Prologue: And now for another change of pace (away from the virtual tour missives, yet in a way complimentary due to the people and the subject matter). Let me explain.
Many of the diaries I've posted in the Dkos tour series entail prehistoric and historic to contemporary people of the Colorado Plateau. This diary also features Native American people of the Southwest, also a variety of other cultures that expound the wellness philosophy of ethnobotany. Namely, the kind of plants and food that promote a healthier diet. Some commentators (on the diaries) have also mentioned their interest in learning more about these native people. I plan to do a few special diaries on the Ancestral Puebloans and their successors, the Puebloans, but for now I will relate something about their life medicines and healing power of common plants found throughout the Southwest. You would be surprised how everything that creates dis-ease in humans, as various illnesses, finds a corollary cure in Nature's pantry. Read with me and find out about the innate transforming power of plants and seeds as fostered by ethnobotany. The following is also from a larger work that I composed, entitled Famous Landmarks Of The Southwest (from Book II's "Supplements")
Healing Seeds, Plants And Trees: How plants (and some trees and seeds, even flowers) throughout the Southwest were cultivated and used mainly for medicines denotes the focus of this supplement. This entails both the historical and present-day usage. Historically, plants found throughout the Southwest have been used for a variety of medical reasons as perceived across cultural societies. Ethnobotany is the scientific and cultural study of the relationships that exist between people and plants. More specifically, ethnobotany is the study of plants and their practical use in these societies. For example, how plants relate to foods and medicines, for divination, cosmetics and dyeing (textiles); and their relationship with construction, literature, rituals, tools, clothing, currency and social life. All these aspects provide valuable insights to these cultures and the practical aspects of plants. Indeed, even peyote is considered sacred and beneficial by some standards, by some people endorsing ethnobotany's healing powers. What a trip, huh?
The Academics of Ethnobotany: Ethnobotanists, such as the renowned Gary Nabhan, Michael Moore (not the filmmaker), and nonprofit organizations such as Native Seed Search aim to document, describe and explain complex relationships between cultures and the use of plants. In the beginning of the 20th Century, the field of ethnobotany experienced a radical shift from the raw compilation of data to a greater methodological and conceptual reorientation. This is also the start of academic ethnobotany. The founding father of this discipline is Richard Evans Schultes. However, Native American and Mexican cultures have also been working with plants for centuries, and for a variety of purposes. Indeed, Native American medicine men and Mexican curanderos (a lay healer) have served as intermediary healers of the sick for centuries. Nevertheless, Mr. Schultes, et al., have brought ethnobotany to the forefront of science, even culture given the way it has literally restored a historical importance to Native Americans and Mexican folk medicine over the past one hundred or so years.
Today, the field of ethnobotany requires a variety of skills: botanical training for the identification and preservation of plant specimens; anthropological training to understand the cultural concepts around the perception of plants; and linguistic training, at least enough to transcribe local terms and understand native morphology, syntax and semantics.
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The Science of Ethnobotany: An abundance of information about the traditional uses of plants is still intact with Native American tribal people and Hispanic communities, particularly throughout Mexico. Traditionally, native healers were often reluctant to accurately share their knowledge to outsiders. However, that mindset has since changed because of the infusion of ethnobotany in a societal structure that’s more prone to sharing than hoarding safeguarded secrets held for centuries. Science has also advanced the study of ethnobotany through culture in three important ways:
• Paleoethnobotany is a branch of archaeology which studies how people historically used plants.
• Plant remains found in archaeological sites reveal details about the people who once lived there (primarily their diets, eating habits and nutrition).
• The work of paleo-ethnobotanists who study the remains of ancient plants (mainly seeds) preserved in archaeological contexts which can be retrieved by flotation.
Like contemporary people, prehistoric people needed to eat a balanced diet with protein, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins and minerals. Such historical evidence reveals how people subsisted on a diet of hunted meat, and gathered wild nuts, plants and fruits. Plants particularly high in kilocalories were sought out (sumpweed, sunflower and squash). Hickory is even higher. Pinion (or piñon) pine nuts were, perhaps, one of the most important food staples for Native Americans of the Southwest and very high in calories. Plant oils were not only incorporated into food for these people, but also used as a base for body paints and for dressing hair. Equally, plants were used for cordage and clothing, housing and fire, tools, and of course medicines. The three sisters––maize, beans, and squash––were especially important in the diet of Native Americans throughout North America. Long domesticated in Mexico, these main crops quickly spread into the Southwest and were cultivated by tribal people.
