Tag Archives: desert

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.

Ecological Herbalism

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

 

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

 

Chaparral and the Desert Basin

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

 

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

 

 

Bee Balm and the Desert Mountain

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

 

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

 

 

Yerba Mansa and the Desert Bosque

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

This essay was originally published as: Saville, Dara. (2016). Ecological Herbalism. Traditions in Western Herbalism Conference Essay Book. 243-249.

 

References:

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.

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.

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.

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.

Consortium for Integrated Climate Research in Western Mountains (CIRMOUNT), “Anticipating challenges to western mountain ecosystems and resources,” Mapping New Terrain: Climate Change and America’s West, 2006.

David Breshears, Neil S. Cobb, Paul M. Rich, Kevin P. Price, Craig D. Allen, Randy G. Balice, William H. Romme, Jude H. Kastens, M. Lisa Floyd, Jayne Belnap, Jesse J. Anderson, Orrin B. Meyers, and Clifton W. Meyer, “Regional vegetation die-off in response to global-change-type drought,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 102: 42 (October 2005): 15144-15148.

David Gutzler, Governor’s Task Force Report on Climate Change, November 2007.

David S. Gutzler and Tessia O. Robbins, “Climate variability and projected change in the western United States: regional downscaling and drought statistics,” Climate Dynamics 37:5 (September 2011): 835-849.

David Gutzler, University of New Mexico Earth and Planetary Studies Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Assessment, 2013.

E. N. Quiroga, A. R. Sampietro, M. A. Vattuone, “In vitro fungitoxic activity of Larrea divaricata cav. extracts,” Applied Microbiology 39 (2004): 7-12.

E. T. Zhilyakova, O. O. Novikov, E. N. Naumenko, L. V. Krichkovskaya, T. S. Kiseleva, E. Yu. Timoshenko, M. Yu. Novikova, S. A. Litvinov, “ Study of Monard fistulosa essential oil as a prospective antiseborrheic agent,” Bulletin of Experimental Biology and Medicine 2009: 148: 4 (2009): 612-614.

Gregory Asner, Philip G. Brodrick, Christopher B. Anderson, Nicolas Vaugh, David E. Knapp, and Roberta E. Martin, “ Progressive forest canopy water loss during the 2012-2015 California drought,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 11:2 (2016): 249-255.

Holly A. Johnson, Ling ling L. Rogers, Mark L. Alkire, Thomas G. McCloud and, Jerry L. McLaughlin, “Bioactive monoterpines from Monarda fistulosa,” Natural Product Letters 11:4 (1998): 241-250.

Jeffrey A. Hicke and Melanie J. B. Zeppel, “Climate-driven tree mortality: insights from the pinon pine die-off in the United States” New Phytologist 200:2 (October 2013): 301-303.

J. L. Gardner, “Vegetation of the creosotebush area of the Rio Grande Valley in New Mexico”, Ecological Monographs 21 (Oct 1951): 379-403.

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.

John T. Kliejunas, Brian W. Geils, Jessie Micales Glaeser, Ellen Michaels Goheen, Paul Hennon, Mee-Sook Kim, Harry Kope, Jeff Stone, Rona Sturrock, and Susan J. Frankel, Review of Literature on Climate Change and Forest Diseases of Western North America, USDA, 2009.

Joshua D. Lambert, Shengmin Sang, Ann Dougherty, Colby G. Caldwell, Ross O. Meyers, Robert T. Dorr, Barbara N. Timmermann, “ Cytotoxic ligans from Larrea tridentata,” Phytochemistry 66 (2005): 811-815.

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

Miranda D. Redmond and Nichole N. Barger, “Tree regeneration following drought- and insect-induced mortality in pinon-juniper woodlands,” New Phytologist 200: 2 (October 2013): 402-412.

Mohamed Fizur Nagoor Meeran and Ponnian Stanley Mainzen Prince, “Protective effects of thymol on altered plasma lip perioxidation and nonenzymic antioxidants in isoproterenol-induced myocardial infarctred rats,” Journal of Biochemical and Molecular Toxicology 26:9 (2012): 368-373.

Nurhayat Tabanca, Ulrich R. Bernier, Abbas Ali, Mei Wang, Betul Demirci, Eugene K. Blythe, Shabana I. Khan, K. Husnu Can Baser, and Ikhlas A. Khan, “Bioassay guided investigation of two Monarda essential oils as repellant of yellow fever mosquito Aedes aegypti,” Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry 61:36 (2013): 8573-8580.

