Abundance in an Inhospitable Place: Plants of the Sonoran Desert

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When most think about the idea of a desert, an abundant ecosystem does not come to mind. Many deserts around the world defy this idea and I had the upmost privilege of exploring this diversity and spending time in the territory of the Tonoho O’odham, Pascua Yaqui, Apache and the Gila River nation. My dream of returning to the Sonoran desert (now as a herbalist!) came true in March when my teachers offered a weekend long course at a private and remote hot springs in Arizona. Finally I would get the opportunity to meet the plant superstars I had been learning about for years and hang out with coyotes and snakes! Okay, luckily I didn’t meet any snakes but I did meet a lot of plants. I got to share this journey with my herbal partner in crime Larkin from Forestheart Botanicals, a fellow student of the wildseed school and lover of all things plants. Together we drove across miles of desert, sweated profusely under the magnifying glass of a sun and fawned over all the wild and weird plants we discovered. At the end of our trip after two weeks of exploration, we felt more settled in this new bizarre world and we fell totally in love with the harsh and fierce Sonoran. In the end however we longed for our wet coast life once again. Here is a look at some of the amazing medicinal plants that thrive in the desert.

 Yerba Mansa, Anemopsis californica

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During our time at the hot springs, we were surrounded by Anemopsis c., a plant I had been keen on since I learnt about it in my first year of herb school. Anemopsis has large, soft green leaves and when in bloom has a gorgeous white flower. The taste and smell of Anemopsis is unforgettable, pungent and aromatic. These aromatics contribute to its wide array of usages as the essential oils are very anti-microbial. Thymol is one of those constituents which is why Anemopsis is recommended in infectious conditions such as sinusitis, MRSA, UTI’s and yeast infections. Thymol has the ability to kill biofilms, a slime like layer that protects bacteria from antibiotics. This makes Anemopsis a herb of interest in the age of the antibiotic resistance. It also can be used in inflammatory conditions as it helps to improve lymphatic function, stimulates circulation and its astringent tannins help tighten tissues.  It also aids in reducing uric acid formation, making it useful in gout as well as arthritis. Anemopsis can be used as an immune system stimulant, a first aid remedy for venomous bites and infected wounds and is a great go-to for a sore throat.  It was a treat to get to experience this plant!

Chapparal, Larrea tridentata

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As I sat on one of the rolling hills in the hot Sonoran sun overlooking the vast desert I had a long moment with Larrea. She has been named “La Gobernadora” for a reason and its obvious when you are in her presence that she is the queen of the desert. As far as the eye can see, this plant, also known as creosote bush or chapparal, dominates the landscape. Larrea is what is known as an allelopathic plant, meaning that the toxic resins that leech out into the surrounding soils inhibit other species from growing. That’s one mean way to survive in the desert! After it rains in the Sonoran all you can smell is the acrid and yet somewhat delightful smell of Larrea due to its resinous leaves. Chapparal leaves are an incredible antimicrobial and antifungal, making it useful topically for infections, athletes foot and candida. It can be used for arthritis and pain conditions, acne and is amazing after burn care. Larrea also can work internally for sun exposure. If you take a large dose after a long day in the sun, the antioxidants help rejuvenate skin cells! Larrea does not have the most appetizing taste though and should not be taken in large doses on a regular basis as it has a strong effect on the liver. This liver effect can be beneficial in short term dosing. Taken for a hangover, Larrea can help inhibit damage done to the liver from free radicals. It can also help with skin cancer and malignant tumors when applied topically to affected area. I fell in love with chapparal, but lucky me I got to bring some oil home with me.

Ocotillo, Fouqueria splendens

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This gorgeously weird cactus is bound to catch your eye in the desert. With its incredible firework like flowers and flailing arms, ocotillo does not blend into the landscape. The root is what is used traditionally, but due to concerns about protecting this plant the inner bark of the branches is considered to be just as useful and has less impact on the plant. Ocotillo is a protected plant in the state of Arizona, in case you find yourself wanting to harvest, keep this in mind and harvest one branch from plants that are thriving. It is quite the experience to process ocotillo as you must smash the long spikey branches with rocks in order to get at the inner bark. The workplace hazards of being a herbalist!  Fouqueria is used for “stuck” conditions, where there is a congested lympathic system and poor absorption of fats and oils. It helps promote absorption of nutrients by enhancing the microvilli in the digestive tract. It is great for pain conditions in the lower half of the body such as painful ovulation or menstrual pain, especially when there is digestive issues present or delayed menstruation. It is one of the best herbal options in managing the agonizing pain of a herniated disk. Take a large dose of the tincture, or tea (its gross) to deal with acute painful episodes of disk pain. Be advised though, this herb is a vasodilator which means it may induce a headache with large doses. Take ocotillo to help with hemmorhoids, prostate englargement, varicose veins, pitting edema, constipation and general sluggish digestion. The beautiful flowers are rich in flavonoids and make a nice tart tea. Yay Ocotillo!

Mexican Poppy, Eschscholzia mexicana

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Finding these poppies in the desert was like discovering secret treasure! Beautiful yellow flowers dotted the barren hillside, somehow thriving in the unforgiving heat. Poppies have long been loved by humans for dealing with painful conditions and Eschscholzia mexicana is definitely a friend for those of us who deal with pain, anxiety and insomnia. Eschscholzia (try remembering how to spell this!)is great combined with passionflower (Passiflora incarnata), milky oats (Avena sativa) and valerian (Valeriana officinalis) for insomnia in which one experiences restlessness, anxiety or overthinking upon trying to fall asleep or for generalized anxiety. Eschscholzia is a great analgesic and can be used for tooth pain, kidney stone pain, menstrual pain and herpes pain. Due to its ability to stimulate opiate receptors it can be used in withdrawl from pharmaceutical opiates but is often better when combined with other herbs. It tends to not work as well in mitigating withdrawal in cases of long term opiate use. Caution with combining this with opiates as it can have a cumulative effect and can potentiate the effects of pharmaceutical opiates. In contrast to this, california poppy or mexican poppy has a history of being a great children’s remedy for teething, irritability and insomnia.

It was incredible to meet all these powerhouse plants and begin to understand the ecology of such an incredible landscape. I can’t wait to visit again!