that now tower nearly 11,000 feet over sea level. I say it is a treasure because it evokes myriad and cherished aspects associated with my home: familiar comforts, loving family, supportive community, striking beauty, alluring remoteness, varied wilderness, and dramatic vistas to name a few. Along with Coral Bells one will also find the more common and wider-ranging Alumroot, Heuchera parviflora, in both of these mountains and beyond. Similarly to other Saxifrages described here, Alumroot has tiny flowers that draw the observer into another world of close perception and appreciation for the finer details of life that we often speed right past. It is as if, they offer a conduit to the greatness and unity of all life and remind us that we share interbeing with everything from microbes to clouds to the intergalactic mysteries beyond our comprehension. Along with the resonance of Coral Bells and Alumroots, comes Spotted Saxifrage (Saxifraga bronchialis) as the icing on the cake. Although not a common find on my mountain adventures, I know a few places where it grows locally. This Saxifrage family member has its own way of calling your attention with speckled petals and prominent red anthers. Simply living its life in perfect beauty, it suggests that we all do the same. If we embrace the gifts offered to us by the natural world around us, we have the opportunity to find fulfillment, to cultivate our wellness, and to grow as herbalists. To have discovered such teachers of wisdom and sources of inspiration in my nearest wild places is why I love my home and perhaps it is why you love yours, too.

Sandwort Fendler Jemez closeup

Whether we are walking in wild places, putting herbs in the kitchen crockpot, or working with clients and students our experience as herbalists is largely defined by where we put our focus. For me being an herbalist has always been about my relationship with plants and the land but more recently it has also become a search for meaning. How do we make sense of the world we are in? How do we know what is the right thing to do? What matters the most when so many large issues loom? Plants have always helped me to find my way in the world but Saxifrages and Orchids have a unique ability to lure me into the present, allowing me to be dazzled by the perfectness of each moment and fulfilled by each respiration shared with a plant. They guide me into new and unexplored territories and bring me the calmness and clarity necessary to find my path. This moment is always what matters most and when embraced, we realize that health and happiness emanate from within.

Bioregional Herbalism

The Beauty of the Bioregional Approach to Your Herbal Practice

There are many ways to practice herbalism including a multitude of traditions all over the world, each with their own plants that form the core of that herbal path. No matter what traditions we are trained in, we can apply what we learn to the plants and the land around us. Every bioregion has plants that are heating or cooling, moistening or drying, calming or stimulating. Every area has plants that strengthen vital organs and body systems and run the full list of medicinal actions. Using our local plants we can create well-matched formulas for anyone with nearly any health situation. After all, these plants have co-evolved with people and have a long history of interconnection with those who have lived along side them. Aside from the actual medicine-making, there is more to glean from this way of practice. There is an opportunity for something deeper, something more profound that comes through spending time with plants in their native habitats or in the garden. We have the opportunity to understand them intimately, to share our lives, and to receive the gifts that come through relationship.

Sandia crest view 4

What is Bioregional Herbalism?

Every art, skill, or science has rules. Herbalists have a great degree of freedom within their profession due in part to the large number of paradigms and traditions within which we can practice. The bioregional approach is just one of many. When we choose this path, however, we can embrace the set of rules that apply here. The word ‘rules’ may provoke an unpleasant response, especially for those of us who are not inherently rule-followers. If we choose to do our work adhering to the rules of bioregionalism, we are accepting a challenge to accomplish our goals using only the plants available to us locally. This can of course also be extended to include all of the ingredients in our herbal products, not just herbs. I will be the first to admit that I do use some base ingredients that are not produced in my local area. It is important to remember though that even in ancient times, some items were acquired through trade from distant locations and were considered precious resources. For example I could use Jojoba or even tallow, but I prefer to use coconut oil and olive oil for my infused oils. As for the herbs, I have rarely found a reason to look too far from home. Following this rule of bioregionalism encourages our own creativity and intellectual curiosity. It pushes us to know each plant as thoroughly as possible and to work with them in new and different ways. Ultimately it drives us to new edges within our practices and ourselves.

CO Cement Creek trail

In order to accept this challenge of following the bioregional rule, we need to specify what constitutes a bioregion. Generally speaking a bioregion is an area that is defined by natural borders such as a watershed or mountain ranges and includes one or more ecosystems with characteristic flora and fauna. We could define a bioregion more broadly as a system of landscapes with both natural layers and human elements that reciprocally affect one another and create a unique combination of characteristics to define a whole place. Furthermore, we find systems of bioregions, one within another, like tree rings. The Rio Grande Valley is within both the Southern Rocky Mountains and Desert Basin and Range, for example. Every one of us lives within a bioregion and to live bioregionally means that we are aware of the natural and cultural history of our area and we commit to living in a way that takes into consideration the resources available to us where we live.

 

What Are The Most Important Tenets of Bioregional Herbalism?

First you must know the locals. Befriend the weeds, the commoners, and get to know the not-so-commoners, too (who are they and why are they not-so-common?). Grow what you can in your own garden and make these readily available plants from the wilds and your yard the foundation of your practice. Truly knowing the plants around you goes well beyond identification and medicinal uses and takes you into more intimate kinds of knowledge. It leads us to an understanding of their life cycle, their lineage, their personal experience, and even sharing consciousness.   The practice of bioregional herbalism keeps at its heart the plants found in the surrounding environment. It makes us look beyond our textbooks to see the teachers waiting for us in the suburban yards, urban parks, and wild lands beyond. Seeking relationships with local plants fosters a deep and powerful connection to our regional landscapes, allowing us to become more acutely aware of the inter-being of plants, people, and the land. Herbalism quickly crosses over from practical to spiritual when you feel the life force of your medicine and its inter-connection with you and everything else in the cosmos. Looking deeply into a plant, the exchange is intimate and the effect is penetrating. Like an ancient hunter who dons animal regalia in ceremony, you become one with the plant. You are the medicine that you seek. These realizations come from sitting with plants. They come from working with the plants that are living and evolving with us, sharing the same habitat, entwined with our own life experiences.

Milkweed single closeup

Showy Milkweed – Asclepias speciosa

In addition to knowing the plants, it is critical to understand the dynamics of the larger landscape to which those plants are connected. Knowing the natural and cultural history of your area helps you to understand the microcosm in front of you when you are looking deeply into a plant. It also helps us to see the interconnection between plants and people in your area and the reciprocal relationship between people and the land over time. When we enter the wilderness seeking relationships with plants there is always an imperative to know what’s going on in the broader picture. To know wild plants more deeply and to harvest them responsibly we must understand the way they function in their ecosystems and also how those ecosystems are connected to the larger physiographic region. Looking at Yerba Mansa (Anemopsis californica) as an example, we can clearly see the importance of understanding landscape dynamics, the personal history of a plant, and its relationship to the land as well as its relationship to us. You may come upon a large stand of Yerba Mansa and feel immediately captivated by this plant as its stunning visual beauty and pungent aroma grab hold of you and pull you in. If you don’t know the bigger story, you may get a false sense of security, abundance, and stability. This plant has been a significant part of the Rio Grande Valley for millions of years, carpeting large areas of the floodplain and associated wetlands. The aromatic oils of the roots altered the soil chemistry facilitating the growth of other plants and dispersing the waters and microbes of this slow-moving ecosystem. During the last 150 years, however, water diversion, urbanization, and flood control measures have transformed the riparian zones of the Southwest and the desert bosque environments upon which Yerba Mansa depends for its survival have become some of the most threatened ecosystems anywhere. When we understand what is happening in the larger system, we know that this plant’s habitat is in major decline. This knowledge changes the way we approach and work with the plant. Seeing that large stand of Yerba Mansa is no longer something to take for granted, it becomes something to cherish and protect.

Yerba Mansa flower red

Yerba Mansa – Anemopsis californica

Now that we have become familiar with the plants and the land, we are ready to consider our own role within all of this. That means we must alter our practice according to the first two tenets. Harvesting a wild plant is not a casual thing. It’s a sacred act that connects us to the plant’s history and its future. In fact, we are playing a role in determining what happens next. The actions we take and the attitudes we adopt are shaping that future right now. When we enter the wilderness we become a part of it, a functioning part of the ecosystem. We must ask ourselves what role will we play in that system of interactions and interconnections. As I have just mentioned, understanding that an ecosystem is threatened inspires us to interact with the plants that live around us differently. Likewise when you know that a plant has a life span many times longer than yours, it also changes the way you feel about those elders. Have you ever hiked amongst the Bristlecone Pines (Pinus longaeva) or through a Chaparral (Larrea tridentata) plain? If you have then you probably know these plants may live for thousands of years acquiring the kind of wisdom we humans can only dream of. This awareness will change the way we relate to the plants and it will bring something intangible and eternal to our medicine. Similarly, when you hike in the same places for many years and observe the changes in plant populations over long periods of time, you make different decisions about harvesting and may even chose to work with different plants. When you know the local history of use for a plant and the role it has played in other local societies and cultural groups, it affects the way you work with those plants in your own formulations. Part of the bioregional herbal practice must always include in-depth knowledge of the landscape to which we belong. Acquiring this knowledge and developing this understanding of the local dynamics between people, plants, and the land will ultimately shape the way you practice, influence the way you feel about yourself as an herbalist, and contribute to the kind of person that you are.

chaparral quebradas

Chaparral – Larrea tridentata

Why Practice This Way?

