ethnobotany

Brittlebush and chewing gum

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABrittlebush (Encelia farinosa) is a woody desert shrub with dense branches that usually form a hemispheric mound three to five feet high.  The leaves range from dark green to gray-green to almost silvery.  The gray-silver color is due to hair-like growths that tend to shade the leaves. The more arid the conditions, the smaller and whiter the leaves.  Brittlebush is often a winter-flowering plant, but may  flower during the fall, spring, and early summer as well depending on rainfall.  The flowers are yellow and daisy-like.  Some brittlebush in my yard are flowering now in early December.  The range is the Sonoran Desert and parts of the Mohave Desert.  It favors gravelly slopes and sandy washes.  Brittlebush does well as a cultivated plant and attracts butterflies and bees.

Brittlebush is very drought tolerant and will go dormant and look dead.  The leaves will turn very brittle and eventually fall off.  The plant can also be cut back nearly to the ground and revive the next season.

The plant was/is widely used by native people.  The upper stems exude a yellowish gum or resin that can be chewed.  The gum was also burned as incense (hence the Spanish name incienso).  The fragrance is due to terpenes or terpenoids which are components of essential oils. Vitamin A is a terpene. You can sample the fragrance by crushing the green leaves. It smells like strong tea to me.  Tea made from the dried leaves is used to treat bronchitis and arthritis.   The gum was also used to seal pots.

Yellowish-brown resin collected from the base of the plant can be heated and used as glue.  Native people used this to glue arrowheads to the shaft, for instance.

The Seri Indians used the branches to treat toothache: remove the bitter bark and heat the branch, then place in mouth.  There are some reports that old-time cowboys used the branches, minus bark, as toothbrushes.

 

Chiltepin peppers, spice and medicine

chiletpen1b from southwest cookingThe pea-sized chiltepin pepper (Capsicum annuum var. glabriusculum) is thought to be the ancestral plant of all chili peppers. It is native to Arizona, Texas, Florida, Mexico, and Central and South America. The chiltepin plant is a bush that grows up to four feet tall and it prefers well-drained sandy soil.

 Chiltepins are very hot and the heat is said to be quick, intense, but not long-lasting compared to some other hot peppers. The heat is due to the chemical capsaicin which is an irritant to chemoreceptors in the skin and mucus membranes in mammals. How hot? The Scoville scale measures the amount of capsaicin in peppers. The amount of capsaicin in a particular plant depends on growing conditions, therefore, the Scoville scale presents a range of hotness. For comparison, Poblano peppers range from 1,000-2,500 Scoville units; Jalapeños range from 3,500 to 8.000; Serrano peppers range from 10,000-23,000; Cayenne and Tabasco peppers range from 30,000 to 50,000, Chiltepins range from 50,000 to 100,000; and the Habanero ranges from 100,000 to 350,000. Pepper spray, used for defense comes in at 5 million. (Pure capsaicin is 16 million on the scale.)

The chiltepin pepper is a fruit that seeks to disperse its seeds to reproduce. Why then would it make its fruit unpalatable to many animals that might disperse the seeds? The answer is that the chiltepin is selective. Mammals have the chemoreceptors that make capsaicin irritating; mammals also have big teeth that can crush the seeds. Birds, on the other hand, lack teeth to crush the seeds and lack the chemoreceptors and are therefore immune to the irritation. Birds eat the peppers and deposit the seeds (with a little fertilizer) away from the original plant.

By the way, capsaicin is neutralized by animal fat. So, if a pepper is too hot for you, drink some whole milk or eat some butter or sour cream.

Chiltepins have long been used by native people to spice food and as a food preservative. Chiltepins were also used medicinally. The capsaicin is an antibacterial agent. The Pima Bajo people used chiltepins to relieve stomach disorders. The Mayo Indians mixed chiltepin leaves with alcohol to make a liniment for rheumatism. The Tarahumara Indians chewed the fruit with other plants for headache. Apparently capsaicin, when eaten, causes the brain to release endorphins, which are natural painkillers. Today, of course, you can buy capsaicin creams in the drug stores for topical pain relief.

Chiltepins have a good flavor; I prefer them when they are green. But if you try them, be prepared for the intense heat.

 

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

Mesquite Trees Provide Food and a Pharmacy

The ethnobotany of Mesquite trees is extensive. The trees provide food, medicine, beverages, glue, hair dye, firewood, and furniture. Mesquites coevolved with large herbivores such as mammoths, mastodons, and ground sloths, which ate the pods and dispersed them widely. When these Pleistocene animals became extinct, mesquites retreated to flood plains and washes where water and weathering scarified the seeds and aided germination. The introduction of cattle helped to expand the range of mesquites once again.

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Use as food

Mesquite beans are usually harvested after they turn hard and golden. Both the pods and the seeds (which are very tough) are ground into meal. The native people sprinkled the ground meal with a little water to form small, round cakes. Later, slices of dried cake were fried like mush, used to thicken stews, or eaten raw. The meal is also used as flour to make flat bread. Mesquite meal is gluten free.

The pods of mesquite beans are very sweet and the sweetness comes from fructose which doesn’t require insulin to be metabolized. The seeds contain about 35% protein, much more than soybeans. Mesquite pods contain about 25% fiber. Some research suggests that mesquite meal, with a low glycemic index of 25, helps regulate blood sugar.

Mesquite flour is used to make a refreshing drink. If allowed to ferment, a mixture of water and mesquite flour produces a fizzy alcoholic drink.

Mesquite flowers are collected and boiled to make tea. The flowers are also roasted and pressed into balls as another food source.

The pharmacy

The black tar or sap of mesquite trees can be boiled and diluted with water to make eye wash and an antiseptic for open wounds. It was also used on sore lips, chapped skin, as a sunburn lotion, and as a treatment for venereal disease.

A liquid made from boiling the inner bark of the tree was used as a laxative and as an emetic.

Tea made from mesquite leaves was used for headaches and stomach trouble. This tea also was used to cure conjunctivitis and to heal painful gums.

Other uses

The Pima Indians used the black tar as a hair dye. This involved boiling the tar and applying the mixture to the hair, covering the hair with mud over night, then thoroughly washing the next morning. Resin from the tree was used as glue to mend pottery, or when boiled and diluted, as paint for pottery. The inner bark of the tree was used for basketry.

General information

There are several species of mesquite trees. Within the desert southwest, the Velvet mesquite (Prosopis velutina), the Honey mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa), and the Screwbean mesquite (Prosopis pubescens) are most common. These deciduous plants form shrubs and trees up to 30 feet tall. The branches contain spines. Most of the roots of mesquite trees are within the upper three feet of soil where most of the oxygen and water are. However, mesquite roots can go very deep. The deepest live root, found in a copper mine, extended 160 feet below the surface.

If you collect fallen bean pods, you may notice small holes in the pods. These holes are made by bruchid beetles, which infested the fallen bean as larvae, when it was green and tender. The holes were made by the mature beetle getting out of the bean. Don’t worry, the beetles just add more protein. Another insect found commonly with mesquite trees is the Giant Mesquite Bug.

For a description of the common mesquite species see here.

For more natural history and photos, see here.

For recipes using mesquite, see here.