O. W. Van Auken, “Shrub invasions of North American semiarid grasslands,” Annual Review of Ecological Systems 31 (2000): 197-21

Park A. Williams, Craig D. Allen, Alison K. Macalady, Daniel Griffin, Connie A. Woodhouse, David M. Meko, Thomas W. Swetnam, Sara A. Rauscher, Richard Seager, Henri D. Grissino-Mayer, Jeffrey S. Dean, Edward R. Cook, Chandana Gangodagamage, Michael Cai, and Nate G. McDowell, “ Temperture as a potent driver of regional forest drought stress and tree mortality,” Nature Climate Change 3 (2013): 292-297.

Rebecca Snowden, Heather Harrington, Kira Morrill, LaDeana Jeane, Joan Garrity, Michael Orian, Eric Lopez, Saman Rezaie, Kelly Hassberger, Damilola Familoni, Jessica Moore, Kulveen Virdee, Leah Albornoz-Sanchez, Michael Walker, Jami Cavins, Tonyelle Russell, Emily Guse, Mary Reker, Onyria Tschudy, Jeremy Wolf, Teresa True, Oluchi Ukaegbu, Ezenwanyi Ahaghotu, Ana Jones, Sara Polanco, Yvan Rochon, Robert Waters, Jeffrey Langland, “A comparison of the anti-Staphylococcus aureus activity of extracts from commonly used medicinal plants,” Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine 20 (2014): 375-382.

Ricardo Mata-Gonzalez, Benjamin Figueroa-Sandoval, Fernando Clemente, Mario Manzano, “Vegetational changes after livestock grazing exclusion and shrub control in the southern Chihuahuan Desert,” Western North American Naturalist 67 (2007): 63-70.

Robert G. Laport, Robert L. Minckley, Justin Ramsey, “Phylogeny and cytogeography of the North American creosote bush (Larrea tridentate, Zygophyllaceae),” Systematic Botany 37 (2012): 153-164.

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.

R. P. Gibbens, R. P. McNeely, K. M. Havstad, R. F. Beck, B. Nolen, “Vegetation changes in the Jornada Basin from 1858 to 1998,” Journal of Arid Environments 61 (2005): 651-668.

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.

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

William A. Dick-Peddie, New Mexico Vegetation, (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press 1993).

William W. Dunmire and Gail D. Tierney, Wild Plants of the Pueblo Province, (Santa Fe NM: Museum of New Mexico, 1997).

Xiaoyan Jiang, Sara A. Rauscher, Todd D. Ringler, David M. Lawrence, A. Park Williams, Craig D. Allen, Allison L. Steiner, D. Michael Cai, and Nate G. McDowell, “ Projected future changes in western North America in the twenty-first century,” Climate 26 (2013): 3671-3687.

Herbal Tales from The Chihuahua Desert

 

Quebradas arroyo.JPGOcotillo top.JPG

The northern Chihuahua Desert is a striking land filled with surprises of all sizes from an unending and humbling skyscape to the plethora of small flowers obscured by the grandeur of the place. Even in the springtime one feels the desert heat, laden with the aroma of Chaparral, penetrating from all directions. The heat becomes so thick, at times it obscures the true colors of the landscape; not until dusk approaches does the hidden complexity of colors reveal itself again. Its almost as if the air had a life and mind of its own out here where sun and wind rule. Although cattle grazing has significantly impacted the Chihuahua Desert plant communities, some areas retain a great degree of herbal biodiversity. Following is a short selection of medicinal plants from the Chihuahua Desert bajadas that border the Rio Grande Valley.

Ocotillo:

Fouquiera splendens is the kind of plant that legends are made of. It thrives on dry rocky slopes, can shed and re-grow its leaves multiple times in a season, lives to be 150-200 years old, and knows how to move the extracellular fluids in the human body to invigorate health. Ocotillo plays a critical role in its ecosystem by blooming in harmony with migrating hummingbirds. Unlike most other desert plants that flower when water is present, Ocotillo produces its flowers in sync with northbound hummingbird migrations, providing the birds with a critical food source and receiving pollination services for themselves. This relationship is so ancient and imbedded in the plant that the inherent knowledge associated with the timing of Ocotillo blooms is genetically passed down among the generations. Fouquiera’s wisdom of place does not stop there. Its photosynthetic bark allows it to drop and re-grow its leaves as needed to conserve its limited resources. As a medicinal plant, Ocotillo is known as a mover of pelvic congestion, facilitating lymphatic and venous flow. It is useful for other forms of stagnation, too, such as swollen tonsils, sore throats, slow healing injuries, and mild expectoration. Flowers are collected for tea and the bark from freshly cut stems is prepared for tincturing. Using the right tools, working with prickly desert plants is not as bad as it may seem and is well worth the effort. Ocotillo is reasonably abundant here in the northern Chihuahua Desert, which is the northeastern edge of its geographical range.