Although hundreds of plants were used for a variety of reasons, in this supplement’s overview only the most popular plants will be mentioned as prime examples. Remarkably, in some cases evidence shows how different tribes used the same plants, but with a different intent for medicinal healing. In other words, one tribe might make use of a plant as a diuretic (elevates the rate of urination and thus provides a means of forced diuresis), while another tribe might use the plant for something entirely different. Thus, there are commonalities, as medicinal intent, shared by all plants, but also different applications pertaining to the culture, or even its tradition, applies.
Common Medicinal Plants: The medicinal benefits of plants shows the variety of ways in which plants are used by cultures across the centuries. Notably, it’s in the preparation that often makes the difference latent in the plant’s remedy. One can also have a veritable natural drug store to choose from in the plant kingdom if the intrinsic value of plant medicine is known. For example, common willows reflect part of their natural merit for humans as ideal for the reduction of inflammation, headaches, and fevers to mention some cures. This is because the glycosides (salicin and populin) are excreted in the urine as salicylic acid––the ingredient of aspirin. Willows are commonly found in riparian environments (streamside), but how does one harness its medicinal value as an antidote? The answer is found by reading books written about ethnobotany. The above-mentioned Michael Moore is one such renowned author.
Kindly note: To take three common examples of how various Native American tribes might use the same plant, consider THREELEAF SUMAC (Rhus trilobata).
Sometimes called Lemonade or Squaw Bush, historically this plant with its rounded, shrubby growth appeals to many Native Americans. For example, the high tannin content of sumac branches and leaves has led Hopi weavers to use it in making their natural dye mordants, which are prime chemicals used to set the color of a dye and make it insoluble in water. Hopi, Navajo and Puebloans all mix crushed sumac bracelets and leaves with yellow ocher mineral and piñon pine pitch to produce black pigment for dying wool or baskets. Navajo also use fermented sumac berries to produce an orange-brown dye. The other name of this plant, lemonade bush, is so named because of its tart berries that tastes like this citrus fruit. When ground up and mixed with water or tea, the result creates a favored drink. Hopi people suffering from tuberculosis once used a combination of sumac roots and piñon pine parts to combat the effects of the disease, while Navajo used pulverized leaves to treat stomach aches and a variety of skin problems. A concoction of sumac berries also has been used by the tribe as a treatment for hair loss. Alas, the same plant offers a variety of possibilities for different tribes.
LUPINE (Lupinnus spp.) is another prime example, for this plant of the pea family also provides a variety of uses.
For example, both the Hopi and Navajo apply lupine medicinally for external maladies (because lupines are poisonous and do not favor an internal application). Hopis make an eyewash from the plant, while Navajos grind the peeled roots into a paste, which is then applied to bruises, boils and poison ivy blisters. The plant is also used to cure earaches and nosebleeds. The Navajo even plant the leaves with watermelon seeds to ensure a good crop! This should not be surprising given how these plants are grown for fodder and help improve a soil’s nitrogen content.
EVENING-PRIMROSE (Oenothera spp) provides a third example of multi-use among Native Americans.
Hopis smoked it as a tobacco and used another species of primrose to ward off the common cold. They also treated sore eyes with evening-primrose parts and associate its white, lovely flowers with the northeast direction which is also important to their culture. By comparison, Navajos used many different species of this plant for medicine, and several are included in their Life Medicine mix. For example, used as a liniment evening-primrose has been effective for treating boils. Roots were also ground to treat stomach aches and the flowers mashed and applied as a dusting powder on sores or as a poultice for spider bites. Mixed with flax and wild buckwheat it was a remedy for kidney disease. Some Navajos even used the plant for gynecological problems, specifically a prolapsed uterus. Fairly recently, oil of evening-primrose has been shown to be effective in treating feminine disorders. It’s thus a common natural remedy found in all modern health food stores.
How and why various Native American tribes came up with various uses of plants is indeed intriguing. William W. Dunmire and Gail D. Tierney’s “Wild Plants and Native Peoples of the Four Corners” is one of the more popular and definitive works on this subject. It’s highly suggested reading material for those who have an interest in nature’s plant, flower, and tree life forms beyond their usual purpose and feature.
Note: In some plants, the genus is followed either by “sp” or “spp,” which should never be italicized. ‘SP’ indicates the scientists are confident that some individuals (of the mentioned plant) belong to a particular genus, but are not sure to the exact species they belong. “SPP” is a curt way of saying that something applies to many species within a genus, but do not wish to say that it applies to all species within that genus. If scientists mean that something applies to all species within a genus, they use the genus name without the specific epithet (‘sp’ or ‘spp’).
