Tag Archives: Larrea tridentata

Desert Aromatics of the American Southwest

Milne Foothills Snakeweed Juniper

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


Chaparral or Cresosote (Larrea tridentata)

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

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

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



Sand Sage (Artemisia filifolia)

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

Snakeweed (Gutierrezia sarothrae)

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

Juniper (Juniperus monosperma)

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

Piñon (Pinus edulis)

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

This essay is adapted from the original publications:

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

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

General References:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References Specific to Chaparral:

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

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

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

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

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

Herbal Tales from The Chihuahua Desert


Quebradas arroyo.JPGOcotillo top.JPG

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


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


Ratany flowers cropped.JPG


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

Chaparral golden light.JPG



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

Honey Mesquite:

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

Cevallia flower 1

Stinging Serpent:

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

 by Dara Saville, June 2016

Favorite References and Resources on This Topic:

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

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

Herbalism in the Crossroads of the Southwest

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

ghost ranch

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


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


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


Knowing the Plants:

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


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


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


Embracing a Way of Life:

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


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


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


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


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

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