Category Archives: ethnobotany

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.

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 by Dara Saville 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.

 

 

 

 

Going Deeper with Yerba Mansa

I will never forget the moment I realized that The Rio Grande Bosque and I were one in the same.   Walking along on a lovely Autumn day, the scent of Yerba Mansa filled the air and the muted light brought out all the yellow pigments from Cottonwood leaves, flowering plants, and Willow thickets.  The dampness of late lingering monsoons permeated the air and the glittering light of a nearby puddle caught my attention.  The water was dark as coffee, covered with hovering mosquitoes, and it reflected precisely what I was feeling in that moment.  My soul was filled with the Bosque.

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My soul is filled with the Bosque

Since writing my first post on Yerba Mansa, I have spent much of my life in this riparian forest, home to the legendary medicinal plant.  I have learned from the Cottonwood tree to nurture life and facilitate the return of Yerba Mansa and other native plants into this struggling water-deprived ecosystem.  In the spirit of Cottonwood, I simply lend a little mothering help and let life unfold as it will.  I  began my habitat restoration work through The Yerba Mansa Project three years ago and it has given me unexpected gifts.  I have watched newly planted Yerba Mansa patches open their first flowers and reach their stolons across the earth, rooting, leafing, and seeding new life.  I have seen struggling Coyote Willow thickets rebound and many smaller native species thrive after removing the heavy competition from non-native Ravenna Grass.  I have spied on toads and turtles as they go about their business in the muddy flats where I water the Yerba Mansa.  When I walk in this place, I no longer dwell on what is dying.  I feel what is living.  In fact, I feel it invigorating me so deeply as only the spirit of Yerba Mansa can.  It is the lure of a plant I have long loved, calling me into a new world within myself.  It is a world of empowerment to make the changes we want to see in this world, the patience and endurance to facilitate rebirth over time, and the profound joy of being part of a living system where vitality circulates freely between me and all surrounding life.

Read more about the Bosque’s history and ecological issues here.

Yerba Mansa (Anemopsis californica):

As part of an annual autumn ritual, I drive to a favorite place outside of the protected urban woodlands of Rio Grande Valley State Park where the riparian wilds are less visited and still full of healthy native plants. I walk the trails in and out of forest and open spaces, along sandy beaches, through Willow thickets, and under jetty jacks. All this in search of the ancient and enduring spirit of Yerba Mansa. Yerba Mansa is considered to be a paleoherb, meaning that is among those plants close to the origin of monocotyledons3 and thus embodies the wisdom of innumerable generations. The water diversion practices in the Bosque have, however, impacted this plant. A lover of wetlands, moist soils, thick leaf litter mulch, and the shade of Cottonwood trees, it suffers from the reduction of the water table, lack of flooding, and non-native species overtaking the understory. Nevertheless, large stands of Yerba Mansa still exist in some areas. Late October is the perfect time to harvest the aromatic roots of this most bosque-spiderhonored herb of the Cottonwood forests. With the seasonal song of migrating sandhill cranes in the afternoon sky and the potent scent of the roots rising from the earth, the meditation of medicine gathering begins. Crouched on the forest floor near the occupied web of a Yellow Black Garden Spider, I am reminded to enter into this landscape and the wild harvesting process with respect and awareness of the life around me. I clear away several inches of forest mulch, mainly Cottonwood leaves in varying states of decay, and begin to see individual Yerba Mansa plants within the dense stand. With my hands in the earth my work is reminiscent of a paleontological excavation as I carefully expose the horizontal rhizomes and vertical roots reaching downward for moisture. Clearing away the thick silty clay enshrouding the rhizomes is a time-consuming process with great rewards as the entirety of the treasured roots emerge. Entwined amongst thick Cottonwood roots, Yerba Mansa rhizomes display the interconnection of all beings within this forest and indeed all life everywhere as one root leads to another and the forest floor recyclers, the bugs of the Bosque, scurry away from my intrusion. The penetrating aroma of Yerba Mansa envelops me and makes us one as our vitality intermingles in the intimacy of the moment. Digging deeper, the continuum of thick rhizomes and entangled roots reveals new layers in the depths of life of this place that I love.

