Category Archives: bioregional

Desert Mesa Medicine

Petr landscape 3

The desert mesa is a landscape where we are confronted with the history of the land and the culture of people; a place where we cannot hide from ourselves. The endless vistas, open expanses, and clear blue skies put everything on display including our deepest vulnerabilities. Thought to be empty, hostile, ugly, or worthless the desert mesa is often overlooked and neglected. On the fringes of civilization, it is little visited except as a place to dump household waste, yard clippings, or worse. Take a walk with me, however, and feel the vitality pulsing through this unique place as we explore some of the plants that contribute to the character of this land. (To meet more desert plants, see my previous posts Desert Aromatics of the American Southwest and Herbal Tales from the Chihuahua Desert.)

Globemallow (Sphaeralcea spp.)

The captivating tiny orange flowers of our local Globemallows were one of the first wildflowers to ensnare my heart. Since then I have gotten to know many species blooming in varied colors and growing in a wide variety of environments, making it one of the most reliably abundant medicinal herbs in our area. The genus ranges across the Mountain West (primarily S. coccinea) but other species prefer the drier soils of the greater Southwest and Southern Great Plains. Due to their propensity for cross hybridizing, it can be very difficult to differentiate individual species. Globemallows have a close relationship with native desert bees, whose lives unfold in harmony with the coming of unpredictable rains that spur this plant’s seeds to germinate and summon the bees to gather nectar and pollinate Globemallow.

Globemallow has a long history of use in the Southwest and has been found regularly at archaeological sites including Chaco Canyon, where it is more frequently found in ceremonial kivas than residential or food prep rooms, suggesting ritual and/or medicinal usage. The continuum of this plant’s close relationship to humans carries over into historic Pueblos, Hispanic communities, and otGlobemallow_Petr 1her modern herbal traditions where Globemallow is commonly called upon for a variety of health complaints including skin conditions, respiratory ailments, digestive issues, urinary inflammations, and hair care. As a cooling and demulcent anti-inflammatory that stimulates macrophage activity and promotes healing, Globemallow is useful whenever there is hot inflamed soft tissue. This includes chronic or poorly healing infections, dry coughs, sore throats, urinary infections, hemorrhoids, ulcers, splinters, abscesses, rashes, bites, and stings. Globemallow is also an effective tonic herb for immune system imbalances such as autoimmune conditions where it can help reduce inflammation and encourage effective immune functioning without over-exciting the system. This plant is prepared as a leaf tea (with or without flowers and strained through a cloth to catch potentially irritating tiny hairs), poultice, bath, or leaf and flower tincture prepared by preserving a strong tea with 25% alcohol. In addition to uses already described, Pueblo People have also pounded roots and mixed them with salt water as an infection or venom-drawing poultice or hard cast for broken bones and rubbed leaves on sore muscles for a rubifacient effect. Navajo consider Globemallow to be a Life Medicine and use roots to stop bleeding, treat skin ailments, indigestion, poor appetite, and coughs and colds. Navajo people also smoked dried leaves as tobacco and some tribes have also used Globemallow roots to make face paint or prepare pottery. Hispanic herb traditions include many of the same uses but also as a bath for babies with thrush or chronic diaper rash and a hair and scalp rinse made from mashed leaves and flowers.

 

Datura (Datura wrightii)

There are few plants with more allure than the gorgeous and foreboding Datura. Prehistoric and historic usage of the plant highlights this duality as it is commonly found Datura garden flower closeupat ancestral Pueblo archaeological sites dating back centuries but modern New Mexico Pueblos have no uses for the plant and often describe it with both attraction and fear. Although there are 20 species worldwide, most occur in the American Southwest and Mexico and favor dry areas with natural or human disturbance such as foothill drainages or urban areas from sea level up to 7,000 feet. Dunmire and Tierney (1995) theorize that Datura may have been brought up to the Southwest from Mexico as part of the exchange of ideas and goods and that Datura’s non-contiguous and spotty distribution and its association with sacred sites may be explained by its relationship to prehistoric cultures. Further supporting this theory is the local common name Toloache, derived from the Aztec name Toloatzin. A powerful and poisonous plant, Datura beckons both pollinators and herbalists with its offers of intoxication and transformation. Hawk moths, lured by the scent of night blooming flowers, descend into the depths of the tubular blossom in search of nectar. With wings beating against the corolla, they dust themselves with pollen and often fall to the ground or fly away erratically in search of their next intoxicating flower.