 

Ratany flowers cropped.JPG

Ratany:

Krameria lanceolata is a low growing spreading plant that favors dry rocky soil and produces some of the most striking flowers in the desert. Like other Krameria species in the Southwest (K. grayi K. erecta etc), it is a partial root parasite that interacts with Chaparral and other desert shrubs as hosts so make sure you know who Ratany’s companions are. The sharing of alkaloids between parasitic plants and hosts is well documented in botanical literature and has the potential to change the nature of Ratany’s phytochemistry. This plant also has a unique relationship with native solitary bees by providing them with a critical resource required for their offspring. The flowers have no nectar and very little pollen but entice the bees with oil that they scrape off the petals, store in pouches in their legs, and offer to their young. Krameria species from South America have long been used in the world marketplace for herbal preparations when an astringing, antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory herb is needed and have consequently become endangered plants. Roots are the strongest but aerial parts can also be used for teas and tinctures. Tinctures are commonly made with 50% alcohol and a small amount of glycerin added. Ratany is helpful for oral healthcare including inflamed gums and mouth sores, hemorrhoids, diarrhea, heavy menses, and first aid wound care. Short-term use is wise due to the level of tannins in this plant. Given the environmental degradation of Chihuahua Desert grasslands, the ecological importance of this plant to native pollinators, and the widespread abundance of other herbs with similar properties, wild harvesting of this plant is not recommended in our area.

Chaparral golden light.JPG

 

Chaparral:

Larrea tridentata is an indicator plant for the Chihuahua Desert, so widespread that it has come to define the character of this physiographic region. It is however, known to originate from related species in South America that spread with the aid of migratory birds when the climate warmed at the end of the last Ice Age. Since then Chaparral (like Mesquite described below) has been steadily expanding its range, expedited with the help of extensive cattle grazing that has disrupted fragile desert topsoil, degraded grassland plant communities, and promoted shrub encroachment. Just as Larrea has slowly and steadily transformed the landscapes of the Southwest, it creates profound shifts within the environment of the human body. Leaves are harvested, dried, and prepared as tinctures, infused oil, salve, topical tea, or used as a purifying smoke. Chaparral is strong medicine, most often used topically or internally for short durations, and works as an anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant, and anti-microbial. It is inhibiting to both free radical damage and pro-inflammatory mediators in the body reducing histamines, prostaglandins, and leukocytes. This makes Larrea a useful remedy for chronic inflammatory illnesses such as rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, psoriasis, and eczema. It is also helpful for boosting liver functioning to assimilate dietary oils for healthier hair, skin, and nails. As an antimicrobial, it is indispensible for tenacious infections such as athlete’s foot, Candida, herpes, warts, and infected wounds. Recent research even suggests its efficacy in treating certain types of cancer. (Read more about Chaparral in Dara’s Plant Healer Magazine essays: Desert Aromatics in the Winter 2015 issue and the Ecological Herbalism series in the Spring 2016 issue.)

Honey Mesquite:

Prosopis glandulosa is one of the largest and most common shrubs of the Chihuahua Desert. It is distinguishable from other Legume family shrubs by its pair of long straight spines emerging from the leaf node. Its population has ebbed and flowed along with Mesquite Honey flowersenvironmental and cultural changes in the Southwest during the last 100,000 years. During the last Ice Age Mesquite developed a close relationship with the large plant-eating mammals that ate its seedpods, fertilized, and spread them across the region. As the climate warmed and the large herbivores disappeared, Mesquite retreated to arroyos and floodplains awaiting floodwaters to scour and disperse their seeds. Populations further declined as native peoples populated the area, eating Mesquite seedpods and burning the timber for fuel. Once the Spanish migrated up into the Chihuahua Desert, the Prosopis population began to expand again as domesticated grazing animals fulfilled the role of Ice Age herbivores spreading its seed while simultaneously devouring native grasses and damaging fragile desert soils, further facilitating Mesquite’s advance across the land. As a medicinal plant, it is used similarly to other astringent herbs as a topical remedy for wound healing that also helps to reduce inflammation and slow bleeding. It is also useful in oral healthcare and for the treatment of diarrhea and other gastric irritations. Leaves, pods, and bark are prepared as tea for topical and internal use and the gum can also be harvested and prepared as a mucilaginous remedy for conjunctivitis, sore throats, damaged gut mucosa, ulcers, heartburn, and other hot inflammations. The sap or gum can be collected when weepy or in solid clumps, rinsed in cold water, and dissolved into warm water. The pods are also eaten as food, either ground into flour or prepared as a sweet tasting syrup.