POPULAR MEDICINAL PLANT LIST:
• ACACIA (Acacia gregii): Common names are catclaw acacia; fern acacia.
These plants are found in all deserts of the Southwest except the central and northern parts of the Great Basin. Fern acacia is mostly in the southern part of Arizona; the others typically widespread. Medicinal use (of the pods) for conjunctivitis; diarrhea and dysentery
• AGAVE (Llliaceae): Common names are century plant; maguey.
Similar to yucca, agave is a more robust plant with broader, thicker spiny-edged leaves and a flowering stalk forming armlike branches. The root contains sapogenin, hecogenin, tigogenin (etc.) which translates to ordinary soap and shampoo, and chemical ingredients common to manufacturing steroids. Otherwise, the fresh leaf tincture and the dried tea mixture are useful for GI tonics, indigestion, gassy fermentation and chronic constipation. Very helpful for gas pain and colic. Consider, too, the root can be used for arthritis, although use sparingly for this purpose.
• CANAIGRE (Rumex hymenosepalus): Common names are red dock, pie plant, wild rhubarb.
This plant’s thick and somewhat succulent leaves are sour to the taste. The root is high in tannins and serves mainly as an astringent (a compound that tends to shrink body tissues, usually locally after topical medicinal application). Good for sunburn protection. The leaves (fresh or dried) have probable antihistamine effects and help to modify and depress local inflammations caused by hives and chafing. Navajos use the plant for sores and inflammations on the face, mouth and neck.
• CHAPARRAL (Larrea tridentata): Common names are creosote bush, greasewood and hediondilla.
These plants are ubiquitous throughout the West and Southwest. When applied to the skin as a tea, tincture or salve, this plant slows down the rate of bacterial growth and kills it with its antimicrobial activity. Therefore, an excellent first-aid and long-term dressing for skin abrasions and injuries. Internally, if one can stand the strong (dis)taste, as a tincture, chaparral has a beneficial effect upon impaired liver metabolism. It can also aid those with poor-quality blood lipids. There’s even evidence this plant inhibits damage to the liver and lungs. Thus, it’s a useful application in the treatment of joint pain, allergies, autoimmune disease, among other ailments. Some studies also show it can inhibit and stimulate the growth of cancer cell, so one has to know what kind of cancer is being treated (either the plant will inhibit cancer cells or spawn same).
• CLIFFROSE (Cowania mexicana): Common name is quinine bush.
Not only is this a highly fragrant plant (when blooming), but using the chopped and boiled stems and leaves makes a soothing, though bitter, cough suppressant. The tea also aids backaches.
• CYPRESS (Cupressus arizonica): This medium-sized evergreen tree has a scent crossed between juniper and pine, with a little citrus thrown in to confuse matters.
The tincture of its fresh twigs is effective at treating all skin fungus infections, including ringworm, athlete’s foot and jock itch, among others. A tea made from the rich, green twigs will also inhibits urinary tract bacteria when they are the cause of urethritis and cystitis. The ground dried twigs are also useful and make an aromatic incense and may be layered in stored woolens to repel insects.
• ECHINACEA (Echinacea angustifolia): Common names are Black Sampson, purple coneflower, Kansas snakeroot and spider flower.
Used internally as well as topically, this plant stimulates the body’s defenses across a broad range. It speeds the responses of white blood cells during their attacking and digesting of bacteria, toxic immune-complex proteins, and the larger viruses that cause influenza, herpes and vesicular stomatitis. Excellent plant for boosting immune defense mechanisms. Ergo, an excellent universal healing plant. It can even accelerate the repair of tissue damage, help heal tendons, ligaments and muscle sheaths.
• ENCELIA (Encelia farinosa): Common names are incienso and brittlebush.
The tea has a strongly bitter and slightly numbing effect. It’s a popular folk remedy in northern Mexico used for arthritis generated by cold and damp weather. Some Mojave Indians use it for a mouthwash and retained gargle for tooth and gum pain. A few sips of the hot tea will efficiently induce sweating when trying to break a cold or flu fever. Of course, as the Latin name suggests, encelia is often used as incense.
• EUCALYPTUS (Eucalyptus globulus): Common name is blue gum tree.
This aromatic tea induces sweating, stimulates kidney function and inhibits microorganisms in the bronchial and sinus mucosa. An excellent respiratory treatment. Also can kill yeast or bacteria in the upper stomach lining (as a cure for stomach fermentation). Topically, eucalyptus can kill most bugs on the skin and is a decent cleansing wash, both astringent and antimicrobial (when used before bandaging or dressing a wound).
