Originally Published: September 1, 2010 10 p.m.
Next Saturday, Sept. 11, come to the Highlands Center for Natural History, 1375 S. Walker Road in Prescott, to learn about gathering, cultivating and using native plants as supplements to one's medicine chest.
In the past, living in the harshness of the Southwest deserts and highlands of Arizona called for a master of resources. Ever wonder how the indigenous people got along - what they used for calories, cures and household paraphernalia?
Each season provided a new assortment of plants from which to choose. Although winter could not be considered the best season for collecting a large assortment of medicinal herbs, there were a few ripe for the picking.
The Apaches collected the roots of the Apache plume, that scraggly-looking roadside shrub with pink feathery plumes that blooms several times over the summer.
After digging out the root of the plant, they used it to make a poultice for soaking sore muscles. A mild tea from some of the powdered root proved effective for treating coughs and flatulence. The Hopi made a tonic from strong tea, said to prevent thinning hair.
To eliminate "bad vibes," which could be interpreted to include "germs" and anything else that brought bad feelings, the Navajo and Pueblo people would collect the ripe, purple berries from the juniper tree. These were then added to the hot rocks in saunas or sweat lodges and filled the air with a pleasantly aromatic disinfectant.
The same was achieved within the living quarters with burning bundles of juniper leaves, much like incense. To further deter bad influences, many native people carried pieces of the leaves and berries in their clothing or around their necks in small medicine bags.
Before meals, it was not unusual to see juniper berries being served as an appetizer. It seemed that chewing on a few before meals stimulated stomach acids.
Allergies drove people of upper elevations to seek one particular herbal aid even in the snow of winter. That plant, which we call Mormon Tea, can also be found in lower elevations as well. Its use was so widespread that it goes by several other names, including Joint Fir and Desert Tea.
After gathering large bunches of the jointed stems, they would break them at the joints and infuse hot water to drink as a daily beverage for relieving congestion.
Fungus infections were few and far between if a grove of the beautiful desert willow trees was close by. A handful of leaves and pink trumpet-shaped flowers steeped as a tea proved too much for yeast spores among native peoples and early settlers.
That is but a glimpse of our local "nature's pharmacy." The fall is often the perfect time to gather and dry flowers, stems and roots for one's own medicine bag.
Come and join us at the Highlands Center for Natural History's "Grow Native!" Plant Sale and Educational Festival from 9 a.m.-3 p.m. next Saturday to learn which plants bring about which remedies.
The Highlands Center for Natural History is located just 2 miles south of Highway 69 off Walker Road. For more information, log on to www.highlandscenter.org.
Diane Vaszily is an herbalist and expert on native plant usage.