Cevallia flower 1

Stinging Serpent:

Once acquainted, Cevallia sinuata is a plant you will never forget. Save yourself some trouble and get to know this plant before heading out into its habitat in the Chihuahua and Sonora Deserts. As it’s common name suggests, this plant can lash out like a surprised or startled serpent when disturbed. Cevallia is covered in sharp stinging hairs that are capable of poking holes in the skin and injecting a toxin that causes pain, itching, redness, and swelling that can persist for days. Drawn to this plant’s interesting flowers, it is easy to lose one’s sensibilities, forget your manners, and touch without permission. That would be a mistake you won’t likely make twice. Unable to resist the temptation, I ever so gently touched this plant with all due respect and my hand buzzed for hours. I can’t imagine the experience of those who have accidentally stumbled upon this plant without awareness. Although not considered a medicinal plant, Cevalllia’s offering is clearly that of mindfulness. Be present in everything you do and show proper respect as you encounter others, especially in the desert where protection is a way of life.

 by Dara Saville, June 2016

Favorite References and Resources on This Topic:

  • Carolyn Dodson’s A Guide to Plants of the Northern Chihuahua Desert (2012)
  • Charles Kane’s Medicinal Plants of the American Southwest (2011)
  • Michael Moore’s Medicinal Plants of the Desert and Canyon West (1989)

Look for more detailed discussions on these and other plants of the Chihuahua Desert in Dara’s Plant Healer Magazine column Of Wilderness and Gardens.

Herbalism in the Crossroads of the Southwest

Welcoming in another new year often involves reflecting on the past and considering where we would like to go in the coming year.  This post reveals those reflections and illuminates the background for the endeavors I am planning for 2016.  This is a story of what herbalism means to me, why I love the wilds around me, and what shapes my underlying approach to herbal practice.  I hope you will join me on an herbal journey to the Crossroads of the Southwest….

ghost ranch

The practice of herbalism has a certain familiarity about it. That is to say, it follows a universal pattern that repeats itself infinitely within our selves, in the wider world, and beyond. The pattern is like so many common things: the vascular system within our own bodies, tree branches spreading out toward the sky, or a river system carving its way into the earth. Depending on your perspective, you might say it starts out small, something that flows within yourself. I noticed it one day when I was out wild crafting Chaparral (Larrea tridentata) in the desert south of Albuquerque. Standing in the open plain along the Rio Grande, I could see the mesa top across the river that holds the obscured remains of an ancient Piro Pueblo village and their many astounding rock paintings and petroglyphs that still burst forth with hidden vitality.   At once I feel connected to all people in my search for wild medicine.   Then I realize the strongest energy is right in front of me, all around me, as far as the eye can see: nothing but Chaparral. This plant is so tenacious, so resilient, soChaparral shrub wild persistent, and even more ancient than the Piro people. Many Chaparral plants live to be thousands of years old, surviving in the harshest of environments, overtaking everything including the most rugged of companions, Mesquite.   The pungent odor of this plant on a hot desert afternoon penetrates me all the way down into the branching bronchial pathways of my lungs, filling me with awareness of that same infinitely repeating pattern that connects all living things throughout time and space. I am brought into balance by my time with Chaparral and go home feeling centered and content.

 

From there, the practice of herbalism continues along this familiar life pattern by widening out to others, like the branches of a tree. I noticed this part of the pattern one day when I was teaching an herb class. I always show lots of photos of plants during classes to help people connect with them as living beings and get a better feel for their individual personalities. The photos are always ones I have taken myself of beloved plants from my garden or wild beauties that I encountered on a walk. I showed my class a scene from my garden that included a colorful array ofGarden Poppies Bee Balm blooming red Poppies (Papaver spp.), purple Bee Balm (Monarda menthafolia), yellow and white Chamomile (Matricaria recutita), and bright orange California Poppies (Eschscholzia californica). At once I could see that all of the students in the room were affected by it. Simultaneous smiles spread across their faces and any rigidity or tension held in their postures seemed to soften away. The feeling in the room changed as the healing energy of those plants penetrated everyone. The gift of restoration came from simply seeing a photo of medicinal plants, some of which were no longer even alive, and this time a whole room of people felt it.