Accepting the challenge of the bioregional herbal practice comes with both practical and more profound rewards.   Using what we have available to us everyday, we can care for others and ourselves in a way that is affordable, sustainable, and empowering. Working with locally obtained herbs from our gardens and wild places and making our own medicines dramatically reduces the cost of natural healthcare. It also means that we avoid industrial harvesting, long distance shipping, and increasing demands on vulnerable plant populations for the most popularly consumed herbs in the worldwide market. This kind of homegrown and handcrafted healthcare also leads to personal empowerment. We are in-tune and connected to our own bodies as we forge health and wellbeing from the lands that we tend and love.

Bioregional herbalism also enables us to become more connected to the land and more deeply rooted in our home. Engaging in this kind of practice shepherds us into oneness with the plants as we incorporate them into our everyday lives. The plants, in turn, bring us into harmony with the habitat that we share. The medicines that we make are more than healing remedies; each sip of tea or drop of tincture may become a prayer to a plant that we know or a way of honoring the deepest kind of connection that binds all life together. Living this way creates the opportunity to combine daily experiential learning with fact-based research and to join these two types of knowledge together for a broad spectrum and in-depth understanding of the place where we live. Through this process we come to see more clearly the dynamics unfolding all around us and within us. We are part of our local ecosystem, inseparable from it, sharing the same fate ultimately. A bioregional practice provides an avenue for us to be more informed about our own habitat and to decide more deliberately what role we will play in that ecosystem. We can contribute to the health of the land by protecting vulnerable plant populations and becoming a force for conservation and restoration.

Tincture Alpine

In addition to making connections with plants and taking the time to understand what is happening in our local landscapes a bioregional practice will inevitably lead us to introspection and an exploration of what lies inward. While seeing our place in the larger whole is important, knowing ourselves more deeply is also a worthy journey. Plants can help us discover what has been lost within the deep woodlands of ourselves. When we work closely with a particular selection of plants we have the opportunity to develop relationships with them. The gifts of relationship lead us to new avenues in our work with plants, facilitate the process of self-discovery, and may become a catalyst for more profound realizations.   I have taken lessons from the mountain, the desert plains, the riparian forests of the valley, and even my own backyard medicine garden. These are the places I go to grow myself and humbly seek the wisdom of antiquity. All of these places are connected, as is all the life that inhabits these places. Walking in the Bosque I have felt that interconnection with Cottonwood elders and the young porcupines sleeping in the crooks of their branches. I have heard from the forest, the mountain, the mesa, and the river that all life is inter-being and whatever I do to restore plants and their habitats ultimately builds vitality within myself.

Yerba Mansa Path 3

How Can You Make This Kind Of Practice Your Own?

Bioregional herbalism and its myriad of gifts are accessible to everyone. There are several things you can do, no matter where you live, to bring this practice to life. Study with and learn from the local mentors available to you: people, plants, and the land itself. Learn not just about plants, but also their habitats, how people have interacted with the land and how they have worked with the plants in your area. Integrate the natural and cultural history of your bioregion into your herbal practice and make your work a continuation of, and a complement to, all that came before. In doing this, it is imperative to get out there in the mountains, valleys, estuaries, canyons, riparian zones, and in your garden. Spend time with the plants where they are. What are they offering you in this moment? What will they bring to your medicine? How can you create a relationship that is truly reciprocal? Most of us are eager to harvest, but what can we give back? Through this closeness with plants and their habitats, we come to understand our role in our local environment. We see what we must do in order to facilitate the health of the land and therefore our own interconnected wellness. Get involved in projects that will give back to the plants and bring new meaning to your life as an herbalist. Many (if not all) wild areas are under pressure from urbanization, resource extraction, habitat degradation, water management, climate change, and more. There is a need everywhere for people to stand up and speak for the plants and the land upon which they and we depend. Get involved in a project that speaks to you or start one yourself. When we have acquired an in-depth understanding of our local bioregion’s history, we can see more clearly what we need to do to safeguard it for the future.

In practicing herbalism with our local plants we find the best medicine for us right now. We discover the beauty of bioregional herbal practice: sustainable and affordable medicine that connects us to our local landscape, protects vulnerable plant populations for the future, returns us to our place in the natural world, and ultimately helps us to discover ourselves. Becoming more deeply connected to our local bioregion and the plants and animals that share it, we have the opportunity to bridge the past and the future by giving the land what it needs right now while receiving the gifts of respectful harvest. In living our lives this way, we will find our wild selves in harmony with our own habitats and we will make medicine with the power of the land behind us.

Going Deeper with Pedicularis

Pedicularis groenlandica flowers 2.JPGThere is undoubtedly a deeply alluring quality to Pedicularis plants that has drawn the attention of many herbalists and plant lovers of all kinds. For some, it is simply recovery for overworked muscles or the relaxation of tension in the body that they seek. Others may be searching for the more subtle shifts and openings that such relaxation in the physical body can bring for the mind and spirit. Indeed the sheer beauty and mysterious underground workings of these varied plants are captivating for anyone acquainted with Pedicularis. Our local species have been both good medicine and tremendous sources of inspiration and learning for me over the years. Ranging from open prairies to semi-arid foothill woodlands to alpine mountain meadows, Pedicularis lures the seeker into wild and undisturbed landscapes where the gateways are wide open. It offers us a glimpse into an underground world of intricate interactions, community coordination, and a synergistic blossoming of new creation that resides both in the land and within ourselves.


(Photos from top to bottom: 1. P. groenlandica closeup, 2. P. parryi mountain meadow, 3. P. parryi closeup, 4. P. procera patch, 5. extensive P. groenlandica bog, 6. P. racemosa closeup, 7. P. procera closeup, 8. P. centranthera in rocky gravel, 9. P. parryi plants, 10. P. bracteosa plant) For more Pedicularis photos see my previous post on this topic.


Pedicularis Genus

The genus Pedicularis includes over 600 species, found in prairie, montane, sub-alpine, alpine, and tundra environments across the Northern Hemisphere. Of those, 40 species can be found in North America.   Pedicularis prefers habitats with undisturbed soil and moderate availability of minerals and water and generally avoids habitats with extreme environmental conditions of either high stress and disturbance or nutrient dense wet areas with higher levels of above ground vegetative competition (Tesitel et. at., 2015). The genus Pedicularis was previously grouped with the Scrophulariaceae until its parasitic members were relocated to the Orobanchaceae family where it resides today. This large genus is generally characterized by varied morphological differences, particularly in the upper lip of the corolla. Genetic and biogeographical studies suggest that all Pedicularis species originated in Asia, migrating to North America when the Bering Land Bridge was open during the Miocene (14-10 myr), subsequently dispersing across North America from ancestral Rocky Mountain and Southern Cascade Range populations, and eventually reaching Europe from populations in the eastern half of the continent (Robart et al., 2015).

 

Pedicularis plants are fascinating ecologically and may even be considered keystone Pedicularis parryi meadow 6.JPGspecies due to their important role in facilitating biodiversity. As hemiparasitic plants, they produce underground structures called haustoria, that create a direct connection between the xylem of the host and that of the parasite (Piehl, 1963). Pedicularis and other root hemiparasites produce their own chlorophyll and can thus survive on their own, but may obtain additional resources through these root connections to other host plants. These interactions vary depending upon the species of Pedicularis and the host plants, which commonly include asters, oaks, conifers, and grasses (Ai-Rong Li, 2012) but also include a wide variety of potential hosts from at least 80 different plant species in 35 families (Piehl). The transfer of secondary resources such as water, minerals, and alkaloids from nearby plants is well-established (Schneider and Stermitz, 1990) and has larger implications for the ecosystem in which Pedicularis makes its home. Pedicularis clearly benefits from this relationship, but there is also evidence that this phenomenon has a wide reaching ripple effect. While this hemiparasitic relationship can negatively impact the growth of the host plant, it is also associated with greater plant diversity in the bioregion (Hedberg et al. 2005). Pedicularis may inhibit the growth of plants with a propensity to dominate the landscape such as Goldenrod or grasses while its pollen-rich flowers attract bees and hummingbirds to the area for increased pollination and reproduction of other important species (Hedberg et al.). In fact, other flowering plants are likely to produce more fruits and set more seeds when growing in close proximity to Pedicularis plants (Laverty, 1992). In addition to curtailing the growth of dominating host plants and promoting the biomass and reproduction of other plants, Pedicularis also contributes to species diversity by reallocating nitrogen and other nutrients to neighboring plants through decomposition (Demey et al., 2013). These combined qualities make Pedicularis an important element in ecological restoration projects (DiGiovanni et. al, 2016).