Likewise humans have along history of seeking similar pain relieving or otherwise transforming experiences with Datura. The first recorded medicinal uses come from an ancient Babylonian tablet and include references to its poisonous, sedating, and aphrodisiac qualities. As a highly toxic plant, Datura teaches us caution and respect for the powers of the plant world. Furthermore, alkaloid proportions can vary between plants, increasing the danger of misuse and highlighting the importance of relationship with this plant. I have personally witnessed rashes develop from simply brushing bare skin against its leaves and Dunmire and Tierney noted that simply smelling a flower can make some nauseous or sedate children into drugged sleep. Consuming 20 seeds can be fatal and there is no shortage of disturbing stories from people who have tried to consume the plant. One of the best such tales comes from Jamestown, Virginia where soldiers boiled and ate spring shoots (likely D. stramonium) with hallucinations and foolishness ensuing for 11 days before they returned to normal with no memory of the events. Clearly, Datura should not be consumed internally and is reserved for topical use or minor inhDatura PETRalations as emergency medicine. As a topical remedy, Datura leaves and flowers are one of our best analgesics and are commonly prepared as a bath, poultice, infused oil, or liniment. These can be helpful for wounds, headaches, cramps, achy muscles, sports injuries, arthritis, hemorrhoids, and hot inflamed skin conditions. I find Datura especially helpful when there is an emotional or psychological component to a person’s pain as this plant can be deeply transformative beyond the physical realm. A few inhalations of Datura, Mullein, and Salvia Sage smoke also makes a valuable emergency medicine for asthma constriction and severe allergic reactions as it relaxes bronchial spasms and reduces excess secretions. Common side effects of misuse include dry mouth and blurred vision.

As previously mentioned, Native American relationships with this plant vary with some using the plant medicinally, others using it ceremonially, and some avoiding or fearing it. Uses are consistent with what has already been described but include additional ceremonial and medicinal knowledge, the details of which are largely unknown outside the respective cultural groups. Ethnobotanist Daniel Moerman referred to Datura as “the most universally used hallucinogenic and medicinal plant known to humans” (1998 p.194). He reported that the Cahuilla, for example, smoked dried leaves to transcend worlds, have visions, encounter spirits, transform into other animals, diagnose illness, and give hunters increased power and connectivity to animals. Many other tribes have used Datura in similar ways including the Paiute, who ate seeds while gambling to guess the opponent’s hand, or the Zuni, who used it to see ghosts, empower rain priests to bring water, and enable victims to identify perpetrators in their dreams. Hopis used it to cure meanness and the Navajo ate fruits soaked and boiled and mixed with clay to neutralize toxicity.

Make Tea: Joint Fir (Ephedra torreyana), Cota (Thelasperma megapotamicum, T. gracile), and Indigobush (Dalea formosa)

There are lots of great tasting tea herbs out in the desert and Joint Fir, Cota, and Indigobush are just a few of them. Joint Fir, also known as Mormon Tea, is an unusual looking plant that is easy to recognize with its photosynthetic stems and cone-like structures. There are numerous species that range across the American West, with E. torreyana Mormon Tea closeupbeing the most common in our area. Gather the stems and use them to make a tasty tea for enjoyment of a wild beverage or as a medicinal preparation. Joint Fir is useful for respiratory conditions as a decongestant, increasing lung capacity, and also as a preventative for seasonal allergies. It is also included in formulas for the urinary system when an herb with diuretic, astringent, and anti-inflammatory action is needed.  Also being high in calcium, Joint Fir can be added to nutritional teas for convalescence or as a preventative for osteoporosis. Dunmire and Tierney (1995) reported the Pueblo use of Joint Fir to quench thirst by chewing the stems. Lastly, it is worth mentioning that Southwest Ephedra species do not contain ephedra alkaloids, the stimulating chemicals associated with Chinese Ephedra.

Cota, also known as Greenthread or Hopi Tea, is a wiry little-noticed plant until its dainty yellow flowers appear. It is spread across much of the American West and Plains states and habits open sunny areas with cota-twin-flowers.jpgmoderately dry soil along roadsides, acequias, and semi-arid grasslands. Gather the stems with or without flowers, dry them in folded bundles, and use them like tea bags. This is a delicious tea with a wild taste and also serves as a mild medicinal.  Acting as a gently purifying diuretic, it is often formulated for urinary system irritations, arthritis, and fevers.  Cota, often combined with one of the mints, is also a traditional remedy for upset stomachs and blood purification.

Indigobush Dalea flowersIndigobush, or Feather Dalea, is aptly named for its striking richly colored and feathery flowers. These fascinating flowers are color-changing, starting off with a yellow banner (the largest petal on a pea family flower) that changes to maroon after pollination, signaling other potential visitors that the nectar is already gone.  This small woody shrub is frequently found on gravelly slopes in southern New Mexico and neighboring desert regions. Indigobush also makes a tasty sweet-scented tea that is made simply for wild refreshment but also has a local medicinal history.  Traditional uses include bathing in the tea for arthritis relief, growing pains, and bodily pains as well as treating colds with feverish conditions.

 

by Dara Saville, May 2019

 

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. Curtin, 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).

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.

This essay is adapted from the original publications:

Saville, Dara. (2018). Signature Species of the Southwest, Part 1. Plant Healer Quarterly, 8(2), 111-117.

Saville, Dara. (2018). Signature Species of the Southwest, Part 2. Plant Healer Quarterly, 8(3), 77-85.

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.

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.

This essay was originally published as:

Saville, Dara. (2015). The Beauty of a Bioregional Approach to Your Herbal Practice. Plant Healer Quarterly, 5(4), 29-34.