 

As momentum builds, the pattern continues spreading and the roots of folk herbalism deepen throughout the community.   When people find something that makes them feel good, they talk about it and share it with others. Creating relationships with plants and learning how to take charge of your own base health is empowering. This results in an increasingly energized and vitalized community. It contributes to a foundation of creativity, productivity, contentedness, and a greater sense of well being on a larger scale. As I walk with my children through the mountain wilderness and desert canyons, I see the seeds sprouting and growing, the pattern expanding even more. Their awareness of plant beings and their knowledge about plant medicine is something they will carry with them into the future and wherever they go in life. The respect that they show for plants assures me that the patterns inherent in the practice of herbalism connect us both back to the source and onward into infinity.

 

Knowing the Plants:

At the center of any herbalism practice are the living plants themselves. They are the source from which the knowledge, the medicine, and the restorative effects all flow. My herbal practice is, therefore, based on the plants that grow around me, here in New Mexico. I live in the geographic center of three distinct physiographic provinces: The Rocky Mountains, The Great Plains, and The Desert Basin and Range. Of course the wondrous Colorado Plateau and all the other western regions beyond are only a road trip away. As an herbalist, I am fortunate to live in a place where I have easy access to a wide range of botanical wilderness from desert canyon to mountain slope and a long sunny growing season, in which to grow many medical herbs right in my own backyard garden. It is these plants of the American West, both wild and easily cultivated, that make up the heart of my herbalism practice and they are the focus of my work.

 

Stepping into the high desert mountain ranges to the east of Albuquerque, yoBee Balm wild with butterfliesu will find changing ecosystems as the elevation rises from the desert plain to over 10,000 feet. These varied environments are home to a long list of wild medicinal plants including one of my favorites, Bee Balm (Monarda menthafolia). This plant has a striking purple flower with purple and green striped sepals, unlike any other. When I see a patch in full bloom, covered in butterflies, I am reminded of the continuing cycle of life and the critical role that plants play in the world. I feel energized seeing one of life’s most beautiful expressions of the interconnection between all things. Continuing on along the mountain trail, I enter the rich mixed conifer stands that are fortified by the Usnea (Usnea barbata) that hangs from assorted tree branches all around me. There is a certain comfort, like that of a thick warm blanket, that comes from walking through this medicine-rich forest and then I find a physical representation of this feeling: an Usnea birds’ nest. The birds that grew up in this home were given extra protUsnea nestection by the mother who knew to build her nest out of the soft, comforting, antimicrobial power of Usnea.   Before long, the trail brings me into a mountain meadow with a large stand of mature Gentian (Frasera speciosa). The monumental beauty of these enormous plants is impressive on its own and I feel as though I have entered a gathering of elders standing in the clearing. On and on the path goes, winding in and out of intermixed plant communities, I visit with Yarrow (Achillea millefolium), Mullein (Verbascum thapsus), Figwort (Scrophularia lanceolata), Potentilla (Potentilla spp.), and many others before I return to the valley below.

 

These reminders about our interrelation with other living beings and the rewarding sense of peacefulness that emanates from it can be found in all the other bioregions of the West as well. Even the rockiest, seemingly barren, landscapes hold their own secret gifts. In fact, it is in these places, where the wild nature of life is most striking and impressive. Exploring the dry rocky desert on foot gives me the opportunity to see surprises that open my mind to all the possibilities that exist. Fish swimming in isolated desert springs, wild fruiting grape vines, Grinding Areas Nevadaflowering Grindelia (Grindelia squarrosa), and even lovely Yerba Mansa (Anemopsis californica) can flourish in this unlikely place. In my state of wonder, I notice that there is a row of ancient grinding holes created in the exposed bedrock by many generations of people coming to this sacred space to grind up plant food and medicine. I feel honored to have been drawn into such a rugged and powerful place to experience that which connects me to all living beings, past, present, and future.