bosque-yerba-mansa-autumn-light

Autumn in the Bosque: Yerba Mansa and Cottonwood

Yerba Mansa is a plant of extraordinary beauty as well as an invaluable herb in the medicine cabinet. Its uniqueness is obvious at first glance and so it is not surprising to learn that Yerba Mansa is the only plant in the genus Anemopsis and one of only six plants in the family Saururaceae. Its growing habit is to create large dense stands formed both through seeding and spreading its ‘lizard tails’, or stolons, which root at each node. Its white petal-like bracts reflect a haunting iridescent glow in the desert sunset illuminating a palate of otherworldly colors. Yerba Mansa’s elegance is indeed unique amongst desert plants and has been a force holding my heart to this land for many years. As the plants move through their growing season, red splashes begin to appear on their leaves, bracts, and roots. By autumn, most of the plants are entirely deep, earthly crimson with some sheltered patches holding onto green leaves. Yerba Mansa’s transformation occurs in tandem with the entire riparian forest as fall colors emerge everywhere revealing the seasonal beauty of New Mexico’s desert valley and exposing views of the Sandia Mountain backdrop.

Enchanted by its singular beauty, I have worked with this plant lovingly for years. It is my personal medicine that finds its way into many of the formulas I make for myself. Simply experiencing the Yerba Mansa aroma sends comforting healing signals throughout my being. After harvesting, the aroma of the freshly chopped roots fills my house invigorating me every day. Indeed this plant contains several active constituents including methyleugenol (55%), thymol (13%), piperitone (5%)4, as well as sesamin5, and asarinin6, all contributing to Yerba Mansa’s many useful herbal actions within the body. It is anti-inflammatyerba-mansa-bosque-rootory, broadly anti-microbial, astringent, diuretic, anti-catarrhal, and tonifying to the mucous membranes with a particular affinity for the digestive, respiratory, and urinary systems. As an anti-inflammatory Yerba Mansa helps the body to excrete uric acid through diuresis and provides effective support for arthritis and other rheumatic complaints. Yerba Mansa’s antimicrobial workings are supported by research that confirms its activity against Staphylococcus aureus, Streptococcus pneumoniae, and Geotrichim candidum7 as well as five species of mycobacterium known to cause skin, pulmonary, and lymphatic infections5.   Recent research also suggests that water, alcohol, and ethyl acetate extracts of Yerba Mansa (all plant parts, but especially the roots) inhibit the growth and migration of certain types of cancer including two breast cancer cell lines, HCT-8, and colon cancer cells8, 9, 10. Among Yerba Mansa’s most powerful attributes are its abilities to tone and tighten the mucous membranes similarly to Goldenseal and the manner in which it moves the waters and energy of the body. 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. 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 soil11. It functions similarly inside the ecosystems of our bodies by regulating the flow of waters, encouraging the movement of stagnant fluids, moving toxins, and inhibiting harmful pathogens, while warming and stimulating other sluggish functions in the body. 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.

yerba-mansa-patch-full-bloom

Yerba Mansa in full bloom

Yerba Mansa has a long history of use in the Southwest. Dr. W.H. George of Inyo County, California was the first eclectic physician to extol the virtues of Yerba Mansa in 1876. He and another physician Dr. Edward Palmer described its prominent, almost legendary, role in the long-standing folk medicine practices of Native American and Mexican people of Southern California and Sonora, Mexico. He also recognized Yerba Mansa’s stimulating effects on the mucous membranes and its effectiveness on treating nasal catarrh, rhinitis, and sore throats. He prepared a nasal spray, which he reported caused copious nasal secretions that moved the mucous and relieved the congestion12. J.A. Munk, a physician from Los Angeles, later revealed his nasal spray recipe in 1909: fill a two ounce tincture bottle with 5 to 30 drops of Yerba Mansa tincture, 1 dram of glycerin, and the rest with water12. Physician Herbert T. Webster described other common turn of the century uses of Yerba Mansa including its usefulness for bowel complaints, diarrhea, colitis, urinary issues, gonorrhea, ulcers, wounds, bruises, coughing, and consumption as well as its alterative properties12. By the middle of the twentieth century the pharmaceutical industry was beginning to undermine mainstream botanical medicine and Yerba Mansa’s use gradually retreated back to traditional herbal practices in Native American, Mexican, and Hispanic communities.

