medicinal plants

Tufted evening primrose – a winter bloomer

PrimroseThe tufted evening primrose (Oenothera caespitosa) is a perennial plant that blooms from September through April. The flowers are about three inches wide with four white, heart-shaped petals and yellow stamens. The flowers, which are very fragrant, open in late afternoon, close the next morning, and wither to pink or red-violet. Sometimes the flowers are bright yellow. According to the U.S. Forest Service, “the flowers often have a long floral tube that holds the petals well above the base of the flower. Nectar collects in the base of the tube so only long-tongued visitors can get a nectar reward.

This plant occurs throughout the western United States and favors roadsides and dry rocky slopes from grassland to pine forest clearings. The plant gets about one foot tall.

Hawk mothThe main pollinators are hawk moths. See this page for photos and information about hawk moths from the U.S. Forest Service. Hawk moths have very long tongues.

The flowers are also visited by hummingbirds in the morning.

These primroses can be used in gardens but they must be protected because javelinas and rabbits like to browse on this plant. Many birds eat the seeds. Foliage can be pruned to the ground during summer dormant period.

USFS notes that “This plant is showy, grows in poor soils, and requires little water, which makes it a perfect candidate for western xeriscape gardens.”

The tufted evening primrose is unrelated to the primroses of Europe. According to the University of Texas, “Apparently in the early 1600s when an eastern United States species of Oenothera was being described, its sweet scent reminded the botanist of wild primroses of Europe. He gave the name to those plants and it stuck.”

Medicinal use:
Primrose oil, derived from the seeds of various species of Oenothera, has long been used in folk and “alternative” medicine to treat various conditions. (See Chinese and American Indian uses.) However, there is little evidence that primrose oil is effective in treating any condition according to WebMD opines that primrose oil is “possibly effective” for treating nerve damage caused by diabetes. That WebMD link also provides a long list of other conditions for which treatment with primrose oil is “possibly ineffective” and another list of conditions for which there is “insufficient evidence.”
See more photos from the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum digital library.

Desert Willows provide emergency food and medicine

Desert willows (Chilopsis linearis) are trees that grow up to about 30 feet high. They range from southern California and Nevada, through Arizona and New Mexico to west Texas and northern Mexico. The primary habitat is low desert to grasslands.

Desert willows are not really willows, they are in the bignonia family. However, their long slender leaves and drooping branches give them an appearance similar to willows.

Desert willow flowers

Desert willow

With sufficient rainfall, these trees bloom from mid-spring through mid-summer. The large, trumpet-shaped flowers are white in the western part of the willow’s range, but become progressively purple with yellow nectar guides in the eastern part of the range. Large bees are the main pollinators, but the flowers also attract other insects and hummingbirds.

The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (ASDM) notes that desert willows are one of the few trees in the northern part of the Sonoran Desert that is not in the legume family. Desert willows do, however, produce seed pods 4 to 12 inches long which mature in Autumn. Then the brown pods split in two and release many flat seeds that have dual hair wings. See seed pods here. The pods themselves often stay on the tree until the next spring.

Use as food:

ASDM says the bitter inner bark may be eaten raw as an emergency food. It tastes better when dried and ground to flour. The USDA says that the flower blossoms and seed pods were used for food also.

Medicinal use:

ASDM notes: “The Pima and Tarahumara make a decoction of the leaves and bark that they drink for fever.” Willow bark is an astringent and good as a gargle for sore throats. It has been used for hay fever, colds and as an expectorant. “Willow tea is used to treat heartburn, stomach problems, diarrhea, cramps, bladder infections and dandruff.”

USDA notes: The flowers, leaves, and bark of desert willow were used in hot poultices and to make a soothing tea for coughs. A tea concocted from the flowers produces a natural anti-oxidant which promotes cardiovascular health and regulates glucose metabolism. It was also used in preparations to guard against yeast infections, athlete’s foot and as a first aid for scrapes and scratches.

Other uses:

USDA says that “The bark was used to make fabrics for shirts and breechclouts, and fashioned into cordage to make nets. Branches were stripped of their bark and used as rod foundations for coil basketry. The wood was used in building house frames, granaries and fence posts.”

USFS notes that “Unlike the weak wood of true willows, the wood of Desert-Willow was used by Indians to craft their hunting bows.”

