Category Archives: Native fauna and flora

Natural Healing — Cempasúchil

marigold alter.jpg

The Aztec marigold (Tagetes erecta)  is known as cempasúchil in Mexico. The name comes from the Nahuatl cempohualxochitl which translates as “20 flowers”, possibly referring to the fact that each blossom has the potential to create 20 or more flowers, although some sources reference the ritualistic significance of the number 20, so there maybe be other reasons for this name.

This aromatic flower is native to Mexico and has a long history of medicinal and ritualistic use. Even today, this flower dominates the festival Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead). It is believed that the strong scent will call to the spirits that are roaming free and guide them home to visit loved ones. This use has given the cempasúchil another name, Flor de Muertos (Flower of the Dead).

The Mayan had similar beliefs. The priests would wash their hands and face with an infusion of leaves and flowers before calling the spirits.

There is a legend that describes the love of Xóchitl and Huitzilin. Their feelings were so strong that when Huitzlin died in battle, the sun god Tonatiuh heard the pleas of Xóchitl to reunite them. He transformed Xóchitl into the cempohualxochitl flower. Huitzlin, who had been reincarnated in the form of the hummingbird, forever after found nourishment among her “20 flowers.”

Francisco Hernández described the common use of the cempasúchil in the Historia Natural de la Nueva España like this:

“Tienen todas hojas como de tanaceto, flores amarillas, o amarillas con algo de bermejo, de temperamento caliente y seco en tercer grado, sabor acre, partes sutiles y olor un tanto fuerte. Tiene virtud resolutiva y aperitiva; el jugo de las hojas tomado o las mismas hojas machacadas y tomadas con agua o con vino atemperan el estómago frío, provocan las reglas, la orina y el sudor, alejan los fríos de las intermitentes untadas un poco antes del acceso, quitan la flatulencia, excitan el apetito venéreo, curan la debilidad que proviene de destemplaza fría del hígado, abren las vías obstruidas, aflojan los miembros contraídos, alivian la hidropesía, provocan vómito tomadas con agua tibia, y curan los fríos de las fiebres y aun las fiebres mismas evacuando la causa por la orina y el sudor.”

Historia Natural de la Nueva España, Volume II. Book IV, CLXXIX

Loosely translated, it reads:

“They all have leaves like tansy, yellow flowers, or yellow with some red, hot-tempered and dry in the third degree, pungent taste, subtle parts, and somewhat strong smell. It has a decisive and aperitive virtue; the juice of the leaves drunk or the same leaves crushed and drunk with water or wine temper the stomach, provoke menstruation, urine and sweat, remove intermittent shivers by smearing a little near body cavities, rid the body of flatulence, they excite the venereal appetite, they cure the weakness that comes from the dislocation of the liver, they open the clogged passageways, they loosen contracted limbs, they relieve dropsy, they provoke vomit when drunk with lukewarm water, and they cure shivering of the fevers and even the fevers themselves evacuating the cause of urine and sweat.”

Strange 15th-century disorders aside, like the floating liver, the cempasúchil has been shown to be effective in the majority of the ailments Hernández listed and continues to be an important ingredient in many natural remedies in Mexico today.

Traditionally, the cempasúchil has been used to treat intestinal parasites. Drink 3 cups of a tea made from a pinch of flower petals and 1 / 4 liter of water. The flowers also have anti-inflammatory properties.

A diluted, lukewarm tea is given to babies with colic commonly called empache. The flowers have spasmolytic properties which help soothe the bellyache and reduces fussiness.

An infusion or tincture of the flowers is also used to treat susto or espanto which are nervous conditions. The compounds in the flowers have a sedative effect.

Both antioxidant and antibacterial, the cempasúchil has traditionally been used for wound care. The flowers are crushed into a poultice and can be applied directly to the injury or sore. The crushed leaves are used to treat boils and burns which aids in healing.

In the Yucatan, Tabasco, Oaxaca, and Veracruz, the cempasúchil is used to treat fever. Extracts from the plant are applied in a tincture to the bottom of the feet to provoke perspiration and sweating. In Guerrero and Tabasco, the plant is used to treat colds.

The petals are edible and have anti-aging properties, so go ahead and sprinkle some on your salad. Or you could this chicken in marigold sauce recipe or one of the dishes in the video below.

This versatile plant is also a boon to the gardener, being a natural insect repellent. Crushed petals rubbed on your skin will repel mosquitos.

The petals make a non-toxic dye. In Mexico, dried and powdered petals are fed to chickens so that their skin and eggs are yellower. There is also a cempasúchil pulque (moonshine) made in some areas.

All in all, there is more than one reason to have cempasúchil in your herbal repertoire. 

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Natural Healing — Mesquite

mesquite tree

If you have ever sheltered under the shadow of a mesquite tree on a hot summer afternoon, you will certainly appreciate at least one aspect that this crooked, spiny, unlovely tree has to offer.

Mesquite also spelled mezquite and known as algarroba, belong to the Prosopis species. There are at least 44 clearly defined species and numerous hybrids, making identification difficult.

The word mesquite comes from the Nahuatl word mizquitl. The invading Spanish dubbed this tree algarrobo because of its similarity to the carob tree they were more familiar with.

In Mexico, all parts of this drought-hardy tree are used. The wood is used for cooking, providing an aromatic, slow smoke that flavors the food. The sweet and nutritious pods are used as a quick chewy snack, fodder for animals and processed into flour. The sap, bark, and leaves from the tree have medicinal value including antioxidant hepatoprotective, hemolytic, anticancer, antibacterial, antifungal, antidiabetic, and anti-inflammatory activities

Archeological evidence shows that the pods have been used as a food source as far back as 6,500 BCE in Mexico. These pods, depending on the species, are made up of 41% sugar, 35% fiber, and 22% protein. They contain lysine, potassium, manganese, and zinc as well. My mother-in-law said that chewing these regularly will help increase a mother’s milk production. She would know. She had 11 children. Then again, mesquite pods are high in dietary estrogen. Our dairy goats love them as well!