 

Embracing a Way of Life:

This sort of experience with wild medicine plants is a quest that humans have pursued for millennia as a way of sustaining both the body and the spirit. In ancient times, forging relationships with plants was vital and making plant medicine was common knowledge. It was a way of life that made sense on both a practical and spiritual level. Stepping out into the desert on the edge of town, I discover abundant reminders of the prehistoric and historic connections that people have made with plants in their surrounding landscape.   Arrowheads, petroglyphs, and other remains tell us that many different people have been walking the land: Archaic hunter and gather societies, Pueblo People, Hispanics, Anglos, to name a few. Check dams for channeling rainwater, terrace gardens builtSpecticle Pod flowers 2 cropped into rocky slopes, and plant petroglyphs of Corn and Yucca, tell me about the Pueblo Peoples’ connection to both wild and cultivated plants. The numerous grinding slicks, deeply and smoothly worn into rugged basalt, invoke the imagination. What might it have been like to sit here looking at that mountain across the river, grinding Corn (Zea spp.), Salt Bush (Atriplex canescens), or Spectacle Pod (Dimorphocarpa wislizeni) perhaps? Then I stumble upon a set of concentric circle petroglyphs that, from my perspective, line up exactly with Bosque Peak across the Rio Grande Valley. With my feet on the earth and my spirit in the heart of the circles, I am at once both on the mesa and also on the mountain peak. I am reminded of the bond that people share with the landscape and the interconnection of all things, no matter how distant.

 

Added onto this cultural layer is that of the Hispanic and Anglo settlers that entered the scene more recently. Early Hispanic immigrants brought with them their own plant medicines, but also incorporated the longstanding traditions of the Pueblo People in to their practice of Salinasherbalism. Medicinal plants including many of the aromatic kitchen herbs as well as Lavender (Lavandula spp.), Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium), Anise (Pimpinella anisum), Borage (Borago officinalis), and Chamomile (Matricaria recutita), came with this new plant medicine tradition. Yucca (Yucca spp.), Snakeweed (Gutierrezia sarothrae), Cota (Thelesperma gracile), Osha (Ligusticum porteri), Prickly Pear (Opuntia spp.), and many other plants have held a continued place of importance throughout both the Pueblo and Hispanic herbal traditions. Anglo migrants coming across the continent via wagon trails, stagecoach routes, and railway also brought their own herbal products as a staple of their healthcare practices. These included Castor oil, Camphor and Cayenne liniments, Senna and Clove syrup, and above all else Essence of Peppermint.

 

More recently, however, much of this everyday understanding of the natural world has died away in favor of modern medicines created by scientists in a laboratory. While this type of medicine has an important role to play in a variety of health situations, there is an obvious downside. Modern medicine often comes with unwanted side effects, a high environmental and economic cost, as well as a sense of disempowerment for many people. While unbalanced medicine made from isolated plant constituents remedies one problem, it often creates new ones in other areas of the body. The development of pharmaceuticals involves the production of chemicals, creates environmental contaminants, uses animal testing, and other practices of questionable ethics. Many visits with medical providers leave people feeling as though they don’t understand their own bodies and have no control over their own healthcare. For many of us, a return to the lost connection with plants is the remedy that we are seeking.

 

We are now bringing back this way of life by growing and harvesting our own plants and making our own herbal remedies at home. Through our herbal practice, we are communing with our heritage, connecting with our wild landscapes, and empowering ourselves to take charge of our Globemallow chimney rockown physical and spiritual wellbeing. Here in the Southwest, that means working with the herbs used by our ancestors and given to us by the mountains, deserts, and river valleys: Cayenne (Capsicum annuum), Figwort, Bee Balm, Globemallow (Sphaeralcea angustifolia and S. coccinea), Prickly Pear, Mullein, Usnea, Chaparral, and Yerba Mansa to name just a few. In most cases, the urban weeds, the commonest of wild plants, and our garden herbs are all that we need for a healthy way of life. Obtaining herbs locally also provides us with the freshest ingredients that are full of color, aroma, and vitality thereby making stronger medicine that is customized for ourselves and imbibed with our intention. The plants from our mesas, canyons, meadows, riverbanks, parks, roadsides, and backyards are the plants that are offering themselves to us. In my experience, they will be most effective because we can develop a relationship with them as living beings and receive the true gift of herbs. That is the strength, beauty, and unconditional support that come through friendship.

 

The practice of herbalism, no matter where you live, is part of something much bigger than any words can describe. Of course it is a practical means of nourishing and healing ourselves and it also gives new meaning to our hobbies of hiking and gardening. However, the benefits of working with plants are more profound than that and can only be discovered through our personal plant journeys. Our herbal practice invites us to look more deeply into ourselves, bonds us more closely with our loved ones, and connects us with the larger community. It also unites us with the past, makes us mindful of the present, and gives us hope for the future.

This essay was originally published as: Saville, Dara. (2014). Practicing Herbalism in the Crossroads of the Southwest. Plant Healer Quarterly, 4(2), 182-188.