• HOLLYHOCK (Althea rosea).
The root or leaf tea is an old and favored treatment for sore throats, stomach or duodenal ulcers, intestinal tract infections and vomiting and diarrhea, kidney and urinary tract infections; also as a douche for vaginal inflammations.
• JOJOBA (Simmondia chinensis): Common names are coffeeberry and goat nut.
The leaves are good for chronic mucous-membrane inflammation, ranging from chronic colitis, vaginitis, and hemorrhoids to stomach and esophageal ulcers. In part of Mexico jojoba is used for asthma and emphysema (albeit used mainly for aiding the injured pulmonary membranes than addressing any underlying causes). For sore throats or tonsillitis this is the choice tonic.
• JUNIPER (Juniperus monosperma): Common names are cedar and sabina.
Primarily, these small trees or shrub-like plants are used as an urinary tract herb, and most often used for cystitis and urethritis. However, juniper should not be used when there’s a kidney infection or chronic kidney weakness. Of course, the juniper berries are a necessity in certain marinades (wild game, like venison) and in cooking any wild-tasting meat. Equally, the leaves make a good garnish for fish and wild fowl.
• MANZANITA (Arctotaphylos): Common names are madrono borracho and pinguica.
Helps break down into various quinones (a class of organic compounds that are formally derived from aromatic compounds) in the urine by treating UTI or urinary-tract infections, also bladder gravel and the irritations that follow catheterization. Manzanita is for short-term use only. Internally, the tannins in the plant can irritate the stomach lining, also liver.
• MESQUITE (Prosopis julifera): Common names are honey mesquite, screwbean and tornillo.
The tea of the powered plant is strongly astringent and somewhat antimicrobial. It can inhibit diarrhea and other GI track inflammations, from dyspepsia and ulcers to colitis and hemorrhoids. Externally, the tea is a cleansing wash for most any broken-skin injuries. The pods, if made as an eyewash, help conjunctivitis.
• MILK THISTLE (Silybum marianum): Common names are variegated and St. Mary’s thistle.
This plant (in the form of silymarin complex) is an ubiquitous curing agent––clinically, experimentally, pharmaceutically and over the counter (OTC), all for self-medication purposes. Its present role is an accepted liver protectant and immunologic support. It also can be used for hemorrhagic blood disorders resulting from liver and spleen disease, as well as its beneficial effects on liver congestion. Generally, milk thistle combines well with echinacea, yerba mansa and cypress in treating overt infections.
• MORMAN TEA (Ephedra spp). Common names are Navajo tea, squaw tea, cowboy tea, desert tea, American ephedra, joint fir and whorehouse tea.
This plant contains leonurine, an alkaloid with mild vasodilating effects. The herb itself is useful in smooth muscle, parasympathetic cramps. It’s frequently employed in menstrual camps associated with delayed menstruation caused by stress or illness. As a tea, it has been used by a variety of people (cultures) for a variety of reasons. It’s also a very common plant. Since this plant is from the ephedra family, it’s a popular treatment for asthma and hay fever, as well as for the common cold. At least this is what high-yield ephedra plants offer, though so-called Mormon Tea, the plant, is actually a low-yield variety.
• MULLEIN (Verbascum thapsus): Common names are velvet plant, blanket leaf, candlewick, and gordolobo.
This plant is an herb commonly used for the lung and throat and can be consumed in any rational quality needed. Essentially, it’s free of toxicity. It is a mild sedative to the lungs and is especially useful in the initial stages of an infection when there’s a mild fever, a raspy sensation in the throat or a dry feeling in the chest. The chopped leaves have also been smoked for centuries and used to relax spasmodic coughing in chest infections and asthma.
• PINON (Pinus edulus): There are many varieties of this common pine tree.
It’s generally associated with the so-called pygmy forest (because of the usual stunted growth) and is a common neighbor of the juniper tree. Its bumper crop of delectable pine nuts occurs anywhere from four to seven years. Pine needles make a pleasant tea mainly for the taste. They have a mild diuretic and expectorant function as well. The inner bark boiled slowly for tea and sweetened with honey is still stronger as an expectorant, useful after the feverish, infectious stage of a chest cold has passed. Pine pitch is the most specific of all. It’s chewed and swallowed and is shortly afterward followed by strong, fruitful expectoration and a general softening of the bronchial mucus. The pitch also has some value as a lower urinary tract disinfectant.