Extracting best in alcohol and water, I like to prepare roots both as tea and tincture. Make sure your roots are from a clean location as Yerba Mansa, like most wetlands plants, is known to absorb arsenic13 and heavy metals14 from its environment. (Another good reason to be growing Yerba Mansa on farms and in backyard gardens!) While I have heard some people make the case for preparing it as an infusion, I prefer it as a decoction. The decocted roots retain their aroma nicely and impart a rich earthy flavor to the water that is unlike thyerba-mansa-closeup-bosqueat of any other tea I have ever tasted. Raising the cup to my mouth, I have already received a medicinal effect before the first sip hits my tongue. To breathe in the aromatic vapors creates an automatic response; a shift in my core being that comes from the deeply soothing comfort only Mother Earth can provide. Each sip of tea spreads the restorative warmth throughout my body delivering its healing properties to the very depths of my soul. Although not quite as fulfilling on the sensory level, the tincture is another powerful preparation that I use often. In my experience, it is best prepared using freshly dried root and 75% alcohol. Some people may like to add a small amount (up to 10%) of glycerin to prevent any precipitation in the tincture. It combines well with many other herbs for an endless variety of formulas. Ground roots are also a useful addition to herbal healing clays for wounds and to body powders for diaper rash, athlete’s foot, and the like. While the leaves have more subtle medicinal properties and can be made into infused oil for salves and creams15, I find them to be very mild compared to the roots. I use them mainly as poulticing leaves for skin inflammations and mulch in my garden. A tea prepared from leaves has also served as a traditional remedy for colic in babies and a nighttime fever reducer16.

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New live plantings of Yerba Mansa in the Bosque

Living in the Rio Grande floodplain, I am drawn regularly into my nearest wilderness, my closest refuge. As I walk between river and sky, I feel the heavy muddy silt clumping onto my hiking shoes, slowing me down; the Bosque literally grabbing on to me, filling me with awareness of the moment, and opening my senses to the spirits of the land. I see the signals of the majestic Cottonwood elders standing alone without younglings, vulnerable to the march of time. I walk many miles without the pungent sent of Yerba Mansa underfoot, replaced instead by the prickly sensations of more rugged invasive weeds. I have heard the faint whispers in my heart, the call to action. This river system and its inhabitants are not only Yerba Mansa’s habitat, they are the lifeblood of our community.  The river is our past, present, and our future.  Yerba Mansa and other riparian plants throughout the West are becoming increasingly vulnerable to habitat degradation as water diversion increases and rivers run dry.  Advocating for water rights for ecosystems and engaging in riparian restoration projects are one of the most effective ways to protect a wide variety of native plants for the future and to safeguard the life-force critical to everyone.  Clean flowing rivers and intact native plant communities create healthy bio-diverse habitat for all.  The Yerba Mansa Project is helping to reestablish a healthy native plant community with increased biodiversity and improved wildlife habitat along the urbanized banks of the Rio Grande.  In the process we hope not only to see more Yerba Mansa growing in our area, but also to bring its invigorating spirit into the hearts and minds of all living generations so that we may fall in love with the Bosque and come to honor and respect our most beloved wild places.  The future of Yerba Mansa and other medicinal plants is still begin written and it is ours to create.

Learn more about The Yerba Mansa Project.

This essay was originally published as: Saville, Dara. (2015). Yerba Mansa and the Rio Grande Bosque. Plant Healer Quarterly, 5(3), 86-93.

Endnotes:

1 US Army Corps of Engineers, Middle Rio Grande Bosque Restoration Project Final Report, July 2003.

2 Clifford S. Crawford, Lisa M. Ellis, Manuel C. Mulles Jr., “The Middle Rio Grande Bosque: An Endangered Ecosystem,” New Mexico Journal of Science 36 (1996): 276-299.

3 Sherwin Carlquist, Karen Dauer, Stefanie Y. Nishimura, “Wood and stem anatomy of Saururaceae with reference to ecology, phylogeny, and origin of the monocotyledons,” IAWA Journal 16 (1995): 133-150.

4 Ramesh N. Acharya, Madhukar G. Chaubal, “Essential oil of Anemopsis californica,” PHARM SCI 57 (1968): 1020-1022.

5 Robert O. Bussey, Arlene A. Sy-Cordero, Mario Figueroa, Frederick S. Carter, Joseph O. Falkinham, Nicholas H. Oberlies, Nadja Cech, “Antimycobacterial Furofuran Lignans from the Roots of Anemopsis californica,” Planta Medica 80 (2014): 498-501.

6 L. V. Tutupalli, M. G. Chaubal, “Constituents of Anemopsis californica,” Phytochemistry 10 (1971): 3331-3332.

7 Andrea L. Medina, Mary E. Lucero, Omar F. Holguin, Rick E. Estell, Jeff J. Posakony, Julian Simon, Mary A. O’Connell, “Composition and antimicrobial activity of Anemopsis californica leaf oil,” Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 53 (2005): 8694-8698.

