It’s that time of the year not only to start drying and freezing fruit and vegetables, but also to start foraging for remedios, as has been done in northern New Mexico for centuries.
With today’s health crisis, many people are turning to medicinal herbs for their health problems. In northern New Mexico this is nothing new, as people have depended on all types of plants, shrubs and trees, including their roots, to take care of whatever ails them.
Usually people who know a lot about medicinal herbs are known as curanderas or médicas. Most of them are women, some of who also double as parteras, or mid-wives. But the best way to keep yourself from having to go to the doctor is to follow the advice of a traditional refrain or saying, “curate en salud,” cure yourself while in good health.
This refran or dicho, is simply telling people to take care of their bodies while healthy, and this usually implies having a good diet, plus a good outlook about life.
There are a number of herbs, or remedios, that most people are familiar with, such as oshá, which is considered one of the most popular herbs in New Mexico. Oshá usually grows in the high sierras in elevations of around 10,000 ft. and the plant when seen in the wild resembles a celery plant.
It is used in treating colds and lung infections and many people chew the root to cure sore throats. It can also be used as a skin cleanser. When I was growing up I remember my mother always made sure we had oshá root when we went for firewood in mountains because it’s supposed to ward off rattlesnakes. And some people even carry the oshá root as a charm to keep off witches. It is also said that Pueblo people used oshá to put it in their acequias to stop cutworms and other bugs from forming. Maybe that’s why today you can also find oshá in some acequia banks.
Another common remedio that is usually grown in gardens is manzanilla or chamomile. When someone usually can’t sleep, they are prescribed a cup of tea before bedtime. It is good for treating stomachaches and to treat head colds, flu symptoms, and helps reduce fevers. It can also relieve aching joints and many people use it to wash their hair.
Today most people don’t recognize the plants outside their doors and many medicinal plants are simply treated as weeds, and thus seen as of no value.
Almost everywhere one can see the rosa de Castilla, wild rose especially along the banks of the acequias. Not only are the rose hips used to make jam, but the leaves and flowers can be used as eyewash or made into a strong tea for treating sore throats. The petals are also used to reduce fevers, especially in children.
In my property and almost everywhere we meet up with what, to me, is a very sculptural plant, especially after it dries in the fall, mullein or punchón. The leaves can be smoked for breathing difficulties such as asthma. Or, it can be made into tea to treat bronchitis and the tiny yellow flowers can be infused in oil and used to treat earaches.
Most of the time we are surrounded by the different remedios but since we are so removed from nature we don’t see them. Usually where there is punchón one will also find cottonwoods; or up in the high sierras aspens. Both yield many medicinal applications. A tea made from the leaves was used as a spring tonic and blood purifier; the bark when boiled and drunk help to reduce fever. Both aspens and cottonwoods are poplars, which are in the willow family, and yield salicin type chemicals, the precursor to aspirin.
The flowers of the chamiso blanco or rabbitbrush yield a rich yellow dye, and were used as a tea to break fevers through sweating. A strong tea was used in the bath to reduce the pain and swelling of arthritis.
A lot of these plants and trees were found in the commons of the land grants, either in the dehesas (llanos), montes, or sierras. Some were used for medicinal purposes and others for food, such as chimajá, wild parsley, found in the llanos of Ohkay Owingeh-Alcalde, as well as the Pojoaque-Cuyamungue area in the spring.
Also found usually on the side of the arroyos at around 6,500 ft. elevation is the encino de la hoja ancha or Gambel's Oak/Scrub Oak. The branches are boiled and the liquid used to treat gum inflammation, scratches and abrasions. The bark was used much like quinine to treat recurring fevers.
The sabina or Rocky Mountain Juniper have been used to protect against negative influences of all kinds. The needles were made into a tea to reduce fevers and deal with urinary tract infections. The berries were added to flavor alcohol and used as a digestive bitters.
The piñon tree is mostly associated with its pine nuts which are eaten roasted and are a delicacy for us nuevomexicanos. Along with carne seca there is no better trail mix. Of all firewood, the preferred is the dried piñon wood. In the past the needles have been steeped and drunk to treat syphilis, and the sap – trementina – has been used to draw splinters, as a varnish ingredient, waterproofer, a dye and as an adhesive when grafting trees.
Also growing wild in meadows in the sierra is poleo, or wild mint, which also grows along streams and acequias. It is used as a stomach anesthetic and for indigestion. It’s primo is yerba buena, or spearmint, which has a strong, cleansing and uplifting scent and the aroma is used to sharpen the senses. The tea helps with nausea and indigestion, heartburn, stomachache, and gas. Spearmint is also considered excellent for headaches and women use it for menstrual cramps.
Another plant that is widely used by the nuevomexicanos is the oregano de la sierra, which is as an antiviral, antibacterial and antifungal and is also used for cooking. Probably one of the most sought after remedios, which can be found even along highways is cota or Indian tea. Not only is it a flavorful but it is also used as a diuretic, kidney cleanser and to control blood-sugar levels.
These are only a few of the remedios that can be found around the house, acequia, monte and sierra and all contributed to what people call “una vida buen, sana y alegre,” a good, healthy and joyful life.