 

Aside from their ecological importance, Pedicularis plants are known in herbal medicine traditions wherever they grow. Phytochemical analysis has been done primarily on Asian species but identifies a number of common constituents including iridoid Pedicularis parryi flowers 1.JPGglycosides, phenylpropanoid glycosides (PhGs), lignans glycosides, flavonoids, alkaloids, and other compounds (Mao-Xing Li, 2014). Employed mainly for its muscle relaxant properties, Pedicularis is typically used in formulas for general relaxation or recovery from physical injury. The synergistic effects of Pedicularis’ many constituents result in additional properties including being antitumor, hepatoprotective, anti-oxidative, protective to red blood cells, antibacterial, and cognition enhancing (Mao-Xing Li, 2014 and Gao et al., 2011). Resent research also gives implications for broader uses as a medicinal herb. Pedicularis has been shown to have antimicrobial activity against a number of pathogens including P. aeruginosa, S. aureus, S. epidermidis P. olympica, P. vulgaris, E. coli, K. pneumoniae, C. albicans, M. luteus, and others (Khodaie et al., 2012; Dulger and Ugurlu, 2005; Yuan et al., 2007). Significantly it has also demonstrated the ability to repair DNA and lower levels of glucose and other diabetic markers (Chu, 2009; Yatoo et al., 2016). Not surprisingly Pedicularis has also been used to increase endurance in athletic performance by reducing muscle fatigue (Zhu et al., 2016). This combination of traits would make Pedicularis a useful component in a wide variety of disease prevention and treatment formulas. Due to their hemiparasitic nature, Pedicularis plants may take on additional phytochemicals and healing characteristics by absorbing resources from neighboring host plants. Through this deeply-rooted connection to their ecosystem, they may become more than they could ever be on their own. This could be a drawback in the case of plants with toxic compounds such as some Senecio species that often serve as host plants (Schneider and Stermitz, 1990). Finding Pedicularis among Aspen stands however, is like harvesting two herbs in one as the Aspen subtly shifts the energy and properties of the Pedicularis increasing its anti-inflammatory pain-relieving nature. This hemiparasitic trait, however beneficial as a medicine, is also what makes them truly wild and creates challenges for cultivation.

 

Working with Pedicularis draws the practicing herbalist into the prairies and mountains where she can harvest and craft remedies that are born of the wild places around her. Since Pedicularis is not commonly cultivated, most of us obtain this medicine throughPedicularis procera patch.JPG wildcrafting in places where this plant grows abundantly. Residing at lower latitudes and middle elevations P. centranthera, P. racemosa, and P. procera are most common where I live and have therefore become my favorite allies in this genus.  There are also quite a few other species (see species profiles below) that I find in abundance when I venture into the ecozones to the north. Leaves and flowers can be harvested at different times in the growing season depending on the species and location. Lower elevation P. centranthera flowers early in the spring while most others growing at higher elevations flower in mid-summer. Be sure to leave lots of flowers and avoid disturbing roots to maintain healthy wild populations. This is a lower dose herb, so you won’t need to take much. I usually tincture some fresh in the field and take the rest home for other preparations such as infused oils, salves, and smoke blends to help with injured or overworked muscles, encourage restful sleep, to release tension residing deep within the body, and also as a catalyst to encourage shifting in the depths of ourselves when we need to see things in a new light. There is, however, something more profound, almost magical, that these plants have to offer. One of the students in my program, forgetting the plant’s name, captured that sentiment when she referred to it as “that plant that sounds like a Harry Potter spell”. While this genus has a large membership, I’ll mention just a few that I encounter in my region.

 

Pedicularis groenlandica:

Pedicularis groenlandica meadow.JPGP. groenlandica has fern-like leaves and magnificent flowering racemes with elephant-shaped flowers, giving it the common name of ’Elephant Head Betony’. To discover an alpine meadow blanketed by P. groenlandica is like falling in love. As my eyes met this magenta mountain meadow, my first reaction was to dive in head-first, to literally fling myself into it whole-heartedly. I felt a compelling attraction profoundly pulling me into the landscape, like two souls split part and now reunited. Knowing that this plant favors boggy places, I thought better of it and instead gazed drop-jawed at the majestic beauty, walked carefully amongst the little plants, and found a place to sit and soak it all in. I knew that later I would be making deep body healing salve born directly from the landscape, but for now P. groenlandica was nourishing me in the most intangible ways. I will never forget the happiness I felt from head to toe as I laid eyes on this striking scene. Simply knowing that such places exist in the world is comforting medicine for me. P. groenlandica’s mesmerizing inflorescence heals both directly as absorbed by the body and also indirectly as absorbed by the heart. Thriving in open wetter places with a tendency towards stagnancy, think of this species when the release of muscular tension is needed to promote more movement in the musculature, heart, and mind. This plant will help us to let go and move on from problems that may be holding us back.

 

Pedicularis racemosa:

Also known as ‘Parrot Beak’, P. racemosa flowers have a unique formation resembling aPedicularis racemosa  closeup.JPG white bird’s beak along with serrated lanceolate leaves, thereby differentiating it from other members of the genus described here. This plant inhabits the forest edges acting as liaison between worlds, an intermediary between light and dark. Approaching this plant, I feel it beckoning me to come deeper into the forest in search of fulfillment that only the wilderness beyond can provide. Just as its parasitic roots spread underground subtly shifting the energy of the forest ecosystem, it infiltrates the heart and implants trust and faith where fear, distrust, or other difficult emotions may reside. Working with it as plant medicine provides more than relief from musculo-skeletal aggravations; it also helps us to bridge the disparities in our own lives by connecting us with lost parts of ourselves. It summons from our own depths, the aspects of our being that we have ignored and helps us to be more complete individuals and more holistic practitioners. P. racemosa ultimately invites us to discover the unexplored magic within ourselves.

 

Pedicularis procera:

Pedicularis Procera 7.JPGP. procera, or Fern Leaf Betony, is the giant of the family with large red stems and subtly striped pinkish flowers and has a way of making itself noticed in a densely populated forest environment. In fact, it stands out so much that I have seen its intricate beauty beaming forth from its towering stalks far off in the distance. I have heard it calling me off the beaten path inviting me to make my own way in the world and to discover all that the forest has to offer. Its large fern-like leaves contribute to a lush green environment relished by the desert herbalist. While all the members of this genus have a special place in my heart, this species is a treasure to work with due to the size of each plant. It is a favorite for remedies that relax the muscles, and alleviate pain, allowing us to accept ourselves as we are, and let go of what we need to shed. As a semi-parasitic plant P. procera, like other member of this genus, shares traits from nearby plants incorporating itself into the roots of the forest as well as the depths of the human body habitat when used as medicine. Of all the species discussed here, this one is the most likely to be consumed by browsing animals, who also benefit from Pedicularis re-allocating forest medicine. P. procera extends the community’s connections to an even wider circle, perhaps making it the most accessible of all species.

 

Pedicularis centranthera:

A small member of the genus that dons white flowers with spectacular magenta tips andPedicularis centranthera patch.JPG small fern-like leaves, P. centranthera is mighty in its workings. This species prefers the semi-arid lower elevation pine and oak forests in my area and is usually seen growing in pine needle mulch. Capitalizing on early spring moisture from snow cover and melting runoff, it is one of the first plants to flower in this ecosystem every year. It is further adapted to these warmer drier elevations with its ability to shed its above ground parts, retreat back into its roots, and disappear during the hottest months of summer.   Once a favorite species to harvest in my nearby wilds, I have seen its populations reduced locally due in part to environmental disturbances from land management decisions designed to reduce wildfire threats (forest thinning with masticators that destroy the understory) but also due to overharvesting in easily accessible areas. Consequently I have in recent years shifted my work toward the more abundant species found in the Southern Rocky Mountains to the north. This illustrates the concerns that many of us have for medicinal plants that are not cultivated, allowing for sustainable harvest and wide scale use in herbal medicine. My relationship with this plant also demonstrates how we can receive the medicine of plants without harvesting anything physical or tangible. P. centranthera has been an important teacher and source of strength and inspiration in my life. Through the time spent learning about this plant and yielding to its influence, I have learned much about the role of being a community coordinator; someone who brings together all the individual assets of a community and puts them to use for the benefit of the entire system. P. centranthera has shown me how to organize my community by bringing together the talents and passions of the people where I live to manifest the changes we want to see in our world and to improve the lives of everyone. Furthermore, this plant has also shown me the strategy of retreating periodically to rest and restore oneself so that we will be ready when the seasonal burst begins anew.

