Tag Archives: Aztec medicine

Harvesting cactus

I love cactus! It has a fresh, green taste that is all its own. And it can be found right in our little community, no trip to the fruteria (greengrocers) necessary. We’ve even planted some cactus in our backyard, however, it will be YEARS before they are big enough to harvest from.


The nopal (cactus) is one of the fundamental symbols of Mexico.  It is considered la planta de vida (life-giving plant) as it seems to never die.  Fallen pencas (leaves) form new plants, therefore an apt symbol of the life-rebirth cycle found in the most ancient of Mexican myths.full of tunas

According to legend, the first nopal (cactus) grew from Copil‘s heart, son of Malinalxochitl, the moon, and Chimalcuauhtli.  Copil had attempted to murder his uncle Huitzilopochtli, the sun, because he had abandoned his mother.  According to legend, Huitzilopochtli defeated his nephew and removed Copil’s heart, which was later buried. The next day, the first nopal appeared, complete with the thorns of a warrior and flowers that blossomed with the love Copil had shown in defending his mother. This nopal (cactus) was discovered by the wandering Aztecs.  Atop the nopal was an eagle, devouring a serpent, over a lake, the sign the nomads had been waiting for.


To have la cara de nopal (the face of a cactus) is to say that one’s indigenous ancestry is evident.  My husband has a decided cara de nopal and that isn’t a bad thing.

cara de nopal

Yes, I’m pocho (a Mexican who has turned his back on his ancestry usually living in the US) but I haven’t been able to get rid of this cara de nopal (Mexican face).

There is a technique however to harvesting. The pencas (leaves) should be a light green. Older pencas can be eaten, but they tend to have a bitter taste. The penca should be cut at the base, and handled gingerly. It is a cactus after all and there are espinas (thorns).

nopales to harvest

Once a good number have been collected, it’s time to despina (remove the thorns). It isn’t a terribly difficult process and practice makes perfect. The base of the thorn is cut, away from the cutter, and discarded. The outside edge is also skinned off. My husband always does this outside–less clean up involved. And that’s pretty much it. The cactus is ready for cooking.

dethorning cactusdethorning side

Cactus can be cooked as an entire leaf on the comal (griddle) or cut into pieces. It can be boiled or basted in tripa (intestine) juice, which is my favorite manner of preparation. It can be eaten warm or cold, used like a tortilla around cheese–a nopaldilla if you will–eaten as a salad with tomato and chili, or with beans and onions or ..well you get the idea.

boiled nopal

roasted nopal


A nice size bag of the nopales, tomato, onion and yellow chili mixture can be bought from the corner vendor for 10 pesos. Fast-food at its best!

Cactus also provides fruit in season, tunas (See Picking Tunas), the heart of Copil. Just more evidence that even in the desert, “the Earth provides enough for every man’s need” –Mathama Gandhi.




Filed under Mexican Cultural Stories, Mexican Food and Drink, Native fauna and flora

Natural Healing–Maguey AKA Agave

maguey Since time unknown, the maguey or agave plant has been used by the people in Mexico for clothing, medicine, shelter, fuel, alcohol and tools. Fibers, called pitas, were taken from the plant and woven into cloth. Thorns were used as sewing needles. Pencas (leaves) were dried to burn as fuel or overlaid for roofing. The sap was used as a sweetener, as medicine or distilled for alcohol. The Aztecs/Mexica even had a specific patron deity for this plant, the goddess Mayahuel.
goddess Mayahuel

The goddess Mayahuel

The maguey or agave plant is often mistaken for sábila (aloe vera), but is not closely related. Nor is it a cactus. The maguey can grow without irrigation and can withstand a great variation of moisture and temperature. It grows wild, but can also be cultivated.It may take 10 to 12 years for a maguey plant to be mature enough to “flower”. The “flower” is a large, obtrusive stalk that grows right from the middle of the plant. After flowering, the plant typically dies. flowering maguey To harvest, the stalk is cut before it blooms, leaving a hollow where the aguamiel (honey water) is collected. This juice can be fermented into an alcoholic drink which the Aztecs called octli, and is now called pulque. For tequila or mezcal, the sap is collected by heating the center of the plant in ovens and then distilled.
pulque god Tezcatzoncatl

The Aztec/Mexica god of pulque wine, Tezcatzoncatl.

