Desert Blooms — Prehistoric Pharmacy
The desert provides a surprising list of healing plants.

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Prehistoric Pharmacy

The Desert provides a surprising list of healing plants




While the archaeological record has yielded only fragmentary direct evidence, we can infer – from what we have learned from the traditions of historic Native American medicine men, families and individuals – that various wild plants of our desert have played a vital role in physical and spiritual healing for many generations.

As Virginia Scully said in her book A Treasure of American Indian Herbs, the “Indians’ medicine man … was a hard-working scientist doing his business with imagination, patience and dedication.” He met, she said, with other medicine men to grow and nourish a collective body of knowledge about the medicinal use of plants. “The result was that … the Indian pharma-copoeia in the West was more or less uni-versal and unified by the time … the white men came.”

We can infer, too, the Native Americans shared their knowl-edge with early Euro-pean settlers, leaving an indelible imprint on the newly arrived culture. In his book Curandero, University of New Mexico’s Eliseo “Cheo” Torres (with Timothy L. Sawyer, Jr.), said “Plants, in my family – especially those used for medicinal purposes – were almost like another member of the family … When I was a child, I remember how my mother would go out every morning and evening and water the plants, all the while talking to them as if they are her children.” As we would discover, creosote bush, ephedra, prickly pear cacti, jimson weed and various other desert plants served as a vast pharmacy for the health care of the prehistoric peoples of the northern Chihuahuan Desert.

The Creosote Bush

The creosote bush, possibly the longest- living organism on our planet, ranks high, if not at the top, of the list of the most dominant and widely distributed shrubs of our southwestern deserts. Advertised by the tell-tale pungent scent of its foliage, especially after a rain, it has long served as a one-stop pharmacy for medications to treat diverse ailments. (Spanish-speaking people call the creosote bush “hediondilla,” or “little stinker.”)

The creosote bush in bloom.

The creosote bush has been used “to treat over 40 maladies, from acne to venereal disease,” said Jack Copeland, writing for the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center. Its leaves, for instance, contain a “powerful antioxidant, known as NDGA,” which endows the plant with “antibacterial, antifungal, antiviral, anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties.” Its stems, “crushed in water helped reduce the pain of rheumatism,” according to the University of Texas at El Paso Centennial Museum and Gardens. “Creosote tea, a foul-tasting liquid, was used to treat tuberculosis, and its vapor inhaled for other respiratory ailments.” As Copeland said, the shrub may someday find uses in the treatment of diseases such as HIV, herpes simplex, cancer and neurodegenerative conditions.

If misused, it should be noted, the creosote bush can lead to physical problems such as kidney and liver ailments and even death. If proven by ongoing research and laboratory studies, however, the creosote bush could someday find its way into modern pharmacies.


Widely distributed across the American Southwest, Mexico, South America, Asia, the Middle East and Mediterranean countries, the ephedra family has long played a role in healing for the human family. For instance, its remnants have been found, with other medicinal plants, in a 60,000-year-old Neanderthal gravesite in a cave in Iraq, according to Maya Strunk, Medicinal Plants of the Southwest.

Known in the Southwest by many nicknames – for example, Mormon tea, squaw tea, cowboy tea, whorehouse tea, canyon tea, joint-fir, joint-pine, yellow horse and country mallow – the medium-sized shrub has straight and cylindrical limbs. Its scale- like leaves – no more than a small fraction of an inch in length – grow at the joints of the plant’s stems.

Rich in the herbal stimulant ephedrine, the ephedra found use as a remedy for conditions as diverse as bronchial and stomach ailments, ulcers, oral canker sores and bad colds. (Ephedrine, it must be noted, can also trigger reactions such as increased blood pressure, heart arrhythmia, seizure and stroke.) Ephedra powder, made from ground stems and roots, served as a poultice for treating burns or open sores. In historic times, ephedra tea, brewed up by cowboys, served as a treatment for venereal diseases contracted in frontier bawdy houses, giving the plant those common names of “cowboy tea” and “whorehouse tea.”

Prickly Pear Cacti

“Prickly pears,” said Carolyn Dodson, A Guide to Plants of the Northern Chihuahuan Desert, “are the most widespread of all cacti, found naturally from Alaska to Argentina.” An iconic and widely adaptable plant of our desert, the prickly pear has served as a staple for healing as well as for nourishment for thousands of years.

Split and de-thorned pads would function, it was believed, as a thick bandage, or pad, to soothe and heal cuts, abrasions, abscesses, minor burns, insect bites and even snake bites. They also served to reduce arthritic inflammation, manage joint pain and control swelling. The fleshy pulp from within the pads, applied as a poultice to festering wounds, helped clear up infection and reduce pain. The spines, roasted then bound below the chin to the side of the neck, would reduce the swelling and pain arising from mumps, said Scully. Glochids – the tiny barbed hair-like spines that surround the plant’s large spines – rubbed into warts and moles would, it was believed, remove the blemish, according to James Cornett, Indian Uses of Desert Plants. The flowers, suggested Ran Knishisky, Prickly Pear Cactus Medicine, may have been used to treat the symptoms of an enlarged prostate. The plant, said Knishisky, “has been the subject of research, medicinal studies, and analysis in Mexico and throughout the world.”

Sacred Datura

The sacred datura, with its night- blooming white and lavender-tinted trumpet-shaped blossoms, provided medicine men and shamans an enticing drug-induced entranceway into the spirit world, where they sought divine inspiration and guidance for themselves and their people. Imbued with vision-inducing – and poisonous! – alkaloids, one sacred datura plant might lead to a deep visionary state.

