Last week I succumbed to the cold that has been going around Boulder. Luckily, unlike a lot of people I know that came down with it, I was only really sick for about a day and a half. That 36 hours was miserable, but at least it was short-lived. I had the whole thing in one go–coughing, aching joints, a quick round of fever, congestion, etc. I popped a couple (several) Tylenol PM for cold and flu and managed to sleep through the worst of it. It got me to thinking: What would I have done if I were living in 750 AD, along the San Juan river, or in Chaco Canyon? What was in the ancient medicine cabinet? With my lack of archaeo-botanical experience, I had to do a bit of research on this.
From among several sources, I found a great online resource that provided numerous well referenced examples of medicinal plants found in the Southwest. The Medicinal Plants of the Southwest Program: The MPSW program is funded by the National Institute of Health as part of the Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement (RISE) Program at NMSU. If medicinal plants are something you are interested in, check out the website.
Now, before I go on, lots of plants found in the Desert Southwest have medicinal uses. These qualities were found through a long process of trial and error by people living in the area for thousands of years. Lots of these plants are also toxic if used improperly, or without training. Before you go out and harvest a basket of leaves, berries, roots or bark for your next head cold, read up on what you’re about to eat, drink or apply to your body. I’m not responsible for any “unfortunate” results.
So, what if you were living in the Four Corners area in the 8th century and woke up one day not feeling so well? What did you do? What were your options?
Well, if you found yourself feeling under-the-weather, you had several choices depending on your ailment. This list barely scratches the surface:
- Agave or Century Plant: Chest congestion
- Narrow-leaf Yucca: Joint pain
- Three-leaf Sumac: Cold remedy, astringent, toothache, gastrointestinal aid, diuretic
- Desert Willow: Cough remedy, anti-fungal, first-aid for cuts/scrapes, antioxidant
- Sagebrush: Various gastrointestinal disturbances, skin ailments, snakebite, “women’s ailments”
- Hopi Tea: Toothache, kidney ailments
- Juniper: Diuretic, laxative, arthritis, asthma, congestion, cough, and stiffness
- Mesquite: Eye conditions, open wounds, antacid, skin problems
- Pinyon: Expectorant, diuretic
- Capsicum (peppers): Cold remedy, pain reliever, stomach pain, cuts (bleeding), sore throat
- Creosote Bush: Fever, colds, upset stomach, gas, gout, arthritis, sinusitis, anemia, and fungal infections
- Globe Mallow: Purge, diuretic, sore muscles
Basically, if there was something ailin’ ya, there was a medicinal plant available to help relieve your symptoms. You didn’t need a prescription, it didn’t cost you a $25 copay, and you didn’t have to stand in line at Rite-Aid to buy it. You just needed the accumulated experience/knowledge of those had come before you and experimented with the various plants at their disposal. One of your parents or grandparents might have taken you out and shown you what worked and what didn’t. You would just want to be sure and pay attention! How many intrepid, would-be healers overdosed on some toxic plant or other before they figured out that if you apply it incorrectly the results can be less than pleasant?