Chicalote (Argemone mexicana) grows in abundance in La Yacata during the dry season. I discovered that it has medicinal value quite by chance. I was looking for another plant, and found a picture of this one, which I could positively identify, having seen it year after year by my house.
Mexican prickly poppy has several names, leading to some confusion. Chicalote is the name I am most familiar with, however in Mexico, it is also known as cardo, cardo santo, adormidera, adormidera espinosa, amapolilla, and Amapola montés. Cardo santo was the name given to this plant by the Spaniards when they cataloged medicinal plants they found, not to be confused with Cnicus benedictus which is also known as cardo santo.
In Nahuatl, it was known as chicálotl, chillazotl, or xicólotl. In Zapoteca spoken in Oaxaca, the same plant is called guechinichi. In Maya, it is k`iix-k`anlol or k`iix-saklol. In the language spoken by the Tarascans centered in Michoacan, it was shate or xaté. And in Huasteca, the indigenous language of San Luis Potosí, it was known as tzólich.
The fact that so many different indigenous groups identified this plant so specifically shows its importance both culturally and medically. Chicalote was believed to be sacred to the Aztec rain god Tlaloc, the fact that it grows abundantly in the dry season notwithstanding. It was used to treat water related diseases like palsy. Most indigenous groups in Mexico believed that diseases could be classified into four categories, hot, cold, wet and dry. And that sometimes gods punished their subjects with specific diseases that must be treated with appeasement of the angry god, who would then send a cure. Thus, near drownings or lighting strikes (signs of Tlaloc’s displeasure) were also treated with chicalote.
You should exercise caution when using this plant as the seeds are toxic to humans and animals that accidentally ingest them while grazing. On the other hand, a pinch of ground seeds mixed with water makes an effective laxative.
The sap is an orange-yellow color and contains berberine and protopine. It has been used medicinally in Mexico as a topical analgesic. The seeds are also crushed and mixed with petroleum jelly for an ointment to treat burns and skin infections.
The leaves when smoked have a slightly narcotic effect, however vomiting and diarrhea are common side effects. This hypnotic effect is the reason the chicalote was used traditionally as a sedative, for migraines and coughs, and for epilepsy. The Seri in Sonora use chicalote leaves to treat kidney pain and expel afterbirth.
An infusion of leaves is used to treat nervios (nerves). Insomnia can be relieved with an infusion of 14 grams of the flowers in ¼ liter of water drunk before bed.
For migraines, a spoonful of leaves is steeped in a cup of boiling water and drunk. For a severe cough, drink 1 cup of tea made from 50 grams of ground seeds and leaves that have been boiled for 15 minutes in a liter of water before bed.
Traditional medicine also uses chicalote to treat diarrhea. The leaves are boiled with ground, browned rice and drunk throughout the day.
Quite a bit of scientific study has been done on the Argemone mexicana. Not surprisingly, most of the traditional uses have merit and some new applications have been discovered. The leaves and stem are antibacterial, antifungal and anti-parasitic. They also contain anti-cancer, antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory properties.
The leaves are also useful in reducing side effects experienced from synthetic medicines and are effective in the treatment of epileptic disorders. And finally, Malaria, HIV and morphine withdrawal have been successfully treated with decoctions made from the Argemone mexicana.
Who would have believed that this scrubby thistle would have so many medicinal benefits?
Interested in natural remedies? Uncover herbal remedies from traditional Mexican sources for healing and wellness in the Exploring Traditional Herbal Remedies in Mexico series.