Think twice before you dig up that old scrubby shrub, says our gardening columnist Darbi Davis. Did you know your desert plants can be good for your health?
A quick jaunt through the garden on a crisp winter morning will notably elevate your mood – and may even set the tone for the entire day. The proven benefits of nature on mental and physical health are common, and medicinal benefits of botanical remedies date prior to recorded history.
Historically, our Native cultures near and far used various levels of plant parts – leaves, bark, roots, flowers, seeds, and sap – as a curative. Western medicine continues to employ the chemicals extracted from plants to formulate modern medicine – from alleviating symptoms of the common cold to cancer cures.
Here, we share six of our favorite everyday desert plants that harbor medicinal values.
Asclepias species, commonly known as Milkweed, are valuable hosts to butterflies and other pollinators, and their roots are a chemical haven for battling bronchitis and asthmatic symptoms in humans. The root is carefully harvested, dehydrated, and tinctured to extract the medicinal chemicals. Once prepared, the proper liquid dosage can be ingested several times a day.
Chilopsis linearis, our native Desert Willow, contains properties that benefit or ease illness related to the throat and lungs, at the fungal level. According to Tucson-based medical botanist Charles Kane, author of Medicinal Plants of the American Southwest, parts of this tree are shown to have significant implications in treating Valley Fever, in addition to its historical contribution fighting fungal infections of the skin and nails. Both leaves and bark can be infused in a tea for internal or external use.
Glandularia species or Verbena (Gooddingii verbena is a favorite!) has sedative properties and successfully assists with anxiety and intestinal issues due to stress. It grows wildly in local gardens, and usually has lavender to darker purple flowers and leaves that range from deep green to gray green. The leaves are the chemical keepers and can be dried and infused in a tea. It readily reseeds, mirroring its effect on the nervous system – calming yet persistent. And it looks stunning in just about any garden style.
Scuttellaria potosina, or native skullcap, is considered a generalist for the nervous system. It acts as a muscle relaxant, as well as a sedative that calms without causing lethargy allowing effective daytime use. The leaves can be harvested and dried for tea or taken in capsule form as it is often found in immune support formulas in Chinese Medicine. “There is a long history of people who consider Scuttellaria a safe nervous system tonic,” says Jim Verrier of Desert Survivors nursery and community organization in Tucson. The plant is short and mounding with lavender flowers and looks great in the foreground of a garden. It also withstands quite a lot of abuse and neglect, proving its power to endure gracefully.
Gastrointestinal, autoimmune and cancer
Artemisia ludoviciana or Western mugwort is a lovely silver, gray-green, lush plant historically used for an array of gastrointestinal issues, from inflammation to parasites. It aids the liver, calms the intestines and soothes stomach ulcers. The medicinal qualities are found in the leaves, which are highly aromatic and reminiscent of sage when crushed. They should be dried and then infused in tea or oil for topical use. In the garden it requires a winter sheering which gives rise to those long, upright leafy stems.
Larrea tridentata or Creosote Bush is somewhat controversial. On the one hand it is thought to possibly fight cancer, while on the other hand using it might result in kidney or liver damage. Most of the controversy stems from a lack of long-term studies across the board. According to Charles W. Kane, what’s not controversial is its ability to treat one specific skin cancer, Actinic keratosis. Chemicals found in the leaves have anti-inflammatory properties, which are helpful with arthritis and other autoimmune conditions. Infuse it for tea or ointment for external use. Mix it with Artemisia and a topical application can soothe and remedy viral skin ulcers. Combine this large, scrubby, shiny-green leafed plant with a summer monsoon and the desert fills with an unforgettable aroma, which becomes instant after crushing a few leaves between fingers any other time of year.
There are no doctors here at 3 Story Magazine, so it’s always a good rule of thumb to consult a health professional before rummaging through your yard for medical relief. We are by no means encouraging this, but rather highlighting some of the amazing traits inherent within some of the lovely, low-water-use native plants living among us. Sometimes, knowing new facts can cultivate new-found respect for something that otherwise maybe pulled or disregarded.
* For a list of desert medicinal plants visit desertsurvivors.org
* Find landscape designer Darbi Davis at Red Bark Design.