Plants of the West prove therapeutic
by Jacqueline Soule
The old folk saying "An apple a day keeps the doctor away" originated in Europe and works fine for Europeans, as apples are native to the Old World. But what did people here in the New World, and specifically in the West have to help them stay healthy? As it turns out, thousands of plants. Here's a sampling:
Chiltepin (Capsicum frutescens)
Chiltepin, also called chile tepin is native to the Southwest. Chiltepins were so popular for medicine and culinary use that people carried them to South America more than 5,000 years ago. The plants are delicate in appearance, with bright green leaves and star-shaped white flowers, but beware of the tiny red fruits. They pack a powerful punch! Per weight, they are the hottest chili around. They're great for spice, and are also a useful medicine.
Scientists have determined that a single small chiltepin has almost as much vitamin C as an orange, and they've been used to treat colic, upset stomach and colds. One main compound, capsicum, is a major component in over-the-counter anti-thumb-sucking medication, as well as heat-inducing arthritis creams. Ground chiltepins were mixed with warm water or grease, and the resulting paste was applied to ease aching joints.
Ephedra, also called joint fir or Mormon tea, is a distinctive Western plant. Five species are native to the western United States and one species thrives in China. All are packed with potent medicine. Ephedra was, and still is, used to treat colds, coughs and allergies. Many tribes also brewed a simple stimulating beverage from ephedra, a practice some Mormons adopted.
Active compounds found in all species of ephedra include ephedrine, pseudoephedrine and phenylpropanolamine. Today, these compounds are artificially manufactured and commonly found in cold and allergy medications, as well as diet pills. Medically proven effects of these ephedra compounds include, in low doses, bronchial dilation and nasal blood vessel constriction. In higher doses, they can lead to increased heart rate, aneurysms and death. Either source, natural or manufactured, must be treated with care.
Pine species were found throughout the West when the first tribes arrived. The most common, ponderosa and pinyon, were used in a number of ways. One popular remedy was to make a pine needle tea and drink it to kill intestinal parasites, or wash with it to discourage external parasites. Pine needle poultices were used to treat rheumatism, bruises or sprains. Today, people use pine-based products to keep the house smelling clean and fresh. Little do they realize that this harks back to a yesteryear tradition of using pine products to kill off pests and parasites, treat colds and dress wounds.
Jacqueline Soule is a botanist, writer and educator. A member of the Garden Writers Association, she lives in Tucson and writes gardening columns for a number of newspapers throughout the Southwest. A self-avowed "Darwinistic" gardener, Soule prefers plants that need as little care as possible while providing color, texture and movement in the landscape.