Tag Archives: herbal remedies

Rio Grande Cottonwood ~ Matriarch of the Bosque

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

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

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

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

By Dara Saville, March 2015

Aside from my personal experience additional references include:

  • Clifford S. Crawford, Lisa M. Ellis, Manuel C. Mulles Jr., “The Middle Rio Grande Bosque: An Endangered Ecosystem,” New Mexico Journal of Science 36 (1996): 276-299.
  • Jean-Luc Cartron, David Lightfoot, Jane Mygat, Sandra Brantley, and Timothy Lowrey. A Field Guide to the Plants and Animals of the Rio Grande Bosque (Albuquerque NM: University of New Mexico Press, 2008).
  • Michael Moore, Los Remedios, (Santa Fe NM: Museum of New Mexico Press, 1990).
  • William Dunmire and Gail Tierney. Wild Plants of the Pueblo Province (Santa Fe NM: Museum of New Mexico Press, 1995)

Prickly Pears ~ Autumn’s Harvest

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

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

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


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


Cookie Crust:

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


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


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

By Dara Saville, October 2014