Book Review: Indian Uses of Desert Plants

Indian uses of plantsThis short book (80 pages) is a good introduction to ethnobotany, the study of human use of plant materials. With text and photographs, the author, James W. Cornett, takes us on a journey of the southwest deserts and tells us how the native people used its natural resources for food, medicine, fiber, weapons, and building material. In a new third edition, published in 2011, Cornett covers 22 plants and their uses: Agave, Barrel Cactus, Beavertail Cactus, Cottonwood, Creosote Bush, Desert Fan Palm, Desert Willow, Fourwing Saltbush, Gourd, Jimson Weed, Jojoba, Juniper, Mesquite, Mormon Tea, Ocotillo, Organ Pipe Cactus, Pinyon, Rush, Sagebrush, Saguaro, Tobacco, and Yucca.

Some example uses covered in the book:

Yucca roots contain saponin, a detergent-like compound. Pounding the roots in water produces copious suds. The yucca leaves produce valuable fiber that can be used to make clothing, mats, and sandals. The flower stalks, blossoms, and seeds were eaten by native people.

A powder made from dried and ground sagebrush leaves is a remedy for skin rashes.

Pinyon nuts provide 15 percent protein and important amounts of iron, vitamin A, thiamine, riboflavin, and niacin.

Ocotillo wood provided fuel wood and building material. A tea made from the roots reduces coughing and also reduces swelling of joints.

Tea made from the stems of Mormon Tea was used to cure canker sores in the mouth, eliminate kidney ailments, relieve cold symptoms and stomach disorders.

Beware of Jimson Weed (aka Sacred Datura), it is highly toxic and hallucinogenic. It was used sparingly by Indian Shamans to produce visions. A paste made from the leaves and stems is a pain reliever when applied topically.

A water solution of crushed creosote bush leaves and stems can be applied topically as both an antibacterial and a pain reliever.

The book is available from the publisher: Nature Trails Press, P.O. Box 846, Palm Springs, CA 92263, telephone (760) 320-2664.

For more information on ethnobotany, see my posts:

Can You Get Potable Water From a Cactus?

Creosote Bush, a Desert Survivor

Desert Tobacco, a pretty but poisonous desert plant

Edible Desert Plants – Barrel Cactus Fruit

Jojoba oil, good on the outside, bad on the inside

Mesquite Trees Provide Food and a Pharmacy