 

Pedicularis parryi:

Pedicularis parryi meadow 2.JPGIn a moment of pure euphoria, I first discovered this plant as I crested a hill on an alpine meadow and looked out across a field of flowering P. parryi and companions. The cacophonous riot of shapes, colors, and textures of the varied flowering plants in this place seemed to shout out a chorus of thanks for the day and stood as a testament to the biodiversity-facilitating powers of Pedicularis. This plant’s flowers are similar to P. racemosa’s creamy white bird beak corolla, but with fern-like leaves typical of most other species that I know. Instead of racemosa’s forested environment, however, parryi grows in open high altitude meadows, shining light on issues we may be holding onto but do not have the clarity to understand or process. P. parryi is more direct in its workings than the other forest species and may be best suited to those of us with more concrete ways of perceiving the world and less able to shift ourselves with the more subtle workings of other Pedicularis species.

 

Pedicularis bracteosa:

P. bracteosa is similar to procera in its lip shape, larger stature, and preference for forested habitats but its flowers are creamy white to light yellow instead of the often Pedicularis bracteosa plant.JPGstriped light pink to peach tones of procera. I first met this plant growing in close proximity to P. racemosa on the edge of a very dark and wild looking forest inhabited by Saxifrages, Orchids, and other sensitive plants known to favor undisturbed environments. At once I could feel the synergistic effect of these plants working together to create an ambiance of wild flowing vitality and an entrancing mood of introspection that beckoned me inward; into the forest and into myself. It was almost as if the underground haustoria were penetrating me, drawing me into the vibrational and energetic world of life in this forest, making me one with this landscape, taking me back to the source of knowledge and reconnecting with the continuum of life. It seemed in that moment as if all answers could be found right there in that forest and indeed, many were.

 

Pedicularis’ infiltrating personality, ecological importance, and medicinal magic have given it a beloved place in many herbalists’ hearts. This plant’s most profound activity occurs where no one can see, as its’ workings take place underneath the surface of the earth and in the depths of ourselves, releasing us from where we are stuck in our bodies, in our minds, and our hearts. In addition to its well-known muscle relaxant qualities, resent research also suggests a wider role in the prevention and treatment of diseases including diabetes and varied microbial infections. Pedicualris and other hemiparasitic plants can significantly change plant communities by fostering species diversity and floral quality in native plants as it coordinates the collective resources of the community and allocates them for the benefit of the entire system. Although this plant is not endangered in the Western United States, we must be certain to harvest with knowledge about each species’ ecological status and respect for local native plant communities. Pedicularis is not cultivated and increased demand for this herb could cause concern for wild populations, especially those that are more easily accessible. As you wildcraft this plant, take time to identify the species and observe the size, health, and frequency of populations you find. Working with Pedicularis is certain to draw you into new territory within yourself and within your practice. Pedicularis is both medicine and teacher, willing to guide us wherever we are to go.

This essay originally appeared in Plant Healer‘s Good Medicine Confluence Class Essays for 2017.

References:

Ai-Rong Li, F. Andrew Smith , Sally E. Smith, Kai-Yun Guan, “Two sympatric root hemiparasitic Pedicularis species differ in host dependency and selectivity under phosphorus limitation,” Functional Plant Biology 39 (9) (2012): 784-794.

Andreas Demey, Els Ameloot, Jeroen Staelens, An De Schrijver, Gorik Verstraeten, Pascal Boeckx, Martin Hermy, Kris Verheyen, “Effects of two contrasting hemiparisitic plant species on biomass production and nitrogen availability,” Oecologia 173: 1 (2013): 293- 303.

Andrew M. Hedberg, Victoria A. Borowicz, Joseph E. Armstrong, “Interactions between a hemiparasitic plant, Pedicularis canadensis L. (Orobanchaceae), and members of a tallgrass prairie community,” The Journal of the Torrey Botanical Society 132: 3 (2005): 401-410.

B. Dulger, E. Ugurlu, “Evaluation of antimicrobial activity of some endemic Scrophulariaceae members from Turkey,” Pharmaceutical Biology 43:3 (2005): 275-279.

Bruce W. Robart, Carl Gladys, Tom Frank, Stephen Kilpatrick. “Phylogeny and Biogeography of North American and Asian Pedicularis,” Systematic Botany 40: 1 (2015): 229-258.

C. S. Yuan, X. B. Sun, P. H. Zhao, M. A. Cao, “Antibacterial constituents from Pedicularis armata,” Journal of Asian Natural Products Research 9:7 (2007): 673-677.

Hongbiao Chi, Ninghua Tan, Caisheng Peng, “Progress in research on Pedicularis plants,” China Journal of Chinese Materia Medica 34: 19 (2009): 2536-46.

Jakub Těšitel, Pavel Fibich, Francesco de Bello, Milan Chytrý, Jan Lepš ,“Habitats and ecological niches of root-hemiparasitic plants: an assessment based on a large database of vegetation plots,” Preslia 87(2015): 87–108.

Jane P. DiGiovanni, William P. Wysocki, Sean V. Burke, Melvin R. Duvall, Nicholas A. Barber, “The role of hemiparasitic plants: influencing tallgrass prairie quality, diversity, and structure,” Restoration Ecology doi: 10.1111/rec.12446 (2016).

Laleh Khodaie, Abbas Delazar, Farzane Lotfipour, Hossein Nazemiyeh, Solmaz Asnaashari, Sedighe B. Moghadam, Lutfun Nahar, Satyajit D. Sarker, “Phytochemistry and bioactivity of Pedicularis sibthorpii growing in Iran,” Revista Brasileira de Farmacognosia 22: 6 (2012): 1268-1275.

M. A. Piehl, “Mode of attachment, haustorium structure, and hosts of Pedicularis canadensi,”. American Journal of Botany 50: 10 (1963): 978-985.

Mao-Xing Li, Xi-Rui He, Rui Tao, Xinyuan Cao. “Phytochemistry and Pharmacology of the Genus Pedicularis Used in Traditional Chinese Medicine,” American Journal of Chinese Medicine 42 (2014): 1071.

Marilyn J. Schneider, Frank R. Stermitz, “Uptake of host plant alkaloids by root parasitic Pedicularis species,” Phytochemistry 29 (6) (1990): 1811–1814.

T.M. Laverty, “Plant interactions for pollinator visits: a test of the magnet species effect,” Oecologia 89: 4 (1992): 502-508.

Meiju Zhua, Hongzhu Zhua, Ninghua Tanb, Hui Wanga, Hongbiao Chua, Chonglin Zhanga, “Central anti-fatigue activity of verbascoside,” Neuroscience Letters 616 (2016): 75-79.

Meili Gao, Yongfei Li, Jianxiong Yang, “Protective effect of Pedicularis decora Franch root extracts on oxidative stress and hepatic injury in alloxan-induced diabetic mice,“ Journal of Medicinal Plants Research 5:24 (October 2011): 5848-5856.

Mohd. Iqbal Yatoo, Umesh Dimri, Arumugam Gopalakrishan, Mani Saminathan, Kuldeep Dhama, Karikalan Mathesh, Archana Saxena, Devi Gopinath and Shahid Husain, “Antidiabetic and Oxidative Stress Ameliorative Potential of Ethanolic Extract of Pedicularis longiflora,” International Journal of Pharmacology 12:3 (2016): 177.

 

 

 

 

Connecting with Our Heritage Through Herbs

G-G-G-Grandma Richards

My Great Great Great Grandma Richards

As a young girl, I heard my great-grandmother tell stories about growing up during the early 1900’s and being an adult in the depression era. One of these stories included a tale of how her mother drank backyard herbs in warm water to start the morning. I had the privilege of being shown that very backyard and the once weedy countryside that had since been transformed into ornamental flowerbeds. I was assured that my great-great-grandmother drank weeds only as a circumstance of life in those times and she was now clearly happy to be able to purchase coffee and other more civilized beverages. I did not think much of the story at the time, but I now understand its greater value. Just as it exemplifies a generational difference in values between a mother and daughter, it also illustrates a shift in the zeitgeist of the American public with regard to people’s relationship to herbal medicine and to nature itself.