8 Catherine N. Kaminski, Seth L. Ferrey, Timothy Lowrey, Leo Guerra, Severine van Slambrouck, Wim F. A. Steelant, “In vitro anticancer activity of Anemopsis californica,” Oncology Letters 1 (2010): 711-715.

9 Amber L. Daniels, Severine Van Slambrouck, Robin K. Lee, Tammy S. Arguello, James Browning, Michael J. Pullin, Alexander Kornienko, Wim F. A. Steelant, “Effects of extracts from two Native American plants on proliferation of human breast and colon cancer cell lines in vitro,” Oncology Reports 15 (2006): 1327-1331.

10 Severine Van Slambrouck, Amber L. Daniels, Carla J. Hooten, 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 Kornienko, 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.

11 Michael Moore, Medicinal Plants of the Desert and Canyon West, (Santa Fe NM: Museum of New Mexico, 1989) 133-134.

12 Wm P. Best, “ Anemopsis californica: a pleasant, non-poisonous mucous-membrane remedy,” National Eclectic Medical Association Quarterly 12 (1921): 619-629.

13 Lizette Del-Toro-Sanchez, Carmen Zurita, Florentina Gutierrez-Lomeli, Melesio Solis-Sanchez, Brenda Wence-Chavez, Laura Rodriguez-Sahagun, Araceli Castellanos-Hernandez, Osvaldo A. Vazquez-Armenta, Gabriela Siller-Lopez, “Modulation of antioxidant defense system after long term arsenic exposure in Zantedeschia aethiopica and Anemopsis californica,” Ecotoxicology and Environmental Safety 94 (2013): 67-72.

14 M. M. Karpiscak, L. R. Whiteaker, J. F. Artiola, K. E. Foster, “Nutrient and heavy metal uptake and storage in constructed wetland systems in Arizona,” Water Science and Technology 44 (2001): 455-462.

15 Richo Cech, Making Plant Medicine, (Williams OR: Horizon Herbs, 2000) 241-242.

16 Michael Moore, Los Remedios, (Santa Fe NM: Museum of New Mexico Press, 1990) 83.

Seri Plant Ways from Sonora Mexico

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Seri basket made from Limberbush (Jatropha cuneata), medicine pouch stuffed with Desert Lavender (Hyptis emoryi) , and medicinal plants Turpentine Bush, Senna, Yerba del Venado, Atriplex, and Rock Hibiscus

The Seris, or Comcaac, are a group of hunter-gatherer people from the coastal region of Sonora Mexico.  They have lived in close relationship to both the desert and sea while remaining largely independent and traditional in their practices into the modern era. Having resisted subjugation by the Spanish and Mexican authorities, they retained their nomadic lifestyle until the 1950s.  Only during the latter half of the 20th century did they begin to settle in towns and embrace a cash economy based on selling their hand-crafted wares and commercial fishing. The Seris remain rooted in their own language and in-depth knowledge of the landscape. The following herbal shorts are derived from time spent in the desert hills with two Seri elders, who introduced me to many of their plants, as well as subsequent ethnobotanical research.

senna-flower-2-cropped_med_hrSenna (Cassia covesii) is called he he quiinla, or ‘plant that rings’, by the Seri.  This name refers to the rattling sound produced by the seed pods. The root and arial parts are prepared as a tea and used to increase appetite and clean out the digestive system.  The tea is also used to support the kidneys and liver for a full body cleansing.  While these applications are widely known for other species of Senna, I found other uses more interesting.  The Seris also used this plant to treat the influx of modern communicable diseases such as measles and chicken pox and also to promote conception.

hibiscus-rock-3-cropped_med_hrRock Hibiscus (Hibiscus denudatus) is a lovely mallow family plant with eye-catching white flowers and red patterns emanating from the center. Its relationship to the landscape and other plants of this family is indicated by its Seri name hepemijcoa, meaning ‘white-tailed deer’s Globemallow’.  Like other mallow plants, this species is prepared as a tea and used as a gargle for phlegm, mucus, and sore throats.

