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From the Good Earth
Herbs are deeply rooted in New Mexico life

Story by Sharon Niederman

Running through the heart of New Mexico culture — rooted in memories of ancient times and practices still very much alive today — is a vibrant green stem that connects the people to their past and to each other. As sources of food, medicine and ceremony, herbs are vital to the living traditions of this place.

New Mexico’s apothecary, as well as its kitchen cupboard, contains wild natives like osha, willow (the original aspirin), chokecherry and yucca. Mediterranean imports of sweet basil, lavender and rosemary were brought by the Spanish, whose herbal knowledge stretches back to Moorish, Arabic and early Judeo-Christian teachings. Some familiar herbs, like sage and spearmint, the beloved yerba buena, a helpful cure for stomach and digestive ailments, grow in indigenous, Mediterranean and hybridized varieties.

During the 19th century, homesteaders added their knowledge of herbs of the British Isles, Germany and northern Europe to the pool of common wisdom. And this pool continues to grow ever larger with immigrants from Asia, Central America and Mexico. “From the movement and trading of indigenous people onward, the plants went where the people went. As people moved farther and crossed oceans, they still took their plants with them. The more useful the plant, the more valuable, and therefore the more likely it traveled with people,” says David Ferguson, curator of the Río Grande Botanic Garden. “It’s not like it happened a long time ago and stopped,” he says.

The following is just a small sampling of New Mexico’s most beloved and useful herbs.

Sweet Basil (Albahaca)

“You can never have too much basil,” the greenhouse man told me as I picked up a box of a half-dozen plants for my herb garden. How right he was. All summer long I snip invigorating, flavorful basil leaves for salads, spaghetti sauce, omelets, pestos and salsas. Basil is an herb that runs the gamut from the kitchen table to the apothecary and deep into the belief system.

According to Eliseo Torres, an administrator at the University of New Mexico who is also a student, author and practitioner of folk medicine of the Southwest and Mexico, basil tea, made with either one tablespoon fresh or one teaspoon dry leaves, works as a mild sedative and antispasmodic to relieve muscle or stomach cramps. It is also helpful, mixed with honey and nutmeg, to aid childbirth and ease menstrual pain.

In her classic book Healing Herbs of the Upper Río Grande: Traditional Medicine of the Southwest, first published in 1947, L.S.M. Curtin mentions a traditional belief of New Mexicans that carrying basil in a pocket brings luck. Another traditional belief she cites is a ritual use of basil to return a straying husband.

Basil, like sage, is also used for spiritual cleansing, to sweep negative vibrations from the body and rid a person of susto, a shock or fright, Torres says.

Fresh Basil and Roasted Garlic Bruschetta

1 head of garlic, peeled, doused with olive oil, wrapped in foil and roasted at 250 degrees for 40 minutes
1 good handful fresh basil leaves, chopped
1/3 c. fresh-grated Parmesan
1 T. olive oil
1 small loaf crusty French bread

Squeeze each clove of roasted garlic into a bowl. Gradually add basil and Parmesan, working ingredients into a “butter” with a pestle until smooth. Spread a thin layer on toasted bread rounds and place under a hot broiler until they begin to turn golden brown, 3 to 5 minutes. Garnish each bruschetta with a piece of oil-cured sun-dried tomato on a fresh basil leaf, if you like.

Lavender (Alhucema)

While the deliciously scented lavender is found more often in soaps, body lotions and sachets than on dinner plates, lavender-flavored desserts of ice cream and pastry are showing up these days on menus of sophisticated restaurants. As lavender thrives in New Mexico, we hear increasingly of lavender festivals, notably one held annually the first weekend of August at Rancho Manzana in Chimayó, and we encounter stalls of lavender products at farmers markets. Lavender oil, prized for its calming powers, is traditionally used to bring restful sleep and relieve headaches.

Aspen Evans, native plant specialist and manager of the Santa Ana Nursery four miles west of Bernalillo, suggests harvesting lavender flowers while they are in full bloom. Cut the stems, wrap them loosely in a tied paper bag and hang them upside down. As soon as they are dry, strip the flowers and leaves and place them in an airtight jar. This method of curing works well for all fresh herbs.