 

Nanny and Grandma Hanna

My Great Grandma and Grandma picking blueberries in the hills around their home.

A connection to herbs, nature, and self-reliance in personal healthcare was part of life for most folks until well into the 20th century. Attitudes started to change when the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act began to expose some products’ exaggerated claims of “curing” all varieties of aliments and serious illnesses. This began to sow the seeds of doubt in consumers’ minds and by the 1930’s corporate advertising slogans such as DuPont’s “Better things for better living through chemistry” were penetrating people’s minds everywhere. This shift in public thinking gained further momentum in the 1940s when mass production of modern laboratory medicines, beginning with Penicillin, further undermined people’s faith in herbs and weakened their connection to the natural world. Advertisements such as this one from pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly appeared in a 1944 pharmacists’ journal and would influence America’s prevailing attitude toward herbalism:

The ‘medicine man’ of the early nineteen hundreds has small part in our modern habits of living. Little medicine is sold these days from the tailboard of a wagon… A reputation for cheapness in prescription merchandise is despised by everyone… The Lilly label is a symbol of quality. It identifies you as a competent prescriptionist.1

Eli Lilly Pharma Ad

Eli Lilly Pharmaceutical ad in 1944 Pharmacist journals.

How unfortunate that the emerging pharmaceutical industry was so successful in delegitimizing the role of herbs and natural medicines in everyday life. Instead of seeing herbal remedies and modern medicine as complementary healing traditions, most people gradually came to disregard the value of the herbs that healed them for so many generations; indeed for the entire history of humanity. Let’s take a look back at some of the herbal remedies that served our great-grandmothers and beyond.

From the 1880s and into the early 1900s, the Mother Gray Company of Le Roy New York made a number of popular herbal remedies including Allen’s Foot Ease and Mother Gray’s Sweet Worm Powders. Products made prior to the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act Remedy Australian Leafwere not required to list ingredients and often made sweeping cure-all claims such as those on the box of Mother Gray’s Australian Leaf tea blend. The box states “a certain cure for headache, backache, bearing down pains, kidney, liver, bladder, and urinary troubles, diabetes, and dropsy”. The package further states, “it cures female weakness including inflammation and ulceration, irregular and painful or suppressed illness and all diseases of the stomach, bowels and urinary organs in either sex”. No ingredients are listed, which makes it impossible to know how many of these conditions might have been affected by the formula. Regardless of ingredients, any claims of curing so many ailments in a single remedy should naturally raise suspicions. These exaggerated claims would provide a foundation for federal regulation and a catalyst for the shift in beliefs about herbal remedies that would unfold during the coming years.

 

 

 

 

At the turn of the century the movement was underway to regulate herbal products. Frank Cheney of the Hall’s company became a leader in lobbying against regulation, but his Proprietary Association of America failed to stop the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. With new oversight in place, the patent medicine era was coming to a close and many herbal product companies disappeared from the marketplace. As a result of the new regulations, the surviving companies increased newspaper adverting. The Hall’s company ran ads in newspapers across the country offering $100 to anyone who could produce catarrh that could not be remedied by his popular product Hall’s Catarrh Cure. Another result was that companies such as Hall’s, Romero Drug, Los Angels Pharmacal, and Dr. J. H. McLean’s Medicine all began listing ingredients on their remedies and the outlandish cure-all claims disappeared from packaging. Upon inspection of the ingredients, we can see more clearly the continuation of our herbal heritage. Many of these products contain the same herbs we might use today for the same purposes. Liniments such as Aztec, La Sanadora, and McLean’s Volcanic Oil were made with Cayenne, Menthol, Pine, and Camphor to ease the sore muscles of everyday life. Halls’ syrup included honey and zinc to ease sore throats associated with colds. Essence of Peppermint was a popular staple of any home apothecary and was used for all manner of ailments, just as it is today. Along with these herbs, however, comes the “inactive ingredients”. These are the extractive menstruums, or the carriers of the medicine. Fortunately we are no longer preparing our liniments with ammonia and providing guidelines for internal use. No more turpentine or chloroform in our modern liniments, either. One manufacturing company boasts that their sore throat syrup, made with borax, had been in use for over fifty years and provided dosages for infants. I am happy to see that herbalists are evolving, bringing the traditions of the past into the modern era by adding new knowledge to our inheritance.

 

 

 

 

Later products of the 1930s and 40s illuminate the continuing importance of herbal products in the lives of Americans during and after the Great Depression, but also act as harbingers of coming change. This was a time of economic hardship when many people could not afford physician’s fees and self-care skills continued to be of great value. Remedies including Argotane, Bukets, and Califig still used herbal terms on their labels such as tonic, cholagogue, and elixir or phrases such as “stimulant to the diuretic action of the kidneys”. Some products like Sterling Drug’s Califig syrup continued on in the traditions of the past by offering an herbal remedy containing Senna, Cassia, Cloves, and Peppermint for the treatment of constipation. However, businesses such as the Argotane Company (a division of Plough Inc.) were bridging the past and future with new formulas and promotional tactics. Argotane frequently ran ads in newspapers across the country extolling the virtues of their product. These ads were disguised as news articles with titles and subtitles such as “Mrs. Hays One of the Proudest Women in Amarillo, Texas, I’m Certainly Grateful For the Happiness Arogtane Has Brought Home”.2 Product formulas of this era highlight a new layer of our herbal heritage that is beginning to unfold, which is the coming transition away from whole herbal ingredients and the increasing preference for isolated chemical compounds as medicines. Argotane’s laxative formula includes staples of the past along with hints of the future: Nux vomica, Cascara Sagrada, and Capsicum are combined with laboratory compounds such as Phenolphthalein, which served as a laxative but has more recently raised concerns as a likely carcinogen.3 Keller Company’s Bukets formula for urinary health also exemplifies this new standard of medicine by combining the herbs Buchu, Juniper berries, Asparagus extract, Saw Palmetto berries, and Scotchbroom (C. scoparius) along with chemical compounds for dissolving urinary stones and reducing urinary inflammations such as lithium carbonate and potassium nitrate. This movement toward faith in chemicals would ultimately gain momentum and become the prevailing view in our country by mid-century.

1939_A_BetterThings_DuPont_Ad

“Better Things, Better Living Through Chemistry”

These are some of the layers of our rich and diverse herbal heritage. The shift in the American public’s relationship to herbal remedies is exemplified through my great-grandmother’s story about her mother. In one generation a new attitude was clearly emerging about herbalism. Prior to the turn of the 20th century, weeds and common plants were what people turned to when health issues came up or they were simply added to the diet as a source of reliable and affordable nutrition. This was a time of westward expansion, settling new territories, and carving out an existence in new and sometimes hostile environments. It was also an era when people spent time outdoors, lived off the land, and made household items by hand. During this time and continuing on through the Depression era we can clearly see the common threads connecting our modern herbal practice to that of our predecessors through an examination of popular herbal formulas. As the 1900s rolled on and industrialized modernity settled in, people gradually began to view herbs as an inferior remedy of the past with new ‘scientific’ drugs marketed by powerful pharmaceutical companies to take their place. Now that we have experienced over half a century of ‘better living through chemicals’ many of us are beginning to seek a more balanced view to life. Wilderness is no longer something to be tamed and conquered, but something to protect and relish. The movement is well underway to circle back around to self-reliance in personal healthcare through natural medicines. This is likely influenced by various factors including the preventive vaccination regime and antibiotic ‘safety-net’ that modern medicine has provided as well as the decrease in frightening acute illnesses and the rise of chronic inflammatory illnesses. (Ironically, the shift from acute to chronic ailments may be precipitated, in part, by the pervasive use of chemicals in our lives.) While herbal medicine in post-industrialized America is usually lumped into the category known as “alternative medicine”, many of us know that it is actually traditional medicine and the original medicine of the people.

Dara Saville’s essay originally appeared as a forward to Jesse Wolf Hardin’s book The Traveling Medicine Show.

Endnotes:

  1. North Carolina Pharmaceutical Association; North Carolina Association of Pharmacists; North Carolina. Board of Pharmacy. Annual report; North Carolina Pharmaceutical Association. Year book; North Carolina Pharmaceutical Association. Proceedings of the annual meeting; University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. School of Pharmacy. William Simpson Pharmaceutical Society, The Carolina Journal of Pharmacy, Vol. 25, 1944, North Carolina Pharmaceutical Association: Chapel Hill.
  2. “Mrs. Hays One of the Proudest Women in Amarillo, Texas, I’m Certainly Grateful For the Happiness Arogtane Has Brought Home,Clovis News-Journal 5 July 1930: 3.
  3. National Toxicology Program, US Department of Health and Human Services,Report on Carcinogens”, Twelfth Edition, 2011, Sept. 8 2014 ntp.niehs.nih.gov/ntp/roc/twelfth/profiles/phenolphthalein.pdf.

