Tag Archives: herbal medicine

Desert Aromatics of the American Southwest

Milne Foothills Snakeweed Juniper

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

 

Chaparral or Cresosote (Larrea tridentata)

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

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

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

 

Sand Sage (Artemisia filifolia)

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

Snakeweed (Gutierrezia sarothrae)

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

Juniper (Juniperus monosperma)

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

Piñon (Pinus edulis)

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

General References:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References Specific to Chaparral:

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

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

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

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

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

The Teachings of Saxifrage and Orchid

Saxifrage 5-stamen Mitrewort closeup ultra 2

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

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

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

Angelica Greys plant cropped

Saxifrage and Alpine Meadows: Delving Inward

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

 

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

 

Mindful Bog: Saxifrage, Orchids, and the Wilderness Within

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

 

Rattlesnake Plantain closeup

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

Orchids’ Unexpected Gifts for the Seeker:

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

 

Saxifrage Family Brings Me Home:

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

Sandwort Fendler Jemez closeup

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

Bioregional Herbalism

The Beauty of the Bioregional Approach to Your Herbal Practice

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

Sandia crest view 4

What is Bioregional Herbalism?

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

CO Cement Creek trail

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

 

What Are The Most Important Tenets of Bioregional Herbalism?

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

Milkweed single closeup

Showy Milkweed – Asclepias speciosa

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

Yerba Mansa flower red

Yerba Mansa – Anemopsis californica

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

chaparral quebradas

Chaparral – Larrea tridentata

Why Practice This Way?

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

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

Tincture Alpine

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

Yerba Mansa Path 3

How Can You Make This Kind Of Practice Your Own?

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

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

Ecological Herbalism

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

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

 

Chaparral and the Desert Basin

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

 

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

 

 

Bee Balm and the Desert Mountain

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

 

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

 

 

Yerba Mansa and the Desert Bosque

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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.

Aligning with Invasive Trees as Herbal Medicine

This is part of a series of writings exploring plant communities and herbal practice in the Anthropocene….more to come.

Walking the urban sidewalks, riparian woodlands, and other forested areas around your home you may have noticed that the effects of globalization are not limited to fashion styles, international trade agreements, and other aspects of human culture. Plant communities are becoming globalized, too. That is to say, many ecosystems now include a russian-olive-branchmixture of native and non-native species that collectively create a new concept of what wild lands are today. This emerging new feature of landscapes is a defining characteristic of plant communities in the Anthropocene, the proposed current era in which humans are the primary influence on Earth’s systems. While we can agree that this change is undoubtedly taking place, what precisely is happening within these plant communities is not always clear. Arguments continue to be made that non-native plants are both harmful and beneficial to native plant communities. Regardless of how we feel about that, invasive plants bring something valuable to the medicine cabinet. As highly adaptable and opportunistic newcomers, they can sometimes play a remediation role in landscapes with moderate levels of disturbance. With this characteristic, invasive plants may be uniquely qualified to defend us against rapidly evolving pathogens, like drug-resistant flu strains and MRSA, if we allow them to colonize and infiltrate areas of the body struggling with dis-ease. Let’s take a quick look at why our ecological understanding of invasive plants remains unsettled and then see what roles five common non-native tree species can play in their ecosystems and in our apothecaries.

For decades, invasive non-native plants such as the infamous Salt Cedar/Tamarisk (Tamarix sp., shown below in flower) and many others have been vilified, poisoned, and scapegoated as the destroyers of ecosystems and the annihilators of biodiversity. In recent years a new perspective has emerged that these plants are, in fact, the saviors of ecosystems that have been severely altered by humans, reinvigorating the health of these systems and increasing biodiversity. How could we change our minds so dramatically and which viewpoint more accurately represents the role of these non-native plants? It would be nice if there was a simple answer but there is not. Every ecosystem and each one of these plants is unique. Furthermore, one species can play different roles in different situations, as invasive plants tend to proliferate in accordance with the degree of ecosystem alteration. We must also consider that ecosystems are continually dynamic. The kinds of changes that are taking place today are new patterns that are salt-cedar-flowersstill unfolding.  They are without historical precedent, which makes it difficult to accurately predict where these changes are taking any given plant community in the long term. Many plant communities of the Anthropocene will experience dramatic changes as new climate conditions accelerate and native and non-native plants co-mingle. Some experts see evidence for increased regional-scale biodiversity (while global diversity declines) as newcomers outnumber extinctions in the plant world and ecosystem fragmentation creates opportunities for new plant taxa to evolve but others warn of the likelihood that invasive plants will continue to expand their range at the expense of natives in the coming decades and centuries. Tamarisk, as one of the most successful and one of the most targeted non-native plants, exemplifies the ongoing debate about the role of invasive plants in regional biodiversity. Some of the accusations, such as the idea that it desiccates floodplains through high levels of evapotranspiration, have been largely debunked. Other assertions including its influence on vegetative biodiversity and impact on wildlife habitat are still debated with evidence pointing in different directions (more on this below).