atriplex-leaves_med_hrAtriplex barclayana is a smaller species related to our own locally abundant Four-Wing Saltbush (A. canescens).  Called spitj by the Seris, I could not find any common names in English or Spanish which suggests that this plant is not widely used in other herbal traditions. The Seris, however, turn to A. barclayana combined with Bursera microphylla (Torote or Elephant Tree) for the treatment of stingray wounds.  The would is bathed in a tea made from twigs and leaves of both species.  Traditional uses also included covering the ground with leafy branches while tanning deerskins and using them in the construction of brush dwellings.

jojoba-seed-cropped_med_hrJojoba (Simmondsia chinensis) is a shrub well-known outside of Seri territory and is a beloved oil  included in many commercial and home-made body products.  Called pnaacol by the Seri, it provided for hair products as well as medicine and hand-crafted objects.  Ground seeds were used in shampoos made with shaved twigs of Elephant Tree (B. microphylla) and the seeds were also rubbed into hair and scalp and washed out to encourage hair growth. As a medicine, the seeds were heated in hot ashes, removed, and crushed on a metate to produce an oil that was applied to wounds.  The ground seeds were also put into a cloth, squeezed, and the liquid used as eye drops.  Additionally the raw green seeds were chewed to alleviate sore throats. Seri necklaces may be decorated with Jojoba seeds and the hardwood was also traditionally used as meat skewers.

spurge-flowers_med_hrEuphorbia polycarpa, also known as Spurge, Golondrina, or tomitom hantcocpetij, is a low-lying weedy ground-cover common in many bioregions.  Despite being toxic, the Seris use this plant as a readily available medicine with both topical and internal uses.  The fresh green leaves are mashed with salt and oil to make a poultice applied to swollen areas of the body.  It is also used internally combined with Brittlebush (Encelia farinosa) and Asclepias as a remedy for toothache and heart pain.

palo-verde-branches_med_hrBlue Palo Verde (Parkinsonia floridium) and Foothills Palo Verde (P. microphyllum) are common trees and large shrubs of the Sonoran desert, remarkable for their green photosynthesizing bark. They are also an important providers for the Seri way of life giving coveted desert shade, seeds used in necklace-making, pigments for face-paint, firewood, and wild food.  The seeds were winnowed, dried, toasted, and ground into flour that was traditionally cooked with honey and sea turtle oil.  The green pods were also cooked with meat and the flowers of some trees were also eaten.  The Seris know this plant so intimately that they differentiate between those without spines and edible flowers (called ziij) and those with spines and bitter tasting flowers (iiz).

dsc_0085_med_hrCardon and the cactus landscape: The great cactus forests of Sonora are an amazing sight to behold.  Their alluring magic calls the traveller off of the roads and into the true world of enduring desert vitality.  This is a rare place where three of the great columnar cacti coexist: Cardon or Sahueso (Pachycereus pringlei), Sahuaro (Carnegiea gigantea), and Organ Pipe or Pitaya Dulce (Stenocereus thurberi).  Here one will find many of the major wild plant food sources of desert-dwellers. Fruits from these and other cacti provided an abundant source of sugar as well as protein and oil from seeds that were crushed, cooked, and salted for maximum absorption of nutrients. The seeds of Cardon fruits were considered to be so highly nutritious that they were worthy of recycling by means of defecating on desert rocks, drying, re-harvesting, washing, cooking and consuming a second time. The Seri were so closely connected to the Cardon forests that their territory matches almost precisely with that of Cardon’s range and they distinguished three types of Cardon plants based upon variations in spines and fruits as well as four colors of fruits produced by the species. Mothers also planted the placentas of their children at the base of Cardon cactus plants and many people would make visits to these sacred places later in life.  They were also considered to be a source of good luck when offerings such as clam shells were made to the cactus.  Cardon and other columnar cacti also served as materials for everyday objects such as walking canes and cactus fruit harvesting poles. Seeds were also used in tanning deerskins and the juice was mixed with charcoal for tattooing. Other important cacti of the region include various species of Hedgehog (Echinocereus spp.), Barrel (Ferocactus spp.), Fishhook (Mammillaria spp.), and a large assortment of Cholla and Prickly Pear (Opuntia spp.).

By Dara Saville, January 2015

To learn about desert aromatic plants at the center of Seri herbal practice, look for my expanded essay “Desert Aromatics and Plant Ways of the Seris in Sonora Mexico” in the 2015-2016 Plant Healer Quarterly, 6(1).

Also see the book People of the Desert and Sea: Ethnobotany of The Seri Indians by Richard Felger and Mary Beck Moser, published by University of Arizona Press in Tucson, 1985.