Ecological Herbalism

Every herbalist has a unique approach to their practice.  For me, its all about learning lessons directly from the land.  Here’s one way to cultivate a deeper understanding of place and plant medicine…

Ecological Herbalism is a way of understanding where we live and learning about the plants around us. It is an interdisciplinary approach to herbal practice that includes learning about the natural processes unfolding in wild areas and how plant communities interact with each other and their environment. By embracing an ecological herbalism perspective, wildcrafting herbalists and plant observers gain insights about how plant communities are changing and how they work as medicines. When we understand the landscape dynamics around us, it affects the way we practice as herbalists. We can read changes in the land, recognize the value of healthy native plant communities, and allow that wisdom to guide our relationship with plants. The following three short stories are examples of what we can learn from practicing ecological herbalism.

 

Chaparral and the Desert Basin

chaparral quebradasChaparral, or Larrea trindentata, makes its home in the deserts of the Southwest and is a defining plant in the Chihuahua Desert. The Chihuahua Desert is a place of extreme weather, harsh growing conditions, and like all landscapes, is in a state of constant evolution. According to Lieutenant Beale in 1857, the region was once defined by “hundreds and hundreds of thousands of acres, containing the greatest abundance of the finest grass in the world…” (Gardner, 1951, p. 382). Not one of the early European or American travelers through the region mentioned the presence of Chaparral until a botanist named Perry listed the shrubs in a botanical survey in 1859 (Gardener). Gardner’s research found that by the early 1950s, Larrea was by far the most dominant plant, constituting 63% of the total shrub population having established itself on 86% and acquiring dominance on 65% of surveyed areas. Additionally, Gardner reported that only 4 of the 21 grass species known to exist in the ecosystem were found on the surveyed lands and covered a mere .36% of the acreage. In another study examining changes over 140 years, Gibbens et al. (2005) found that starting data from 1858 showed that 54% and 86% of their two study areas had no presence of Larrea at all. In contrast, by 1998, Larrea had become dominant on 20% and 59% percent of those areas (Gibbens et al.). Likewise, Black Grama, which had been dominant or subdominant on 45% of the area in 1916, held that status on only 1.2% of land by 1998 (Gibbens). Although recent research indicates that Chaparral now characterizes the Chihuahua Desert by forming dominant stands across thousands of acres, not that long ago it played a minor role in the landscape. Having relatively recently migrated long distance from ancestral populations of L. divericata in South America (Laport et al., 2012), L. tridentataChaparral with grass_edited has a long and successful history of advancing its range. It has done so in part due to changing environmental conditions but has been aided significantly by Chaparral grazed editedcattle grazing (Mata-Gonzales, 2007). Van Auken (2000) described this process as “brush encroachment” because, along with Larrea, this process includes other native shrubs such as Mesquite, which were present in the local environment for thousands of years, but in much lower densities. This is an interesting role for a native plant to play in modern wilderness, which is most commonly described as suffering from the reduction of native plant populations.

 

These ecological observations give us new insights into Larrea’s workings as herbal medicine because we are able to understand how the plant interacts with its surroundings and how it operates naturally.   This plant has been long used for a variety of medicinal effects including liver stimulation, purification, reducing inflammation, and broad-ranging antimicrobial activity.   Modern research has confirmed the effectiveness of many of Larrea’s applications and has also indicated its potential as an anti-cancer medicine (Favela-Hernandez et al. 2012; Lambert et al. 2005; Quiroga et al. 2004; Rahman et al., 2011; Snowden et al. 2014; VanSlambrouck et al. 2007).  Ecological understanding further supports these uses. Larrea is a plant that rapidly spreads into new territory, usurping available resources, overtaking the ecology, shifting the biotic balances, and creating a new reality on its own terms. It is a resilient and transformative plant once its get a foothold. Depending on your perspective, you could describe it as ‘spreading like cancer’ over the land, diminishing biodivChaparral golden lightersity wherever it goes. This trait may come in handy the next time you have a nasty bacterial infection some place in your body. Also its sheer ‘brute force’ sets it apart as an herbal medicine, often relegating it to the most stubborn of infections or inflammatory conditions. As a broadly effective antimicrobial, it takes over an environment, making critical resources unavailable to other living organisms, and otherwise disrupting their habitat. Larrea’s stubborn and relentless nature also supports what recent scientific research is suggesting with regard to its potential in cancer treatments. If, in a geologically short period of time, it can transform the harsh and unforgiving environments of the major deserts of the North American Continent, forming monotypic stands thousands of square kilometers in size, imagine what it can do in the ecosystem of a human body.

 

 

Bee Balm and the Desert Mountain

Bee Balm wild patchBee Balm, or Monarda menthaefolia fistulosa, is a mountain-dwelling plant of middle to upper elevation mixed conifer forests. Here in the Southwest and around the world, forest ecosystems are undergoing massive ecological changes with large-scale tree die-offs becoming one of the most obvious effects of climate change (e.g. Hicke et. al, 2013; Kliejunas et. al, 2009).   While many studies in different regions of the West have been conducted with similar results (e.g. CIRMOUNT, 2006; Breshears et. al, 2005), one recent study in California concluded that the state lost an estimated 27 million trees during 2012 to 2015 with millions more hectares of forest that will likely die as drought and rising temperatures continue (Asner et. al, 2016). Although drought has been part of the long-term climate cycles of the Southwest for millennia, current and future droughts are more deadly to trees because they will be driven by the rising temperatures rather than decreasing precipitation (e.g. Breshears et. al 2005, Williams et. al 2013, Gutzler and Robbins 2011). Bark beetle populations are known to surge with warmer temperatures and slight increases in drought stress can result in exponential beetle outbreaks, with devastating consequences in areas where fire suppression policies have created dense canopies (Williams et. al, 2013). In contrast to previous recorded droughts, in which fatalities were limited to drier areas and older trees, mortality in recent droughts includes the higher and wetter areas of the range and trees of all ages (Breshears et. al). University of New Mexico climate scientist, David Gutzler (2007, 2011), has reported projections for temperatures increasing about 8 degrees Fahrenheit over the next century with precipitation patterns continuing within historical ranges. Gutzler also projected no winter snowpack south of Santa Fe and all snowmelt runoff occurring one month earlier by the end of the century. Recent research by Williams et. al (2013) used tree ring data and living trees to compare forest drought stress indexes (FDSI) in the Southwest from AD 1000 to 2007. They found that previous large-scale die-offs have occurred including a mega drought from 1572 to 1587, as suggested by the scarcity of conifers older than 400 years. In order to paint a picture of future forest changes, Williams noted that between AD 1000 and 2007, the FDSI of the mega drought has been exceeded in only 4.8% of years. In contrast, this study predicts NM Conifer Die Offthat between 2000 and 2100, 59% of years will exceed the mega drought FDSI and up to 80% in the latter half of the century. Regeneration of forests, which historically has taken place during cooler wetter years, may not take place with unrelenting heat and the progressive large-scale loss of required parent trees (Williams et. al and Redmond et. al 2013). This process ultimately leads to the transformation of pine forests into shrublands and grasslands (Williams et. al), with another study projecting that half of the evergreen forest in Western North America will become shrubland or grassland by the end of the 21st century (Xiaoyanjiang et. al, 2013). What all of this means for Monarda and other forest plants of the desert mountain ranges remains to be seen. Just as the Pleistocene montane and subalpine coniferous forests that once covered nearly all of New Mexico 18,000 years ago (Dick-Peddie, 1993) have retreated to the middle and upper elevation mountains today, further upward migration is likely in the future. As the snowline creeps up the mountain in coming years, so will the pine forests and all the companion understory plants. They will become plants of higher elevations until they have reached the top with nowhere else to go.