Aspen’s Dream Pillow
(makes one 4-inch square pillow)

1 oz. dried mint leaves
1 oz. dried lavender flowers
1/2 oz. dried rosemary
1/4 oz. dried sweet basil
1/4 oz. patchouli
1 T. musk oil

Mix ingredients in a large bowl. Stitch the fabric on three sides. Stuff the pillow with herb mixture. Sew the fourth side of the pillow. Sweet dreams!

Chokecherry (Capulín)

Throughout New Mexico, from Cimarron Canyon to the Manzano Mountains, families forage for the wild chokecherry, one of the most widely spread edible and medicinal native plants in North America. Many New Mexico families have “their” trees, to which they turn season after season to harvest. The chokecherry’s sour taste mellows out once it is dried or cooked. Dried chokecherries were pounded with jerky to make the Indians’ nutritious and portable pemmican, while the bark was steeped in hot water to make a cough remedy.

Basic Chokecherry Juice

To prepare basic chokecherry juice — the essential ingredient of jelly, liqueur or syrup — stem and wash 3 1/2 pounds of cleaned cherries. Combine in a large kettle with 3 cups of water. Cover and bring to a boil, then simmer for 15 minutes. Let the cherries cool, then pour into an old, clean T-shirt or pillowcase set in a large bowl or pan. This apparatus may then be suspended over the pan for several hours. One pound of berries yields approximately one cup of juice.

At my house, the favorite breakfast is blue corn piñon pancakes with chokecherry syrup, which I make by warming the jelly and thinning it with water.

Chokecherry Jelly

3 c. prepared chokecherry juice
6 1/2 c. sugar
2 pouches Certo (6 oz.)

Add juice to sugar. Mix well. Stir constantly on high heat. Bring to a full rolling boil that continues boiling while you stir. Add Certo all at once. Continue stirring. Bring to a full rolling boil again. Allow to boil for 1 minute. Remove from heat. Skim foam. Pour hot liquid through funnel into sterilized jars placed on a tray. Seal and store. Makes 6 jars jelly. (Certo recipe used by Eloise Henry of Ratón for at least 50 years).

Oshá (Chuchupate)

Possibly the best known and most revered of our native herbs is oshá, also know as la planta milagrosa and considered a cure-all. According to Torres, oshá grows best in high altitudes at 9,000 feet. Taos County is famous for its oshá.

Oshá is prevalent as a cure in both Native and Spanish cultures. Elders rely on a tea made with shaved oshá root as an immune-system booster to ward off flu, they chew a piece of root with salt for sore throats and make a cough syrup by mixing the ground root with honey. It is believed that oshá will also protect against snakes, and it is often placed in medicine bags to ward off evil spirits.

Once, when I was attending winter night dances at Zuni, I was given a piece of oshá to keep in my mouth for protection. Torres also recommends using oshá in cooking, as its flavor “between celery and parsley” adds zest to roasts and stews.

Yucca (Amole)

Native ingenuity made use of every part of the yucca, a plant that grows wild almost everywhere in New Mexico, for food, medicine and comfort. Its sharply pointed leaves were transformed into weaving material for making baskets, rope, scandals and mats. The Apaches boiled the plump white flowers or ate them raw, while the Navajos traditionally dried the yucca fruit and baked it. Its foaming qualities make it a valued soap and shampoo, one the Hopis believe can even restore hair. Native American oral histories tell of its use as a ceremonial wash for newborns. Plus, its steriod properties help relieve arthritis and rheumatism.

“The yucca is used for everything,” says Aspen Evans. “It is one of the Navajos’ basic healing-way plants. It is truly purifying, and used to wash before ceremonials. How useful it is!”

Books on New Mexico Herbs

  • Wild Plants of the Pueblo Province: Exploring Ancient and Enduring Uses By William W. Dunmire and Gail D. Tierney. Museum of New Mexico Press.
  • Healing Herbs of the Upper Río Grande: Traditional Medicine of the Southwest By L.S.M. Curtin, revised and edited by Michael Moore. Western Edge Press.
  • Native Science: Natural Laws of Interdependence By Gregory Cajete. Clear Light Publishers.
  • Green Medicine: Traditional Mexican-American Herbal Remedies By Eliseo Torres. Nieves Press.
  • Traditional Herbs de Nuevo México: A Complete Booklet of Traditional Uses and Beliefs of New Mexican Herbs By Felecia A. Meyer. Río Grande Herb Company.

— Sharon Niederman

This article was first published in
the February 2002 issue of
New Mexico Magazine

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