The pods can be dried or roasted, then ground into a flour. This flour could be used to make cakes that once dry would last long enough to provide essential nutrients during drought. The powdered pods can also be mixed with water to make a sweet drink called añapa or sometimes allowed to ferment into chicha.

Mesquite wood has been so aggressively harvested that it is now illegal to cut down live trees, not that those laws are strictly enforced. Although in some areas, most notably in San Luis Potosi, cutting a mesquite tree that has three branches that form a cross is considered sacrilegious.

To treat an irritated stomach, a weak tea can be made from 50 grams of mesquite bark per liter of water. The bark should only be allowed to steep a few minutes before straining. If the tea was meant to treat dysentery, the dose is doubled. The tea coats the stomach and reduces inflammation.

This same weak tea can be used as a gargle for sore throats, bronchitis or mouth sores. Finely chopped leaves and bark can be used as a soothing astringent.

The sap has traditionally been used topically for lip sores and hemorrhoids. To make treat irritated or infected eyes, the sap is added to distilled water, sealed and shaken. When the gum dissolves, it is used as an eyewash. An infusion of mesquite leaves can also be used to make an eyewash.

Apparently, mesquite sap is used in a treatment for baldness in some areas of Mexico as well. Two types of mesquite grow in our area. The pod on the left is unripe. When it ripens, it is a cream and red mottled color. It’s sweet and chewy. The pod on the left is called vina locally and is a favorite of our goats, especially after a brush fire toasts them to a crisp. 

 

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Natural Healing — Huizache

huizache pic.jpg

La Yacata, being the dry, rocky land that it is, plays host to the huizache. When it flowers in the spring, it can cause allergies, but the benefits of this plant far outweigh the few weeks of sniffling. You also should take care that the long thorns don’t scratch you. In some parts of Mexico, this tree is called espina divina (divine thorn) and with good reason! They are certainly worth a healthy dose of respect in my book. In fact, in many crucifixion reenactments during Semana Santa (Holy Week) Jesus’ crown of thorns is made from huizache branches. 

Huizache (also spelled huisache or guizache) or Sweet Acacia has several botanical names which cause some confusion but the three most common are acacia farnesiana, mimosa farnesiana, and vachellia farnesiana.

The flowers are used to create the perfume Cassie. The sap is used as glue. The bark has long been used for its tannin. A black dye is obtained also from the bark.

Bernardino de Sahagún reported that seed pods were considered aphrodisiac in nature by the indigenous people in Mexico and that flowers of the tree were used for a headache remedy.

The seed pods are antioxidant and topical anti-inflammatory agents. Animals, including cattle, sheepand goats, that eat seed pods transfer the antioxidant properties to their milk. Our goats love huizache!

Extracts from the seed pods are used to treat dysentery and tuberculous and are also effective in treating cholera.

A mouthwash for sore gums is made with an infusion of leaves, flowers, and stems. A tea decoction made from the same parts of the plant is traditionally prescribed to reduce excess phlegm.

Dried leaves can be applied directly to sores. Vaginal infections can be treated by combining leaves, flowers, and roots simmered to make douche or sitz bath. 

Overall, the huizache is quite a useful plant to have around!

 

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Natural Healing — Pochote

pochote pic

Pochote, Ceiba aesculifolia (Kapok) is also known as apochote, ceiba, puchote, lánta in Chiapas, kuch (Maya) in Yucatán y len-o-ma (Chontal) and Matzu (chinanteco) in Oaxaca.

Once a year, the pochote trees in La Yacata are festooned with huge cotton balls. Every year I tell myself that I’m going to gather them up to stuff some pillows. This year I finally did!

It wasn’t as easy as I had hoped. The trunk of the Ceiba aesculifolia (kapok) is covered in thorns, so climbing is out of the question. The seed pods were mostly out of my reach considering these trees can grow up to 25 meters high. The soft, downy fluff disintegrated and floated away after I touched it.  It’s like trying to catch dandelion puffs.  I managed to get one shopping bag full for my efforts.

Since the fluff is quite a bit, uh, well fluffier than synthetic materials, not only did I make a huge mess trying to stuff a pillow, but my bagful was only enough for one very small pillow. Well, I guess I’ll try again next year when the cotton balls bloom.

This tree has no leaves when it flowers, making it a strange sight. Bats are the primary pollinators as well as moths and hummingbirds. It grows in dry and rocky areas, so it comes as no surprise that La Yacata abounds in them.

As with all things found in nature, the pochote has medicinal value. In the states of Mexico and Quintana Roo, it is used to induce vomiting. In Yucatan, the fermented bark is used in a wash given to those with sunstroke.

Again, not surprisingly, the cotton-like fluff has been traditionally used for stuffing. It has also been used as tinder for fires and wicks for candles. Recently, this soft material has been found to be effective insulation for refrigerators.

The seeds of the pochote are toasted and eaten in Veracruz. The roots are also edible. Craftsmen make jewelry out of the seed pods and carve houses from the wood.

Traditionally, infusions of the pochote leaves have been used to treat sores, snake bite, and dermatitis. Francisco Hernández de Toledo mentioned the pochote in his collections of works Plantas y Animales de la Nueva Espana, y sus virtudes about plants and animals found in Nueva Spain (Mexico) and their virtues.

There have been no studies so far to ascertain the validity of using pochote leaves on the skin.

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