 

Monarda’s medicine is marked primarily by its stimulating, uplifting, and diffusive flow while its current ecological realm can be described similarly. It is antibacterial, antiviral, anti-inflammatory, anesthetic, styptic, antifungal, diaphoretic, and carminative. This combination of medicinal actions makes Monarda an excellent choice in formulations for respiratory illnesses, digestive ailments, microbial infections, and wound care. Bee Balm ultra close 1Scientific and ethnobotanical research supports many of these uses (Zhilyakova et al. 2009 and Dunmire and Tierney 1997) and proposes new ones including antioxidant properties for heart health (Meeran and Prince 2012) and pesticidal effectiveness for the prevention of yellow fever (Johnson et al. 1998 and Tabanca et al. 2013). Furthermore, Monarda tells us the story of the changing conifer forests of the West and the migrating plants of these ecosystems. Its medicine is often a reflection of this movement. Monarda facilitates digestive action, promotes fluidity of the lymph, and disperses stagnation in the system. Meanwhile this plant lures us into awareness about an evolving world and the new environmental conditions that are unfolding around us, ultimately evoking a sense of movement or advancement for humanity’s relationship with the natural world. Understanding this plant’s story is an invitation to begin the process of emotional acceptance within ourselves and to take meaningful action in our lives that will facilitate the process of healing for the wild places around us. Embracing this story is an opportunity for us to grow in harmony with these plant communities and become a more integral component of the wilderness by acknowledging that we a part of this interconnected system of life. We must decide for ourselves what those movements or changes are for us as herbalists and as living beings on this planet.

 

 

Yerba Mansa and the Desert Bosque

Yerba Mansa patch 4Yerba Mansa is a plant of marshy meadows, springs, and wetlands across the desert Southwest. Her primary habitat, the desert bosque, is a highly threatened ecosystem as population growth coupled with unsustainable land and water management policies cause environmental degradation of riparian areas throughout the American West. Throughout most of its history, the Rio Grande Bosque has been a system of wetlands, oxbow lakes, sandbars, and woodlands that migrated with the wild and changing meander of the river. Seasonal flooding cleared debris and enriched the soil. Cottonwoods and Coyote Willows germinated and thrived in the periodic floods and high water table. Although the valley has a long history of occupation dating back to Paleo-Indian times, it wasn’t until the 1800s that humans began to have a significant impact on the ecology. With the growing numbers of Anglo migrants in the valley came large-scale agriculture, irrigation systems, livestock grazing, and logging. These activities in turn created soil erosion, a large sediment load in the river, and increased flooding. To control flooding, a series of major interventions ensued. The 20th century was marked by the construction of major dams including Elephant Butte in 1916, Jemez Canyon in 1953, Abiquiu in 1963, Galisteo in 1970, and Cochiti in 1973 along with hundreds of miles of irrigatioBosque jetty jacksn canals. Additional engineering projects included the draining of wetlands, dredging and entrenching of the river, and the installation of jetty jacks. These intensive controls on the ecosystem along with increasing urbanization have resulted in a 60% replacement of the entire Rio Grande system with agriculture and urban development, river flows decreasing to 1/6 of their historic levels, a significant reduction in channels and wetlands, the invasion of many non-native species, increased wildfires, and a dramatic decline in the reproduction of the native keystone species: the Cottonwood and Willows (USACE, 2003).

 

Today we find our Rio Grande Bosque in uncertain times. The population of mature Cottonwoods born in the last great flood of 1941 is nearing the end of its natural life (Crawford et. al, 1996) with few young trees to become elders of the forest. Invasive tree species such as Russian Olive (Elaeagnus angustifolia), Salt Cedar (Tamarix chinensis), Honey Locust (Gleditsia triacanthos), Mulberry (Morus alba), Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima), and Siberian Elm (Ulmus pumila) have the advantage in the absence of flooding and are expected to replace the 2 million year old Cottonwood forest by the end of the century if water management practices remain unaltered (Crawford et. al, 1996). A plethora of other weedy non-natives such as Kochia (Kochia scoparia), Tumbleweed (Salsola tragus), Alfalfa (Medicago Bosque Tamarix monoscapesativa), and Sweet Clover (Melilotus spp.) cover large areas. Reduced water levels threaten native plants and create a high fire danger. The balance between meeting the water needs of the thirsty Southwest and allowing enough water to remain in the wilderness for plants, animals, and the earth itself is always delicate and fraught with conflicting views. Current climate change predictions include the Rio Grande Basin having 4-14% less water in the system by the 2030s and 8-29% less water by the 2080s (Gutlzler, 2013). As the population grows, the demand for water diversion will increase and the resources available to our bosque natives will likely decline unless we make ecosystem conservation a priority.

 

Yerba Mansa is a plant that exemplifies how much we can learn about plants as medicines through cultivating an understanding of them ecologically. Observing this plant is the wild, knowing its favored habitat conditions, and seeing its interconnections with other elements of the landscape illuminates this herb’s personality and provides implications for its functions in the bodily ecosystem. In its wild habitats Yerba Mansa enhances the wet boggy earth by absorbing and distributing water and adding anti-microbial and purifying elements to the damp and slow-moving ecosystem. In the Rio Grande Bosque, Yerba Mansa’s rhizomes and roots spread through thick, nearly impenetrable, clay-like soil, altering and energizing the earth like a pioneer making foundational changes so that others can gain their own foothold for growth. Once a colony is established, it alters the soil chemistry and organisms, creating an environment more favorable to the growth of other plants by acidifying and aerating the soil (Moore, 1989). It functions similarly inside the ecosystems of our bodies by regulating the flow of waters, enYerba mansa roots rhondacouraging the movement of stagnant fluids, moving toxins, and inhibiting harmful pathogens, while warming and stimulating other sluggish functions in the body. Just as Yerba Mansa contributes to foundational soil conditions where it grows, it also has the ability to tone and tighten the mucous membranes improving the body’s baseline health and safeguarding against microbial imbalances. With this combination of attributes that invigorate the overall health of an organism or ecosystem, Yerba Mansa is an herb with a wide array of applications including chronic inflammatory conditions, digestive disorders, skin issues, urinary infections, mucus-producing colds and sore throats, sinus infections, hemorrhoids, oral healthcare, fungal infections, and many others. Modern research has validated many traditional uses for Yerba Mansa and also suggests it could be an effective treatment for certain types of cancer (Bussey et al. 2014; Medina et al. 2005; Kaminski et al. 2010; Daniels et al. 2006; Van Slambrouck et al. 2007). Yerba Mansa’s ability to spread into new areas, compete with established thickets of Coyote Willow or native grasses and imbed itself into the terrain, slowly transforming and vitalizing it hints at its potential workings in cancer treatments. (Read more about Yerba Mansa here.)

 

Wild landscapes and the plants that reside there have stories to tell. They may be ancient tales of oceans rising and receding, of relatively recent raging rivers remaking a valley by force, or even hint at water hidden underground. Plants may tell us about the changing earth, help us integrate new kinds of knowledge about the world, and ultimately show us new things about ourselves. These stories also present us with clues to the history, present experience, and possible future of the plants we love everyday. They illuminate the personalities, strengths, and vulnerabilities of the plants we use as food and medicine and help us to work with them more effectively and more respectfully. As we become more aware of the workings of the natural world around us, we become more deeply connected to the system of interactions between people, plants, and the land. We become ecological herbalists.

 

This article was originally published by Plant Healer. Read more on ecological herbalism topics in Dara’s column Of Wilderness and Gardens.

 

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Wild-Spirited Gardening

Garden Penstemon Milkweed

Rocky Mountain Penstemon and Showy Milkweed

The magic of wilderness allures herbalists everywhere. There is nothing like walking through misty woodlands on a cool spring morning with beloved plants emerging from their winter slumber or strolling through familiar desert canyons singing summer’s song with a cacophony of colors dotting the landscape. Herbalists, like all lovers of nature, are drawn to the forests, mountains, canyons, stream banks, and meadows where wild plants grow. Walking through places where you know the individual plant beings all around you is comforting and welcoming. They beckon our return again and again. Wildcrafting herbal medicine is an important practice for many herbalists that connects us to the wild hearts of the plants we love. Yet many of us are finding local ecosystems in flux with habitats changing as weather patterns take unexpected twists that deviate from our anticipated norms. Here in the desert Southwest that has meant less reliable raGarden Pleurisy Yarrow Mulleinins, increased fire danger, and shifting plant communities. In the last decade, I have seen once-robust plant colonies shrink and water-loving plants disappear from many locations in the surrounding high desert wilderness. While I have always been conservation-minded, this observation has prompted me to shift the focus of my work with plants and students. In order to promote more sustainable practices, I have migrated toward a love of urban weeds, wild commoners, and the cultivation of medicinal herbs in an urban garden that reflects the wisdom and beauty of the surrounding wild lands.