Prickly pear tunas, or fruits, were a delicacy in prehistoric meals.

A neighboring sacred datura, imbued with a different concentration of alkaloids, might swiftly poison and kill a user. A member of the Deadly Nightshade Family, the beautiful but dangerous sacred datura bears diverse common names such as belladonna (beautiful lady), devil’s trumpet, moon flower, green dragon, angel’s trumpet and stink weed. A historian, Robert Beverly, quoted by Larry

W. Mitich in the Intriguing World of Weeds Internet site, said that after eating a species that grows in Virginia, English colonial soldiers “turned natural fools upon it for several days: One would blow up a feather in the air; another would dart straws at it with much fury; and another, stark naked, was sitting up in a corner like a monkey, grinning and making mows [grimaces] at them; a fourth would fondly kiss and paw his companions…”

Other Medicinal Plants

While the creosote bush, ephedra, prickly pear and sacred datura ranked among the more frequently used plants in the desert’s prehistoric pharmacy, numerous other plants also found a place in the early healer’s medicine bag.

The ocotillo, with the Organ Mountains in the background, produced roots that served several medical purposes.

For instance, the ocotillo, with its cluster of tall, unbranched, spiny, whip-like stems, had several medicinal uses, according to Cornett. A powder, made by grinding ocotillo roots, served several medicinal purposes. Made into tea, it relieved coughing. Applied to an injury, it reduced swelling and pain. Mixed with hot water, it made a soothing bath that helped relieve fatigue.

The honey and screwbean mesquite trees’ catkins and, especially, their beans were a major food source for the prehistoric people of the desert, but also, said Cornett, the plants’ leaves, boiled, yielded a tea for treating diarrhea. Leaves mixed with twigs became key ingredients in a disinfectant for cuts and abrasions. Bean pods became a component for a mix used to treat eye infections.

The tarbush, a relatively small shrub with a spreading network of roots, provided leaves that, boiled, yielded a concoction that could be used to treat gastrointestinal disorders or respiratory disorders.

The cottonwood – a welcome sight to early travelers because it often signaled water – held prominence along the Rio Grande, where it might grow as tall as 90 feet, with a trunk five feet in diameter. (The cottonwood also grow at White Sands National Monument, where there is no surface water, but where its roots could reach the shallow water table.) The cottonwood’s heavy bark, said Scully, became splints for broken bones; it flowers, an ingredient for blood purification; and it leaves, a component in an edema (fluid accumulation) treatment. Most notably, said Scully, “… the black cottonwood bark was considered an unfailing cure for syphilis.”

The sprawling, flowering plant known as “devil’s claw” – named for its wicked-looking hooked seed pod – became prized not only for its fibers, long used in Native Amer- ican basketmaking, but also for its roots and thick underground stems, used in pain-relieving medicine making. The mixture found particular use in relieving the pain of osteoarthritis and lower back aches.

The allthorn, or crucifixion thorn – virtually leafless, green, intricately branched, stunningly thorned – sometimes grows in thickets that would have well served Brer Rabbit. It was that hare, as you will recall, who pled with Brer Fox, “I don’t care what you do with me … just so you don’t fling me into the briar patch.” As Clark Champie said in Strangers in the Franklins “No cactus plant can claim to be spinier than this weird plant … No one, having seen it, will wonder why it is called Allthorn.” Nevertheless, all parts of the allthorn – fruit, branches, thorns and roots – when boiled in water yielded a potion that apparently alleviated stomach ailments and, possibly, parasitic infections. The Indian paintbrush, with something of a schizophrenic personality, uses its colorfully- tipped leaves to charm the eye above the surface of the ground but uses its tubular roots to parasitize neighboring plants below the surface. “The Navajos,” said Dayna Drollinger, New Mexico State University, “used these plants for medicinal purposes such as a contraceptive or to decrease the menstrual cycle.”

The desert willow, with its trumpet-shaped springtime blooms that resemble the heart of some orchids’ blooms, is unrelated to either any willow or orchid species. A shrub that grows along dry washes, its “flowers, leaves, or bark can be used as a hot poultice or a soothing tea for coughing,” according to authors writing for the Medicinal Plants of the Southwest Internet site. A tea made from the flowers “promotes cardiovascular health and regulates glucose metabolism.”

The bluebonnet, or lupine, which had a role in ceremonies of several Southwest Native American peoples, filled several medicinal purposes, according to Dykeman Roebuck Archaeology, a cultural resources consulting firm. Its leaves, mixed into a lotion, soothed poison ivy blisters. Other lupine mixtures helped relieve boils, eye infections, ear aches and nose bleeds.

The silverleaf nightshade, toxic unless prepared properly, found its way into various prehistoric medicine cabinets. For example, according to the Texas Beyond History Internet site, the silverleaf nightshade served the Zuni Puebloans in treating toothaches and snakebites, the Navajos in treating respiratory problems and stomach ailments, and the Pimas for treating bad colds and eye infections. Mexican folk healers called the plant “buena mujer,” or “good woman.”

Many other desert plants – for instance, the desert mallow, acacia, yuccas, agaves, barrel cactus and cattails – held a place in the physical and spiritual healing of the prehistoric peoples of the Southwest. Today, however, modern pharmaceutical products have largely displaced the prehistoric plant pharmacy, and a vast reservoir of knowledge the Indian peoples held about their botanical environment is being lost.

“As society moves onward,” said Cornett, “it risks leaving behind the accumulated knowledge of the desert’s first people.”


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