According to Arid Zone Trees: “The Arizona Department of Water Resources recommends desert willow as a low water use/drought-tolerant tree. Keep in mind though, that monthly irrigation during the summer months maximizes the desert willow’s ornamental value. Moderate water use is beneficial, but not critical for survival of the tree. Desert willow is no wimp. It is hardy to minus 10 degrees Fahrenheit, has deep roots that extend 50’+, waxy leaves that effectively retain moisture, and is highly responsive to cold and drought. The first hard frost will disrobe the entire tree. Have no fear because fresh leaves ‘spring-out’ during March through May.”

See the ARTICLE INDEX for more stories of the Sonoran Desert.

The uniquely fragrant chocolate flower

Chocolate lovers, how would you like to have a garden filled with flowers that give off the fragrance of chocolate or cocoa? Such a flower exists; it’s called the Chocolate Flower (Berlandiera lyrata) and it is edible. Other names for this flower are chocolate daisy, lyreleaf greeneyes and green-eyed lyre leaf.

Chocolate flower

The chocolate flower is native to the southwestern U.S. and Mexico. It often grows in grasslands and along roads. The flower itself is about one inch in diameter with yellow petals and a dark brown to reddish-brown center. The whole plant grows one- to two feet high. The flavorful and fragrant part of the plant are the brown stamens in the center.

The chocolate flower is a night bloomer. The flowers give off their chocolate scent in the morning but as the temperature rises, the petals close or drop and the fragrance recedes.

 According to Santa Fe Botanical: “After frost the Chocolate flower seems to disappear, but its hardy roots ensure that it will emerge in the spring with a crown of scalloped segmented, wooly gray leaves. Fragrant flowers with yellow rays and maroon centers nestled upon a “calyx dish” are borne on long, hairy stems. The underside of the petals with its maroon stripes over the yellow background is even more colorful than the bright yellow petals that face outward.

The Chocolate flower’s progression from flower to seed is intriguing, with each stage possessing its own particular beauty. As the temperatures rise, the yellow flowers will begin to turn white. The petals will close or drop off, leaving the center of the flower surrounded by a green, cup-shaped calyx. It is at this stage that the reason for the other common name, Green eyes, becomes apparent. The calyx will fade to a soft tan and flatten, allowing the light chocolate colored seeds to easily drop to the ground or to be dispersed by the wind or birds.”

According to the U.S. Forest Service (which calls the plant “Lyreleaf greeneyes “): “It is drought tolerant, low maintenance, and adapts to a variety of soils so it has become a favorite in southwestern xeriscape gardening. It readily reseeds itself, making it a desirable addition to wildflower meadows or informal garden areas. The ray petals roll up lengthwise in the heat of the day so it displays itself best in the early morning.”

Some American Indians used the chocolate flower to alleviate stomach problems. There are claims that the smoke from dried, burned roots will calm a nervous condition and in some cultures, inspire courage. They also used the flowers to flavor food. According to the BLM, the leaves are also edible, raw or cooked, but don’t have the chocolate flavor of the flowers.

For stories on other desert plants, see:

A Desert Christmas cactus

Agave, a plant of many uses

Arizona Passion Flower

Arizona Wild Cotton

Brittlebush and chewing gum

Can You Get Potable Water From a Cactus?

Chiltepin peppers, spice and medicine

Creeping Devil Cactus

Creosote Bush, a Desert Survivor

Data presentation in Santa Catalina Mountains plant study misleading

Desert Tobacco, a pretty but poisonous desert plant Desert Ironwood with video

Desert Mistletoe

Edible Desert Plants – Barrel Cactus Fruit

Guayacán a pretty flowering tree

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

Joshua Trees of the Mohave Desert

Limberbush or blood of the dragon

A London Rocket in my yard

Mesquite Trees Provide Food and a Pharmacy

More on Mesquite

Night-blooming Cereus cactus

Oak trees of the Sonoran Desert Region

Ocotillos and the Boojum

Palo Verde Trees Will Turn the Desert Golden

Sacred Datura – pretty, poisonous, and hallucinogenic

Saguaro Cactus Icon of the Sonoran Desert

Should the Acuna cactus receive Federal protection?

Spectacular flowers of the Red Torch Cactus

The Old Man and the Totem Pole

Tucson invaded by popcorn flowers

Yuccas provide food, fiber, and soap