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.
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.
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.)
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 environmental 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.
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.