• PRICKLY PEAR (Opuntia phaeacantha): Common names are beavertail cactus, nopal; and tuna. Filleted pads are effective drawing poultices.
The gel in the cactus is strongly hydrophilic and hypertonic. Some of the fluid exudates that build up in the injury are absorbed osmotically through the skin and into the cactus pad itself, while the gel softens in the skin, decreases the tension against the injury, even alleviates pain. Smaller, skinned sections of the pad may be held between the gum and cheek to diminish the pain and inflammation from gum infections and mouth sores. In Mexico, the juice of the cactus is widely used as an anti-inflammatory diuretic. The juice also helps soothe irritated urethral tissue (and therefore great as an antidote for ‘honeymoon cystitis’). There’s even some indication this cactus works against diabetes.
• SAGE (Salvia): Common names are all the typical colors of sage plants––purple, scarlet, red, crimson, white).
This ubiquitous plant decreases excess skin secretions when taken internally. It also acts as a reliable astringent for gargling and washing externally, and for clear antimicrobial effects. The classic use is for helping to wean infants from breastfeeding. Other purposes are obvious: cooking and smudging.
• SAGEBRUSH (Artemisia tridentata): Common names are big sagebrush and chamiso.
The powered leaves are an old Native American remedy for diaper rash and moist-area chafing. The entire plant is strongly antimicrobial and has a trusted history of usage as a first air, disinfectant and cleansing wash. Sagebrush aromatics are also antimicrobial. Some people, perhaps most people, use the smoke of burning leaves or the steam rising from moist sagebrush on coals to clear the air of pestilence, even spirits of the dead. This plant is the tried and true sauna and sweat lodge plant for ritual and literal purification. Other uses are obvious: preserving foods and protection from bugs and rodent attack.
• YUCCA (Yucca spp.): Common names are amole, Spanish bayonet, Joshua tree, datil and Spanish dagger.
Useful in the treatment of joint inflammations and typical arthritis disorders. The tea also has some value for urethra or prostate inflammation. Can also be added to shampoo or used by itself for washing dry hair.
Consider how the following plants also added to the replete medicinal store of plants growing in the wild:
agrimony, alfalfa, alum root, Amaranth, amole lily, Apache plume, arnica, arroweed, asparagus, baneberry, betony, birch, broomrape, burdock, California poppy, catnip, chicory, coneflower, corydalis, cow parsnip, dandelion, elderberry, evening primrose, figwort, fremontia, gentian, hop tree, horehound, jimson weed (a/k/a sacred datura), larkspur, lobelia, maidenhair fern, mallow, marsh marigold, mistletoe, mountain mahogany, nettle, oak, Oregon grape root, pennyroyal, penstemon, peony, pipsissewa, poplar, rabbitbrush, raspberry, red clover, spearmint, storksbill, sweet clover, toadflax, uva ursi, vervain, yarrow and yerba
All these mentionable plants account for some of the even longer list often used and studied in ethnobotany, and for a variety of purposes. Medicinal use, however, is one of the most popular utilities of plants, even select flowers that swell the list by hundreds more.
As previously mentioned, willows, particularly the COYOTE WILLOW (Salix exigua) variety, was one of the most functional and ubiquitous plants found along streams.
It was widely used medicinally as tea, mashed roots, or powdered bark to treat all sorts of ailments from toothaches and dysentery to dandruff. But its main compound, salicin (aspirin to most people) is more than likely the most common reason for its abundant use long before pharmaceutical companies made and marketed a variety of aspirin-like products intended for a wider use.
I'm thinking some of you, when passing a plant or a tree, may begin to think beyond the appearance and aesthetic value, indeed, if the plant is comely. Think, instead, how nature provides its own free outdoor market, only consisting of plants or trees, can be used for a variety of purposes. The trick is knowing how the life form can be used, but also the formulas that work best (boiling, eating raw, applied to the skin, as powers, and so on).
The next time you flip out over the price of pharmaceutical products, whether over-the-counter meds or prescription drugs, think about something Nature already provides for free. You just have to know where to look for it or make a connection with someone who knows how to cure ailments using natural products. Of course, you can also help yourself and wellness by adhering to a healthy diet and exercise. This way you can be assured of a better quality of life and a body-mind field that stays healthier.
If you are interested in learning more about this fascinating subject, here's a couple places to begin looking. . .
And here's a book and a source I highly recommend reading; also written by one of the top and most famous researchers in ethnobotany:
As always, thoughtful commentary is welcomed.
P. S. Believe it or not, this powerful substance was once sold to children and adults alike. My, my, how times and tastes have changed, huh?