Category Archives: Native fauna and flora

Natural Healing — Yerba de Sapo

Yerba de Sapo / Eryngium carlinae

One day, I was out foraging for wildflowers and came across the unique blue-tinged beauty above. I took a picture of it, but for the longest time couldn’t find anyone who could identify it. Several weeks later, the indigenous herb seller at the local tianguis (flea market) had a basket of these flowers dried. Delighted, I asked what the name of it was and what it was used for. He gave me the name “yerba de sapo” and with that, I was off on my investigations. 

Yerba de sapo translates as toad’s herb in English. The particular variety I encountered is Eryngium carlinae but there are more than 200 varieties in this species around the world. Some sources say this plant is blue thistle, others record it as button snakeroot or sea holly, and yet another source lists it name as Eryngo

The name in Spanish isn’t any less confusing. Yerba de sapo can also be spelled hierba de sapo, however, this is also the term used for Eryngium heterophyllum, another variety of the Eryngium genus with similar health uses. Other names include cabezona and cardón. 

It has been used since the time of the Aztecs as a restorative tonic, remedy for kidney problems, and weight loss aid. The mashed leaves were used to make a poultice for sore eyes. It was also used to regulate menstruation. 

For kidney ailments, a handful of yerba de sapo is boiled in a quart of water. Then one small glass is taken before breakfast. The herb guy recommended a handful of the herb should be boiled along with a bit of palo de brasil (Haematoxylum brasiletto) and palo azul (Eysenhardtia texana) in a tea drunk daily, to lower cholesterol levels and reduce weight.

A tea made from just the leaves is used to treat cough and whooping cough. The roots are edible and sometimes eaten toasted for urinary tract infections. The juiced roots are prescribed as an aphrodisiac, to improve urinary function or induce contractions. Combined with other herbs, it is used in a gonorrhea treatment. It is also used to treat kidney stones and as a cancer remedy. Yerba de sapo is often prescribed to allieviate angina pain and reduce arteriosclerosis.

Few scientific studies have been done on eryngium carlinae. However, those that have been conducted show promising results for its medicinal use. It has been shown to be effective in the treatment of diabetes. It has a hypocholesterolemic effect, meaning that yes indeed, it will lower your cholesterol. It reduces lipid peroxidation in the brain, kidney, and liver while increasing the catalase activity having antioxidant properties. It is antibacterial and has been approved as a beverage with renoprotective effects, thus good for the kidneys. 

Eryngium carlinae grows in chalky or limestone soil and higher elevations. In fact, the specimen I came across during my foraging trip was in the mountains near El Cerro de Los Amoles in what had been a limestone evacuation area. The plant does not like to be moved, but it can be propagated with root cuttings. 

Precautions:

Because it can stimulate uterine contractions, yerba de sapo should never be taken during pregnancy. It should not be ingested for more than eight weeks so as not to cause kidney damage. Those that are allergic to fennel, dill, or celery may experience an allergic reaction. 

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Natural Healing — Peyote

Peyote / Lophophora williamsii

Peyote (mescal button) is best known for its hallucinogenic properties. This small, spineless cactus has a large quantity of mescaline which can cause euphoria, hallucinations, depersonalization, and psychoses. It is not physically addictive and does not produce life-threatening symptoms unless there are preexisting conditions that its ingesting aggravates. It does contain hordenine which increases blood pressure. The hallucinogenic tea made from peyote is bitter and causes nausea. 

It has traditionally only been ingested as part of religious ceremonies and therefore hasn’t developed into a recreational drug in Mexico. Peyote (Lophophora williamsii) is known as hikuri in Huichol, the language indigenous people in the state of Nayarit. Other names for the Lophophora williamsii include kamaba by the Tepehuán in Durango. The Tarahumara in Chihuahua use the term honanamé. The Cora call this plant houatari. The Nahuatl word peyotl which is the word peyote is derived from roughly translates as “silk cocoon” or “caterpillar’s silk” referring to the white wooly strands found on the top of the plant.

Among the Huicholes, Cora, and Tarahumara, the plant is sacred. Yearly pilgrimages are taken by the Huicholes by devotees to the desert area in San Luis Potosi where the peyote grows.  

Peyote has been used medicinally for thousands of years in Mexico, possibly as far back as 5,700 years ago. Peyote remnants have been found in a burial cave that dates back to 810 to 1070 CE in Coahuila, Mexico

Peyote was used prior to the arrival of the Spanish. Bernardino de Sahagún described the hallucinogenic effects of peyote in his work Historia general de las cosas de la Nueva España in 1558. He wrote “There is a plant that recalls the truffle; it is called peyotl, it is white in color and is produced in the northernmost regions of the country. Those who eat it see surprising and laughing things. This drunkenness lasts two or three days, and then it goes away. This plant is commonly consumed by the Chichimeca; It supports them and gives them courage for combat, sheltering them from fear, thirst, and hunger. The use of this drug was in the hands of the fortune-tellers and witches, and especially of the wearers of charms.“

As its use was tied so closely to religion, the Catholic priests sent to convert the native Mexicans were determined to stop its use completely lest the souls of the new Christians be contaminated. The Spanish Inquisition prohibited peyote use in Mexico in 1620. A confessional from 1760 contains the questions “Have you killed anyone? How many have you killed? Have you eaten the flesh of man? Have you eaten peyote?” implying that murder, cannibalism, and peyote use were on the same grievous sin level. 

Traditionally, peyote is also used in rural areas of Mexico to treat fever and as a general cleansing of both body and soul. Thin slices of the cactus are soaked in water, but not boiled, which is then drunk by the person with a fever. Sunstroke is also treated with sliced pieces soaked in water. However, in this case, the water and slices are placed in a glass and then poured over the person’s head. 

There’s more to this little cactus then hallucinations. Peyocactin is an antibiotic derived from the peyote cactus effective against 18 different penicillin-resistant bacteria. Extracts from the Lophophora williamsii have also been shown to stimulate the immune system. Hopefully, further research will be done on this medicinal plant in the future.

Note: Although peyote is not illegal in Canada nor in Mexico, it is limited in use in the United States to religious ceremonies. In the U.S. it is considered a controlled substance. Lophophora williamsii is an endangered species and should not be harvested in the wild. 

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Natural Healing — Chicalote

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?

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