Medicinal plants of the Gila for healing ourselves in hard times and good.
Story and photos by Kiva Rose
The Gila is a complex and multi-faceted bioregion, containing a multitude of smaller distinct ecologies within it. From the low-elevation deserts to the sub-alpine mountain meadows to the riparian forests to the unique habitat formed in urban and village areas, we are blessed to be the inhabitants of an incredibly rich land. Our flora is especially impressive, and this region is one of the most botanically diverse areas in all of the Southwest.
When many people think of herbal medicine, they most often envision exotics like Schizandra or expensive (and often endangered) East Coast imports such as Goldenseal and American Ginseng. We sometimes forget what a strong herbal tradition the Southwest already has, focused primarily on our plentiful native plants. These remedies are easily the equal of, and often superior to, the more popular herbs of commerce. Even better, here in the Gila, many of these medicines grow as weeds in our backyards and wild plants along the nearest creek bank or rural roadside. They tend to be easily found, free to anyone who wants to invest the time to harvest them, and always on hand when needed.
I've highlighted some of our most common and effective local plant remedies in the small profiles below. While these are just short summaries of complex medicines, they will provide the reader with an idea of just how multi-faceted and profoundly useful our herbs really are:
Siberian Elm (Ulmus pumila) — This large tree is commonly found along roadsides and lining village streets. Originally from Asia, this landscape plant-turned-invasive weed is both overwhelmingly abundant and an incredibly useful medicinal plant. The bark and young twigs are mucilaginous when combined with water, making it very moistening and healing to inflamed tissues, both internally and externally. Any use commonly attributed to the more well-known Slippery Elm will also hold true for our more prevalent local species. It's especially useful in cases where there are hot, irritated tissues, as in bronchitis, gastritis, hepatitis and general systemic dryness in the body. When the bark is powdered and added to oatmeal, it can serve as a gentle yet nutritive food for those with impaired digestion or recovering from extended convalescence.
Cottonwood/Aspen (Populus spp.) — Cottonwoods are a clear indicator of water in the Southwest, and are most often found along rivers and creeks. Aspens thrive in the higher mountains among and above the spruces and firs. The Populus species are some of the Southwest's most effective external pain relievers; the bark and resinous buds can be used as a liniment or salve for almost any kind of muscular or joint ache or pain. Useful for bruises, contusions, sprains, strains and even broken bones, this herbal medicine takes down inflammation, swelling and greatly reduces local pain, stiffness and discomfort.
Vervain (Verbena and Glandularia spp.) — This small magenta-to-purple wildflower has a wide habitat that includes everything from rocky mesas to riversides to roadsides and parking lots. It can flower year-round but is most common during the monsoon season in mid- to late summer. The flowering tops have been a popular medicine nearly everywhere it (or its many relatives) has grown. Primarily used as a gentle nervine, it calms and soothes the nervous system and is useful in the treatment of anxiety, insomnia and irritation caused by fever or illness. As a hot tea, it acts as an effective diaphoretic, and can relieve the aches, pains and tension caused by cold or flu. Bitter and acrid in taste, it's also an digestive stimulant that helps increase the release of gastric juices.
Evening Primrose (Oenothera spp.) — The Gila is blessed with a wide variety of Evening Primrose species, most of them with night-blooming flowers that range from white to gold, often turning a brilliant shade of tangerine or pink as they wilt and fade at midday. Many species prefer the cool, moist environment of riverbanks and wetland areas, but I have also found large patches of them growing in vacant lots and along rural roadsides. The whole plant (root, leaf, flower and seedpod) made into a tincture or tea is a gentle but effective antispasmodic that works especially well for achy, relentless menstrual cramps or general muscle pain. It's also calming and makes a great lung tonic. Infused into an oil or salve, it's healing for wounds, bruises, strains, muscle cramping and a wide array of bug bites and stings.
California Poppy (Eschscholzia californica spp. mexicana) — This cheery gold-to-orange-flowered annual blooms in early spring at low elevation and late spring in the foothills and middle mountains. Found most often in gardens, along roadsides and grassy fields, the whole plant (including root, leaf, seedpod and flower) made into a tincture or tea is a classic remedy for insomnia, anxiety and mild to moderate pain, and is safe for both adults and children.
Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana) — Most abundant in moist arroyos of the middle mountains, these small trees are adorned with fragrant plumes of white flowers in the spring that ripen to dark purple berries in the late dummer. The bark and flowers are nervine and mood-elevating, and can act to relieve anxiety and depression. A traditional heart tonic, small doses of the tincture will often eliminate the heart palpitations that often accompany anxiety attacks, while addressing relaxing feelings of stress and worry. This cooling stomach medicine can treat a wide variety of digestive ailments, and can also help heal hot, irritated lung conditions and coughs.
Sumach (Rhus trilobata and allied spp.) — This red-berried bush is abundant throughout the foothills and middle-elevation mountains, often found in moist canyons, on roadsides and riversides. The leaves, bark and berries are all reliably astringent and can help to stem excessive loss of fluid anywhere in the body, including diarrhea, hemorrhage, profuse urination, sweating and/or vaginal discharge when taken as a tea or tincture. The dried leaves, when powdered and placed upon a wound, will effectively reduce inflammation, prevent infection and slow bleeding. The retain their potency even after years of storage and make a great first aid treatment in a variety of situations. The berries, when soaked in cold water, make a pleasant sour tasting beverage sometimes called sumachade that is very refreshing and cooling in the hot summer months.
The current economic and social situation makes feeding and healing ourselves personally and bioregionally more important than ever. Common and sustainable plant medicines such as these are important elements in the development of community-based self-sufficiency. With the increasing cost of medical care and startling lack of health insurance for the general public, herbal medicine presents an alternative and adjunct to Western medicine that is both affordable and sustainable for everyone — in the Gila and beyond.
Kiva Rose is the cofounder of the contemporary Medicine Woman Tradition, a practicing herbalist and the author of the Medicine Woman's Roots blog, medicinewomansroots.com. She will be leading a Gila Edible & Medicinal Plants Walk, 90 minutes north of Silver City, May 2 (donation). For information on her online correspondence courses, or to register for the Plants Walk, email her at email@example.com.