 

For the desert valley herbalist, a sustainable herbalism practice incorporates both the principals of bioregionalism and also water-wise gardening. As a bioregional herbalist, I rely heavily on plants that are offering themselves to me in my daily life; those that call out to me as I walk the urban sidewalks, trek across desert sands, and hike through wooded mountainsides. For example, Wild Lettuce (Lactuca serriola) demonstrates a quiet acceptance for our need to pave, manage, and control nature by growing out of the cracks of parking lots as well as a stubborn resistance to be tamed or dominated by it. Her medicine offers comfort for the nervous sysGarden Poppies Bee Balmtem, pain, persistent coughs, and sleep disturbances. Chaparral (Larrea tridentata) sits quietly under the boiling desert sun, holding the secrets of ancient wisdom acquired through long life and overcoming difficult living conditions. She also provides a potent surge of healing power in the face of the most tenacious infections. Figwort (Scrophularia lanceolata) has become a reliable friend of the mountain meadows, always there for me, even in the hottest and driest of summers. Her medicine has moved many past stagnant plateaus in healing severe or chronic wounds. I harvest these and other abundant plants from my local bioregion with great reverence and gratitude. Every wilderness excursion, whether it is to exposed desert plains or mystical mountain lakes, leaves me feeling humbled by the vastness of life around me. I am consistently filled with awe for the mysteries that abound.

 

While working with these and other common plants from the surrounding wild lands, I also feel an equally potent bond with my backyard botanicals. Attempting to take the pressure off of wild populations of more sensitive plants, I have created a medicine garden that incorporates what I have learned from my walks in the countryside and recreates some aspects of the wilderness in my own urban land. Companion planting, as taught to me by the wild plants themselves, is a main tenet of my approach to creating urban habitat for mountain herbs in a hot desert valley. During my visits to favorite mountain locations I have observed the relationship between plants and their local habitat preferences. I often find Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) growing with Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) in open hillsides or with Beebalm (Monarda menthaefolia), along intermittent streaArnica flowers gardenmbeds. These plants grow in harmony side-by-side in my garden as well. Other plants, such as Arnica (Arnica chamissonis), simply need more shade to attenuate the higher ambient temperatures it experiences in the lower elevations of my desert valley garden. To provide this and recreate the dappled light effect of the forest, I have planted Arnica underneath a shade ramada covered with mature Clematis vines (Clematis ligusticifolia). The soil also has been adapted to carry more organic matter through yearly mulching of tree leaves and other decomposing plant debris. Water is delivered by drip irrigation to supply the vital fluids of the once wetter years when monsoonal rains consistently provided afternoon downpours in late summer. Garden tending practices are also influenced by the wild habits of plants. Allowing them to complete their reproductive cycles, practicing minimal intervention until harvesting time, and allowing plants to migrate around the garden according to their own will creates a wild-spirited environment driven in large part by the plants themselves. It is also a lesson for me in letting go, watching things unfold, avoiding the temptation to try to control nature, and most importantly accepting my place in the wild landscape. Even the rocks used as stepping-stones to provide passage through the semi-wild botanical haven have been collected from wild places. Some contain the fossilized hints of an even wilder ancient past when Permian era oceans ruled the landscape. My Southwest medicine garden is home to a variety of native mountain dwellers, many of which are sensitive in their local wild habitats here in central New Mexico. Recreating higher elevation wilderness in my backyard are Arnica, Angelica (Angelica grayi), Bee Balm, Pulsatilla (Pulsatilla patens), Skullcap (Scutellaria spp.), St, John’s Wort (Hypericum formosum), Self Heal (Prunella vulgaris), Lobelia (Lobelia cardinalis), Rudbeckia (RudbecGarden Yerba Mansa Red CLoverkia lacinata), Hops (Humulus americanus), Choke Cherry (Prunus virginiana), Geranium (Geranium richardsonii), Goldenrod (Soldago canadensis), Yarrow, Valerian (Valeriana spp.), Raspberry (Rubus spp.), Penstemon (Penstemon strictus) and Elder (Sambucus nigra) among many others. I use these plants in remedies on their own or combined with ceremonial harvests of wild counterparts to imbue the preparation with the true spirit of wilderness.

 

This is how I have recreated the desert mountain habitats within a lower-elevation urban environment. However, the medicine does not stop there. As you might already know, planting a medicinal herb garden has rewards well beyond the harvest. The deepest and most profound medicine comes from the time spent together. Medicine whispers are perceived by the heart and produce effects that can scarcely be explained by words. The reciprocal relationship that one develops with the plants creates a cycle of symbiotic caring and nurturing of the soul as we are reminded of the interconnection between all beings. The awakening of the senses through smells, colors, textures, and plant songs produces a sensation of vitality and love of life that invigorates the one who sits quietly enough to receive this gift. Many a plant can produce these effects but, for me, Yerba Mansa (Anemopsis californica) is an herb that provides all of this and more. I have planted this desert bosque beauty extensively in my garden not only because of the powerful medicine it provides, but also due to its sensitivity in the wild. It is a small herbaceous perennial that suffers from flood plain development and current water management practices. Water diversion and urban flood control policies prevent the Rio Grande from meandering and flooding, which in turn decreases the wet boggy habitats that Yerba Mansa favors. In my garden, however, I can easily provide suitable habitat and I am amply rewarded with her potent medicine and unparalleled beauty. As many of you Lobelia planthave no doubt already realized, the more time you spend with medicine plants, the less you need to use them. You get your medicine by simply being together.   One evening as I was finishing up my work in the garden, I saw the energetic glow of Yerba Mansa. Not that I could see it, per se. I felt in my heart colors I had never seen before. I had been immersed in the pleasing pungent scent of Yerba Mansa roots for hours as I harvested Raspberry shoots and Globemallow roots (Sphaeralcea angustifolia) from her immediate vicinity. Just touch the soil where Yerba Mansa grows and you become deeply affected by her healing aroma. As dusk fell that evening, her white bracts emitted a radiant glow and she beamed so luminously, I felt for a moment as if we were one.

While this moment with Yerba Mansa was a powerful one, it is not an isolated occurrence. As the growing season progresses, plants evolve into new stages of development, and more wild-spirited revelations connect me to the larger landscape beyond. I feel the warmth of the afternoon sun in the golden spires of Greek Mullein (Verbascum olympicum). I smell the rich legacy of New Mexico’s herbal heritage in Bee Balm’s leaves. I hear the heartbeat of all wild animals in the wings of the hummingbirds hovering over Autumn Sage (Salvia gregii). I transcend time and place, hypnotized by Passionflowers (Passiflora incarnata). I see the divine colors of the high desert sunset in Yerba Mansa petals. A Sunflower stalk (Helianthus annuus) reaching for the clouds proposes the idea that there are eternities of plants inside each one of her seeds. As the awareness of our inter-being penetrates me, I am invigorated by all the energy of the universe that is present within us. At once I feel connected with the earth, the sky, and the cosmos beyond. I sit contentedly in my peaceful garden and stare endlessly into the heart of life. While in my garden I am completely enraptured by the physical beauty of the scene and enveloped by the ancient wisdom of plants. What better medicine is there anywhere?

Mullein Greek trio

 

Anyone can create such a healing garden that will connect oneself with the beauty and wisdom of wilderness. In fact, it is our imperative to do so not only for our own sake, but also for the benefit of wild lands in a changing world. Sustainability is a hot topic in all areas of our lives theses days. For herbalists, that means arming ourselves with the knowledge of our local ecosystems and knowing the status of plants in our surrounding areas. Living in a marginal environment with volatile weather and long-term drought, I have come to understand the quiet beauty of desert plants in their rugged life journey. While ethical wildcrafting practices are important everywhere, they are of paramount importance here where even hearty Horehound is vulnerable to persistently dry soils. I am fortunate to live in a crossroads of western ecosystems that includes the Rocky Mountains, Colorado Plateau, the Great Plains, and the Desert Basin and Range. With all this plant diversity that surrounds me, I am filled with awe for the learning possibilities that nature provides every time I enter the wilderness. Regardless of having access to an incredible variety of plants and habitats, I am aware that all are vulnerable to changes in weather and climate. Deepening our relationship with Passionflower vines 1common local plants and cultivating our own urban wilderness helps sensitive plants to continue to thrive in shifting environments and provides a platform for sustainable herbal practice now and in the future. While this may be the origin of my desert valley herbalism practice with weeds, commoners, and cultivated herbs at the heart of my work, it has evolved into much more than that. It has become a practice that sustains me in body, mind, and spirit. I have experienced the beauty and wisdom of the wild landscape reflected in my own backyard.

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This essay was originally published in Plant Healer Magazine. Check out my ongoing column, Of Wilderness and Gardens, for more musings on plants and wilderness.

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Photos from top to bottom: Yarrow, Butterfly Milkweed, Mullein; Bee Balm, Poppies, Chamomile; Arnica and Creeping Thyme; Yerba Mansa and Red Clover; Lobelia; Greek Mullein; Passionflower.