 

Rio Grande Cottonwood ~ Matriarch of the Bosque

cottonwood-fall_med_hr-2The Cottonwood tree (Populus deltoides wislizenii) is the deeply rooted and life-sustaining matriarch of the Rio Grande Bosque.  Our Bosque is a riparian woodland ecosystem with its origins dating back millions of years.  (Read more about the Bosque here.)  The giant Cottonwoods are the main habitat defining species for this ecosystem providing food and shelter for a long list of animals as well as creating a life-support system for the variety of plants and other organisms that share this environment.  These trees have spreading high branches that host sleeping porcupines and nesting birds while also providing critical shade and deep leaf litter mulch for life on the forest floor.  Yerba Mansa is one of many plants that thrive in this Cottonwood-dominated landscape. This ground cover plant loves the comfort of deep leaf litter mulch and the dappled light that reaches through the layers of branches overhead.  (Read more about Yerba Mansa here.)

Cottonwoods, Yerba Mansa, and our other riparian natives share a crucial connection to the water and suffer from current water management practices in the Southwest.  Since large-scale water diversion practices began and extreme flood control measures have been imposed in the Rio Grande, most areas of the Bosque have become disconnected from the river leaving native floodplain trees and plants with a transformed environment.  Cottonwood trees send their roots all the way down to the water table and so the elders continue to survive.  Younglings, however, are scarce because these trees reproduce in the waters of seasonal flooding that has not occurred since the 1940s.  The Cottonwood canopy that we see today is a gathering of elders standing alone in a forest without the next generation behind them.  It is the opposite of what we see in so many areas of this country where logging has taken the old growth, leaving nothing but young trees. Here we are scrambling to replant thousands of Cottonwoods along the Rio Grande every year as an intervention to prevent the demise of this ancient forest.  (Read more about the changing ecosystem here.)

cottonwood-buds-winter_med_hrThe Cottonwood forest is a prominent feature of our local landscape and has always been an important part of local life along the Rio Grande.  Ancestral Puebloans living in this area for thousands of years had many uses for Cottonwood trees.  Artisans crafted drums from their hollowed out trunks and carved kachinas from their soft roots.  In spring catkins were collected for food and leaves were chewed for toothaches or used as a poultice for skin abrasions.  The wood of the Cottonwood tree was a favorite for firing pots and the bark, which peels off in large thick strips, was used for splints.  The fluff from Cottonwood seeds was even mixed with the white sap from Milkweeds and used as chewing gum.  As Spanish settlers began moving up the Rio Grande Valley, they too found comfort in the Cottonwood forests where they began transforming it into farmland and creating a system of diversion channels called acequias.  They also came to integrate Cottonwoods and other companion plants into their plant medicine traditions.  The bark of Cottonwoods was prepared as a tea to treat fevers, arthritis, and diarrhea.  An astringing poultice for abscesses was also made by mixing the ashes of burned bark with cornmeal and water.  An infusion of dried leaves was also prepared as a diuretic.  Even today, the Cottonwood Bosque is beloved by locals, mostly as a treasured recreational area for dog walking and bird watching, but also a source of inspiration from wilderness in an increasingly urbanized world.

cottonwood-bud-oil_med_hrWalking amongst the Cottonwoods in late winter, I am drawn into a sensory world of sights, sounds, smells, and other sensations reverberating from prehistoric times.  The mountain vistas and endless blue skies, the song of the sandhill cranes heading off to the Platte River, and the powerful scent of Yerba Mansa underfoot have all been a part of this place for millions of years and connect me to the ancientness of this landscape.  The wise old Cottonwood trees have been a part of this phenomenon for at least 2 million years as indicated by the fossil record.  Added to this rich sensory experience is the harvesting of Cottonwood buds, which produce sticky resin in February and March.  One of my favorite herbal medicines comes from these beautiful Bosque buds.  The next time you come across a Cottonwood tree in late winter, pinch the buds and see how sticky they feel.  After pinching a few of these your fingertips should have a thin coating of sticky dark resin.  This means you’ve got good medicine in the making.  Now collect a jar full of these, remembering that each bud is the potential to grow a leaf.  Please be kind to the trees and don’t take too many from one place.  Cottonwood trees frequently break branches in windstorms and you can often find fresh branches on the ground that may be covered in buds.  These are the best because the have no consequence to a living tree. Next cover these buds in olive oil or coconut oil and steep for a week or longer. A wood stove would be ideal for this, but since I do not have one, I do it in a crock-pot.  With the buds covered in oil in a canning jar, fill the crock-pot with water, set it to low heat, and place the glass jar in here for a warm water bath.  You will need to keep adding water and stir the oil each day. After this process is done, strain the oil through a cloth-lined sieve.  You now have a lovely resin-rich massage oil for the treatment of bodily aches and pains of the musculo-skeletal system.  This oil is excellent for overworked muscles, sore joints, or in case you want to pretend you are a tree.

