Spring In The Village: Common Weeds and Garden Escapees of Rural New Mexico
The beautiful blue-purple blooms of the Vinca are just starting, the Honeysuckle will soon have buds and the Elms are drooping under the weight of their fat green fruit. Spring has been coming in small ripples this year, beginning early but the full bloom taking a bit longer than usual, with some unseasonal (but very welcome) snows and rains most recently. Today is sunny and the skies are the brilliant blue of summer in the Southwest. I’m heading out to look for a bit of Golden Smoke (Corydalis aurea) for this year’s batch of tinctures later this afternoon and I’ll be watching closely for the first Chokecherry blooms.
It’s always crazy busy this time of year and I often feel as if I need to stay up 24 hours a day just to keep up with both plants and people. Loba, Rhiannon and I have also been gathering huge amounts of Nettles for immediate eating as well as for freezing in a generous friend’s freezer for later in the year. They’re lush and oh so abundant this year, so we’re taking advantage of that with steady harvesting of the leafy green tops, which results in them growing back even more thickly. Hopefully, we’ll have a bumper crop for Nettle seeds later this Summer as well! The wild Mustard, Dock and feral arugula are also in overdrive and we’ve been having wonderful wild salads, although we’re still waiting for the watercress to get back up to speed after last fall’s large flood.
While I tend to gather most of my herbs from the wild land of our sanctuary, I also like to harvest many weedy species from the nearby village. Some of the plants like Salsify and Alfalfa come from roadsides and overgrown fields, but I’m just as likely to picking Dandelions or Vervain from a friend’s yard. In fact, Dandelions are a rare commodity around these parts (as are Chickweed and Plantain, believe it or not) and I’m always super excited when I find a new patch. So when some of our friends recently moved into a new house up on First Mesa, I was thrilled to see that the Dandelions grow thick and prolific in their large green lawn. Our friends, who appreciate gardening and take advantage of herbal medicine but don’t know much about wild plants, were very proud when they saw how delighted I was with the Dandelions, and have now been going around the village bragging about how the plant lady said they have the biggest patch of Dandelions for miles around. It’s a rather unusual occurrence to have self-proclaimed rednecks who are usually more interested in pickup trucks and firearms to be bragging about the weeds in their yard, and I feel like I’ve had some kind of profound (and somewhat subversive) effect on the community. Similarly, my friend Sarah has kept the giant, sprawling Oregon Grape Root bush in her yard just for my use and her brother is very amused by how fond I am of the single Peach tree adorning his otherwise barren lot but is always pleased for me to harvest its leaves and bark.
In fact, all through the village various people mow or weed around certain plants and save tree prunings just for me. They may sometimes think I’m nuts, but they’ve also gained a new appreciation and pride for their special New Mexico plants. Even better, more and more of them are tasting and trying the herbs and wild foods I so often rave about. This has resulted in some of my staunchest supporters and most enthusiastic cheerleaders being rednecks, ranchers and loggers. They don’t usually read my blog (hell, they rarely even have web access), wouldn’t know an herb book if it bit them and likely aren’t aware that there’s anything such as a botanical name, but they’re unfailingly excited about plant medicines, more willing to try weird wild foods than your average suburbanite and understand the underlying importance of not relying on big pharma and the government for healing and nourishment. They may be unexpected allies on some fronts, but they’re certainly loyal ones and I deeply appreciate the assistance and respect of the community I’ve chosen to work and live among.
Below is a brief overview of a few common southwest New Mexico weeds and escaped garden plants. I’ve focused specifically on plants that tend to only grow in close relation to villages or other human communities. There’s many feral weedy plants like Mullein that are so widespread and now independent of human intervention that I include in my regular wild plant postings. If you want more information on any of these plants, look them up in the search box over there on the left, or in the allies section of the Medicine Woman website. If by chance I don’t have anything on that specific plant, just be patient, I’ll probably be writing about it soon.
Dandelion (Taraxacum spp.) – THE classic weed that drives those obsessed with the perfect green lawn absolutely crazy in nature’s neverending quest for diversity and ecological community. It’s not actually that common in much of the SW but can be found in well-watered yards, some river banks and many urban areas. Well known as an excellent alterative (with strong diuretic emphasis), especially for high blood pressure, gout, hepatitis etc. often with skin manifestations.
Periwinkle (Vinca major) – Easily grown in the erratic temperatures of the SW mountains, it is an extremely common groundcover in village gardens and sometimes escapes to roadsides and sidewalk cracks. A little known herb that’s useful as a vasoconstrictor for migraines and passive hemorrhage/bleeding.
Plantain (Plantago spp.) – Another usually common weed that’s not so common in the SW, but that can often be found in well watered yards and along river banks. Plantain is healing and mucilagenous, as well as being an excellent drawing agent for infections, venom and splinters. Also lovely for healing a variety of hot gut issues such as IBS and ulcers. Healing and soothing, perhaps the country’s most popular ingredient for diaper rash salve.
Siberian Elm (Ulmus pumila) – Originally planted as a shade tree in many villages, the Siberian Elm has escaped the confines of civilization and entered into the realms of much maligned invasive alien weed. It grows along roadsides, in yards, on disturbed ground and wherever else there’s enough water to support it. Slippery, slimy and slightly sweet tasting, Siberian Elm is a perfect analogue for its close relative, Slippery Elm. For constitutional dryness, dyspepsia from weakness, wounds, boils, and many other issues.
Horehound (Marrubium vulgare) – THE weed of this area, it can take over whole yards and fields, and spreads through sticky little sock-hopping seeds. Most people hate it, and it certainly is invasive, but it does have many uses. A very effective (if foul tasting) digestive bitter, it can work wonders in cases of insufficien gastric secretion, weak appetite with poor digestion of fats and proteins. Best known as a lung/cough medicine, it efficiently increases expectoration, thins and breaks up mucus, and lessens irritation (and also slows the heartbeat) and constriction. It’s also a relaxant diaphoretic, making it extra useful in colds settling in the lungs with lots of thick phlegm, rapid hearbeat, dry fever, and feelings of constriction in the throat and chest.
All pics (c) 2009 Jesse Wolf Hardin