I know it can be difficult to see the changes taking place in the wilds around us, but these plants are here to stay. They are a part of our local plant communities and we can align with the way nature unfolds around us by integrating them into our ecological understandings and into our herbal practice. In looking more deeply at the following non-native invasive trees, we can begin to understand their roles in our wild lands, how we can incorporate them into our medicines, and how our thoughts and opinions about them are evolving.

Russian Olive (Elaeagnus angustifolia):

Ecological: Arriving from Asia and southern Europe in the 1800s, Russian Olive (also shown flowering in top photo) has come to fill an ecologicalrussian-olive-tree niche in the altered environments downstream from dams. It fixes nitrogen in the soil, provides forage for wildlife, and nectar for pollinators. Once established this tree has a tendency to become dominant or co-dominant in the landscape, sometimes forming mono-typic stands. Although the changes in water flow caused by dams are a primary driver in the changing plant communities and the successful establishment of Russian Olive, Russian Olive accelerates human-caused changes by stabilizing soil surfaces and shading out seedlings of native pioneer species such as Cottonwoods that rely on flood disturbance areas for germination and open sunny conditions to grow. It may be considered a thorny protector of damaged ecosystems in some cases, but it may also be a facilitator of change contributing to the reduction in biodiversity by inhibiting the reproduction of keystone native plants in stressed riparian areas.

Medicinal: Leaves and stems can be harvested for antimicrobial/antibacterial/antifungal medicinal preparations for wound care or systemic infections. Russian Olive is also used when an anti-inflammatory or muscle-relaxing analgesic is needed. Extracts of this plant have been shown in clinical trials to be as effective as NSAIDS for relief of pain and inflammation but with added gastro-protective properties. Research also suggests that it may optimize blood pressure and have anti-tumor properties.

 

Siberian Elm (Ulmus pumila):

Ecological: Another Asian tree, Siberian Elm is the first tree to leaf-out all over my fair city each spring. The burst of green is followed by the raining-down of confetti as its seeds fill siberian-elm-leavesthe air and germinate wherever they land, in between concrete cracks or the earthly surfaces of the surrounding natural areas. This tree is known to spread quickly in disturbed areas and will tolerate difficult growing conditions where few others can succeed. Siberian Elm binds heavy metals in soil, providing remediation in polluted urbanized areas and provides early spring nectar for pollinators. Along with Russian Olive and Tamarisk, Siberian Elm is one of the trees expected to redefine the Cottonwood Bosque along the Rio Grande in the coming decades if water management practices remain unaltered.

Medicinal: This invasive tree is a very useful and abundant medicine and wild edible. The inner bark can be collected and powdered as a substitute for the threatened and popular medicine of Slippery Elm. It is anti-parasitic, antifungal, antilithic, expectorant, and demulcent. Next time you find Siberian Elm growing through your backyard fence or coming up along a roadway, cut off a small branch, peel off the bark, and feel its soft slippery mucilage inside. Recent research also suggests its potential usefulness in cervical, melanoma, breast, and lymphoma cancer treatments. Gathered in the early spring while still green, the seeds are a nutritious edible and are tasty served raw on top of salads, in sandwiches, and as an edible garnish.

 

White Mulberry (Morus alba):

mulberrries-eatingEcological: Probably the least invasive of the trees discussed here (at least in my area), Mulberry is a common yard tree and has also made a home for itself in the riparian corridor. Originating in China, it came to the eastern United States in the 1600s as part of a British effort to establish a silk industry. Although it can form dense thickets in some places, White Mulberry typically does not grow in clusters. Little information has been published regarding its impacts on native plant communities.

Medicinal: Mulberry has a long history of use in Chinese medicine with different parts of the tree being used for different areas in the body. The leaves are antimicrobial, detoxifying, cooling, and moistening to dryness in the upper body, particularly the head, throat, and lungs. The twigs are used to increase circulation in the joints and extremities. The bark is anti-inflammatory and increases the movement of fluids in the lower body and the fruit is a nourishing antioxidant tonic for heart health. Also the fruit is delicious to eat right off the tree.


Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima):

Ecological: Originally from China and Taiwan, this tree is considered by some to be an unstoppable menace sending new shoots up wherever possible. It will grow in a variety of tree-of-heaven-seedingchallenging environments including urban areas that are heavily concretized or contaminated and degraded natural areas such as disconnected floodplains in riparian corridors. Growing in such conditions, it can act as a remediator of damaged land and polluted air but its propensity for sending up new shoots could prove to be a problem in ecosystems where there are not sufficient factors to limit its growth.

Medicinal: Tree of Heaven can also play a remediation role in the digestive and respiratory systems. It is an antimicrobial, astringent, febrifuge, anthelmintic, antispasmodic, antiseptic, expectorant, clearing heat and dampness in the body. The stems, leaves, and especially the root bark are useful in treatments for diarrhea and digestive ailments caused by microbes and parasites including Giardia. In the respiratory system it reduces inflammation and cleans the airways of mucus and other irritants, facilitating recovery from a variety of ailments. Additionally, Tree of Heaven is soothing to the nervous system and helpful for reducing muscular contractions, shakes, and tremors.