By Dara Saville, March 2015

Aside from my personal experience additional references include:

  • 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.
  • Jean-Luc Cartron, David Lightfoot, Jane Mygat, Sandra Brantley, and Timothy Lowrey. A Field Guide to the Plants and Animals of the Rio Grande Bosque (Albuquerque NM: University of New Mexico Press, 2008).
  • Michael Moore, Los Remedios, (Santa Fe NM: Museum of New Mexico Press, 1990).
  • William Dunmire and Gail Tierney. Wild Plants of the Pueblo Province (Santa Fe NM: Museum of New Mexico Press, 1995)

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.

Prickly Pears ~ Autumn’s Harvest

Autumn is a time of changes, of honoring the seasonal cycles taking place in the wild and within ourselves.  I have found the ritual of picking prickly pears to be one that invites mindful acceptance of these transformations and the resulting juice makes a fine foundation for some of the season’s best drinks and foods.  Some of you might be thinking ‘is it really worth all the effort to work with cactus fruits with prickly spines?’ and the answer is absoluteley yes!  Here is why:

prickly-pear-flowers-2a_med_hrThe many species of Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia spp.) occupy diverse habitats, thrive in a variety of climate and soil conditions, and grow in many different bioregions. Their adaptability makes them widely available to most of us as a sustainable source of wild food and medicine.  The fruits, or tunas, as they are known in the Southwest begin to ripen in September and continue on throughout the Fall and into Winter.  Both the fruits and the pads are useful plant medicine as well as commonly foraged wild foods.  They are an effective folk remedy for high blood sugar and the pads are also useful antidotes for the hazard they bring to a dryland hike.  Slice open the pads to make an extremely soothing and cooling poultice for splinters and other skin irritations. Back to the fruits ~

prickly-pear-bosque_med_hrThe fruits produce a delicious juice that can be the base for a variety of foods and beverages.  Many people are discouraged by thinking about the spines and tiny glochids getting under their skin.   I have found this concern to be highly overrated.  Simply soak the pears in warm water for 10 minutes and most of the glochids float away.  Using your harvesting tongs, take them out of the water, slice off the brown end and then slice them once lengthwise.  Now you can easily peel the skin off with a knife.  Its similar to peeling a cucumber but with awareness for any stubborn glochids that remain (and there are always a few!). Put the peeled halved chunks of fruit into your blender to juice them.  They blend into juice quickly and easily.  The final step is to push it all through a strainer to filter out the many seeds.  After a little practice you will get your method down and should be able to produce a lot of juice in a reasonable amount of time.  I get about 1 ounce of juice or more per average-sized pear.

prickly-pear-lemon-bars-and_med_hr

There are many ways to use this juice and I’ll bet you already have some ideas of your own.  Here are a few of the Prickly Pear delights that we made this year: pancake syrup, green smoothies, fermented soda, lemonade, and we even put it in our oatmeal.  We used the prickly pear syrup to flavor many of our culinary creations but also used the juice mixed with favorite herbal tea blends or just straight juice.  My kids especially loved the fermented soda and these Prickly Pear Lemon Bars for your sweet tooth.

Ingredients:

Cookie Crust:

  • 1/4 cup each quinoa flour, almond flour, coconut flour, and whole wheat flour (1 cup combined)
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1/8 cup each ground hempseeds and sunflower seeds (1/4 cup total)
  • 1/4 cup softened butter
  • 1/8 cup each water and prickly pear juice (1/4 cup combined)

Topping:

  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 2 egg whites
  • 2 TBSP flour
  • 3 TBSP fresh lemon juice OR fresh lime juice
  • 1 tsp lemon zest OR lime zest
  • 3 TBSP prickly pear juice (as described above)
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder

Directions:

Prepare the crust by mixing the ingredients thoroughly and pressing them into the bottom of your buttered/oiled square or circular pan. Bake at 350 for 15 minutes. Prepare the topping by beaitng all the ingredients together and pour this over the baked crust. Bake again at 350 for 25 minutes. (I am baking at 5000 feet altitude.) I sprinkled the top with my favorite granola. Cool completely before slicing.

By Dara Saville, October 2014