Human societies in desert terrain found numerous ways to sustain themselves through the use of plants that grow there. They harvested seeds, fruits and nuts, and used many other parts of the plants for making household objects, clothing, building shelter, and treating illnesses or injuries. As “modern” society engulfs traditional ones, it is important to preserve the knowledge that our predecessors on this land had – and have – about these native plants.
Prior to the arrival of the Spanish and other colonial settlers, desert survival depended on knowledge of local plants. The new arrivals introduced new plants and new ways of building houses or making clothes, but the use of local plants has continued, especially in rural areas, up to the present day. Native plants are still used by curanderos in treating various ailments - but it is strongly recommended that no one experiment with plants as medicine. The effects are unpredictable and can result in serious problems, even fatalities. Care should also be taken in trying out plants for food – an incorrect identification could give you a stomach-ache, or much worse.
The ubiquitous mesquite tree, foliage pictured right, was perhaps the most important food plant in the Chihuahuan Desert, and the other North American deserts where it is found. The seed, or bean, pods were eaten raw, or collected, ground, mixed with water, and eaten as is or dried into cakes. No heat was needed to produce this food. Mesquite flowers and leaves could be boiled up for tea. Various brews of leaves and twigs served as disinfectant for cuts and eyewash for conjunctivitis. Mesquite branches made the best bows. And mesquite firewood was prized – as it is today for grilling.
Similarly, all parts of the various agave species, example shown left, were used. Leaves, flower stalks, blossoms and seeds provided food year-round. Some Apache groups, such as the Mescalero now living in the Sacramento Mountains, roasted the massive pineapple-like stem that remains after the stout agave leaves are trimmed away. They consumed the cooked mash and fermented the extracted juice into a viscous beer-like alcoholic beverage called pulque. The more potent mescal and tequila are distilled from pulque. Fibers produced from the leaves by soaking and pounding were used to make bowstrings, clothing, rope, nets, baskets and sandals. Another Chihuahuan Desert stalwart, the sotol, was also roasted for food, as well as providing fibers, as did the yucca, one of the most useful of desert plants. Native Americans made soap using the detergent-like compound from the sap of the yucca roots. Yucca stalks, blossoms and seeds were also eaten.
The creosote bush, foliage shown right, served as a drugstore. The plant has a complex chemical makeup that repels almost all pests, and gives the characteristic strong smell, particularly after rain. Powdered leaves have an antibacterial quality. Stems crushed in water helped reduce the pain of rheumatism. Creosote tea, a foul-tasting liquid, was used to treat tuberculosis, and its vapor inhaled for other respiratory ailments. And the lac insect that lives on the plant provides a shellac-like material for mending pottery and making baskets waterproof.
Various cactus species also provided food. The fruits were eaten raw or cooked, and the seeds were ground into meal. The flat pads of the prickly pear, example shown left, could be eaten after the tiny spines called glocids were rubbed or singed from the jointed stems, which were then boiled. These are known today as nopalitos, and used in many traditional Mexican recipes.
Native Americans were well aware of the medicinal properties of the ephedra plant, foliage shown right. It is sometimes called sometimes called Mormon tea. An infusion prepared from either green or dried stems treated numerous ailments – canker sores, colds, kidney troubles, and stomach troubles. Dried roots and stems, ground to a powder, were used on wounds and burns.
A host of other plants that we see around us in the desert today contributed to the lives of the Indians. The desert willow was widely used for construction, as its pliable wood can be bent into shapes without breaking, and it is very resistant to decay. The ocotillo’s flowers and seeds provided food, and the wood of the ocotillo was used for firewood and fences, a practice still seen today. Gourds had food and medical uses, and when dry were turned into containers or musical rattles. Their roots contain saponin, used in making soap. The toxic (fatal if ingested) Jimson weed or datura had religious and medical uses. Bark from trees such as junipers and needles from pines could be turned into fibers for baskets and ropes, and their cones were harvested for edible seeds (piñones). (A specimen of an Apache Pine, which has the longest needles of any pine tree, can be seen in front of the Museum.) And the chilepequin peppers provided spice in the diet.
For more detailed information: How Indians Used Desert Plants by James W. Cornett, and Gathering the Desert by Gary Paul Nabhan, both in paperback, are two useful, and very readable, sources. Thanks also to Dr. Armando González Stuart of the UTEP/UT-Austin Cooperative Pharmacy Program for his informative guide on medicinal uses of Chihuahuan plants.