According to my trusty source, Antiguo Recetario Medicinal Azteca, this plant is more than just making tequila or pulque. It can treat syphilis, accelerate the formation of scarring on wounds, cure gonorrhea, can be used as a strong stomach and intestine antiseptic (the sap has antibiotic properties which was also used to kill both staphylococcus aureaus and E. coli bacteria) and is useful as a laxative. Additionally, Bernardino de Sahagún attested in his book Historia General de las cosas de la Nueva España, that aguamiel was also used as a treatment for sore throats by the Aztecs.
drinking pulque

Drinking pulque.

Antiguo Recetario Medicinal Azteca suggests that for syphilis treatment, water and 10 drops of the sap from the root of the maquey should be drunk in the morning and 10 drops in the afternoon on the first day of treatment. The second day the dosage should be 20 drops and so on until 200 drops are ingested in each day. For aid in scar formation, heat the pencas (leaves) and squeeze out the juice much as you would with aloe vera. (See Animal Doctoring) The juice should be boiled with a little sugar until thickened. The salve should be placed on a cloth and tied around the wound. Gonorrhea can be treated by drinking the 1/4 cup of cooked aguamiel (maguey juice) for 15 days. For stomach and intestine cleansing, it is recommended to drink one glass of aguamiel with breakfast. While most pharmaceutical companies would poo-poo the use of maguey in treatment, these recipes have been around a long time and there may be some basis for using maguey medicinally. maguey agave We have even used the maguey penca in cooking goat. We dug a large hole and lined it with rocks which we then lined with dethorned maguey leaves. The goat was cut into pieces and put in a pot and then the hole was topped with another maguey leaf. The meat cooked, or steamed, overnight and was as tender as could be. Delicious!


Interested in natural remedies? Uncover herbal remedies from traditional Mexican sources for healing and wellness in the Exploring Traditional Herbal Remedies in Mexico series.


Filed under Health, Native fauna and flora, Natural Healing, Religion

Herbal Remedies and the like

The Nahuatl Indians called this fruit 'ahuacatl' which means testicle because of its shape. The Spaniards morphed the word to 'aguacate', and later it was again morphed to the current name we use in English 'avocado.'

The Nahuatl Indians called this fruit ‘ahuacatl’ which means testicle because of its shape. The Spaniards morphed the word to ‘aguacate’, and later it was again morphed to the current name we use in English ‘avocado.’

The other day we went to the tianguis (flea market) in Valle del Santiago.  There were all sorts of things to see, people selling everything from TV remote controls to plows.  I, of course, am always on the lookout for books and found a small pile in front of the tiniest little old doña in a reboza (shawl).  In this pile, I chanced upon 2 yellowed, slightly rat-gnawed little books with the grand titles of “Antiguo Formulario Azteca de Yerbas Medicinales.  Manual imprescindíble de los secretos indígenas” and the second “Antiguo Recetario Medicinal Azteca. Curese con Plantas y Yerbas.”  For those not totally fluent in Spanish, both books purported to be herbal medicines used by the Aztecs.  At 3 pesos a piece, I could hardly turn them down.  This little viejita (elderly lady) made the comment that a young woman like myself (young only compared to her I suspect) should be reading those romance novels in the other pile that I didn’t spare a glance for.  But no, Aztec herbal medicine was more likely to cure my ills than those trashy titles.  And I have not been disappointed with the contents and cures it offers.  There are remedies for everything from curling your hair to curing diabetes, all naturally.  Fascinating.


My herbal treasure finds!

I expect I see the planet as a beneficent and giving organism because of my mom, always ready to make fresh chamomile tea from her stash of dried flowers, or biking through overgrown paths for that patch of wild grapes no one else knew about.  And living here, off the beaten track, there are so many plants I am not familiar with and am so longing to learn about what it is they can do.

Nopal, (cactus) for instance not only tastes like the freshest green morning but according to my new source, is good for curing intestinal parasites, strengthening of the lungs, bringing on mother’s milk and curing open sores, depending on how it is used.   And did you know the hueso de aguacate (avocado seed) can be used to treat for lice?  Who would have guessed?


Recipe for avocado shampoo for lice and fleas

Cut 5 avocado seeds into pieces and boil with 1/4 liter of water with branches from the flowering plant known here as ruda.   Wash with a neutral base soap and then apply the avocado water like a lotion.  Cover the head in a towel and the nasty little pests will vacate the premises on their own.



According to Antiguo Formulario Azteca de Yerbas Medicinales, aguacate (avocado) has always been used as an aphrodisiac because its ingestion stimulates the sexual organs.  It is also recommended to diabetics to control sugar imbalance.






Filed under Health, Native fauna and flora, Natural Healing