Salt Cedar/Tamarisk (Tamarix spp.):

Ecological: The poster child for vilified non-native invasive plants since the early 1900s, Tamarisk is the most successful non-native tree in the western United States and has become the third most common woody plant in that region’s riparian corridors. Originating from the Mediterranean and Asia, it has come to symbolize the water struggles of the Southwest by covering well over 600,000 hectares of severely degraded riparian salt-cedar-bighabitat in the Southwest. Numerous bird species use it for shelter including the endangered Western Willow Flycatcher but overall Tamarisk forests support fewer species and fewer individuals than native forests. It is an opportunistic reproducer that is tolerant of drought, heat, fires, and saline soils. Similar to Russian Olive, it stabilizes surface soils inhibiting the germination of native riparian trees and shades out native tree seedlings. It can grow in vast mono-typic stands forming dense thickets, changing soil composition, and greatly reducing the beneficial mycorrhizal community that facilitates native plant growth. Like Russian Olive, Tamarisk finds a habitat niche in degraded riparian ecosystems with altered flow regimes and contributes to the process of change initiated by human interference. This tree may be considered a willing colonizer of damaged ecosystems where natives are in decline but it can also play a role in inhibiting the growth of native plants and further reducing biodiversity.

Medicinal: The bark and galls are harvested and used for topical application or small internal doses. It is an effective antimicrobial, antioxidant, diaphoretic, diuretic, astringent, and detoxifier that is used to make first aid wound washes or mouthwash. Internally it can be included in formulas for detoxification, microbial diarrhea, and other infections.

Look for more on this topic in Dara’s Plant Healer Magazine column, Of Wilderness and Gardens.

References:

Crawford, Clifford S., Lisa M. Ellis, and Manuel C. Mulles Jr., 1996. The Middle Rio Grande Bosque: an endangered ecosystem, New Mexico Journal of Science 36: 276-299.

DiTomaso, Joseph M. 1998. Impact, biology, and ecology of salt cedar (Tamarix) in the Southwestern United States. Weed Technology 12 (2): 326-336.

Evans, Alexander M. 2014. Invasive plants, insects, and diseases in the forests of the Anthropocene. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Santa Fe: NM.

Folstad Shah, J. J., M. J. Harner, T. M. Tibbets. 2010. Elaeagnus angustifolia elevates soil inorganic nitrogen pools in riparian ecosystems. Ecosystems 13 (1): 46-61.

Friedman, Jonathan M., Gregor T. Auble, Patrick B. Shafroth, Michael F. Merigliano, Michael D. Freehling, Eleanor R. Griffin. 2005. Dominance of non-native riparian trees in western USA. Biological Invasions 7 (4): 747-751.

Glenn Edward, Pamela Nagler. 2005. Comparative ecophysiology of Tamarix ramosissima and native trees in western US riparian zones. Journal of Arid Environments 61 (3): 419-446.

Johnson, W. C. 2002. Riparian vegetation diversity along regulated rivers: contribution of novel and relict habitats. Freshwater Biology, 47: 749–759.

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

Katz, Gabrielle L., Patrick B. Shafroth. 2003. Biology, ecology, and management of Elaeagnus angustifolia L. (Russian olive) in western North America. Wetlands 23 (4): 763-777.

Pearce, Fred. 2015. The New Wild. Beacon Press: Boston MA.

Scott, Timothy Lee. 2010. Invasive Plant Medicine. Healing Arts Press: Rochester VT.

Sogge, Mark K., Susan J. Sferra, Eben H. Paxton. 2008. Tamarix as habitat for birds: implications for riparian restoration in the Southwestern United States. Restoration Ecology 16 (1): 146-154.

Shafroth, Patrick B. James R. Cleverly, Tom L. Dudley, John P. Taylor Charles Van Riper III, Edwin P. Weeks. 2005. Control of Tamarix in the western United States: implications for water salvage, wildlife use, and riparian restoration. Environmental Management 35 (3): 231-246.

Sher, Anna, Martin F. Quigley. 2013. Introduction to the paradox plant. Tamarix: A Case Study of Ecological Change in the American West. Oxford University Press.

Tehranizadeh, Zeinab Amiri, Ali Baratian, Hossein Hosseinzadeh. 2016. Russian olive (Elaeagnus angustifolia) as herbal healer. BioImpacts 6 (3): 155-167.

Thomas, C. D. 2013. Local diversity stays about the same, region diversity increases, and global diversity declines. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 110 (48): 19187-19188.

Thomas, C. D. 2015. Rapid acceleration of plant speciation during the Anthropocene. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 30 (8): 448-455.

Velland, Mark, Lander Baeten, Isla H. Myers-Smith, Sarah C. Elmendorf, Robin Beausejour, Carissa D. Brown, Pieter De Frenne, Kris Verheyen, Sona Wipf. 2013. Global meta-analysis reveals no net change in local-scale plant diversity over time. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 110 (48): 19456-19459.

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.

dara-cottonwood-tree

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.

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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.

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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.

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.

Herbal Tales from The Chihuahua Desert

 

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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.