Taste of the Past with Leslie Bush

 

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When from a long distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered . . . the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls . . . [They] bear unfaltering, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection. – Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past

Dr. Leslie Bush, owner of Macrobotanical Analysis  (www.macrobotanicalanalysis.com), joins us today for Part 2 of her conversation about cooking with native plants. See the Archives for June, 2014, for Part 1.

Dr. Leslie Bush analyzing ancient plant remains.

Dr. Leslie Bush analyzing ancient plant remains.

Leslie: Sure. The important thing to know here is that I don’t have a garden in my yard – I was cooking with native Texas plants that grow uncultivated* in many parts of the state. Lots of people are eating uncultivated plants these days, whether at the “World’s Best Restaurant”, sticking to an allegedly Paleo diet, or eating the weeds. I won’t say “wild” because human influence is so pervasive on the landscape, even in remote areas, that all of the planet is effectively under human management. (See the work of ethnobiologist Eugene N. Anderson.)  Here are some things I’ve tried:

Kunuch Cake

Kunuch Cake

Kunuche Pecan Balls  for Cherokee Nut Soup Traditional Cherokee nut soup is made from hickory nuts, usually black hickory (Carya texana). The most common hickory in the Austin area is pecan (Carya illinoinensis), so I made the soup balls from pecan nuts.

Step 1: Pecan Balls. To make the balls, I cracked each pecan nut on my concrete porch with a grinding stone, then picked out and swept away the larger pieces of pecan shell. I put the nutmeats and the remaining bits of inner shell into a basalt molcajete and ground it into a coarse paste. I formed the paste into balls about 2 inches in diameter. The balls can be frozen for a few months or put in a ziplock in the refrigerator for a few days until you’re ready to use them.

Step 2: Pecan Soup. To reconstitute the balls into soup, just add boiling water and stir. Use one ball for a large coffee mug. Let the soup settle for a few moments so that the pecan shells drop to the bottom. Be sure not to drink the last drops, or you’ll end up with shells in your mouth! You can flavor the soup with dried cranberries (my favorite), dried corn, or even bits of turkey jerky.

Sumac-ade This recipe for sumac-ade comes from my friend Neal Stilley, whose many talents include primitive arts such as fire-

Simmering Sumac-ade

Simmering Sumac-ade

making and cooking uncultivated plants. The batch of sumac-ade I made this spring was from flameleaf sumac (Rhus lanceolata) harvested in February. Harvesting when the fruits have been on the plant for such a long time doesn’t make the best-tasting tea. I’m eager to try another batch in a few of weeks when the fruits will be fresh.

  • Wash sumac fruits under cold water.
  • Bring 1 part sumac fruits and 5 parts water to a simmer, being careful not to boil.
  • Simmer for 2-5 minutes, then turn off heat and let stand for 10-15 minutes.

 

Mesquite Cake

Mesquite Cake

Mesquite Cake Grinding mesquite pods into flour is a tedious undertaking. It’s probably best done with a big group of girls and women, sitting in the shade, singing songs, sipping cool beverages, and speculating on the activities of your neighbors. In ancient times, Native women used a gyratory crusher, a sort of funnel-shaped metate, to crush mesquite pods with a heavy wooden pestle. The crushed pods fell through the hole into a basket. The beans and the brittle, outer pod were winnowed out, and the inner pod parts were re-ground into fine flour. Since I live in central Texas and not the Sonoran Desert, I had to make my pods “desert-dry” by roasting them in the oven at low heat before I tried to grind them. I used a flat-bottomed cobble to grind pods on my concrete porch, but it was a very slow process without the walls of a metate to keep the pods under my grinding stone. I decided pretty quickly that

Mesquite Cake

Mesquite Cake

producing and tasting a couple of teaspoons of flour would be enough old-school experience to satisfy me. Most modern mesquite eaters use a high-powered blender or a hammermill to process mesquite – and now I know why! Mesquite flour is very sweet, even before you add sugar to the recipe. The high sugar content makes baking with it difficult –the centers of baked goods tend to stay soft and mushy. I recommend baking very thin things such as these thin yellow cakes I made with mesquite flour from The Mesquitery.

Yucca Petals (raw) The flowers of all the yucca species I’ve tried have been edible and delicious. They

Yucca Blossoms

Yucca Blossoms

have a texture like green onions but with more substance. Most plants I’ve tried taste like radishes. A few lack that spicy kick and taste more like carrots. Some people eat the pistils and all the inner flower parts, but I stick to the petals. You can even eat them straight from landscaping in the mall.  (See blog articles from the Archives for June and July, 2012, for my own yucca experimentation–MSB.)

Woodsorrel Greens (raw) Woodsorrels have cute little heart-shaped leaves in a clover-like configuration. Here in central Texas, we have two woodsorrels: yellow woodsorrell (Oxalis dillenii), a branched plant with small yellow flowers, and Drummond’s oxalis

Wood Sorrell

Wood Sorrell

(Oxalis drummondii), a single-stemmed plant with larger, pink flowers and a bulb below ground. The wonderfully sour, refreshing leaves can be sprinkled on salads or tossed in cream sauce over pasta. Be careful not to eat too many of the raw leaves at a time, though: oxalic acid interferes with iron absorption, and too much of it can be very serious for people with impaired kidneys.

Commercially Available Sources For the May meeting of the Native Plant Society, I rounded out the table of native plant snacks with purchases from the local grocery store: agave syrup, prickly pear soda, nopalitos, and pecans. I’ll have to see what’s growing in my yard for the Caldwell County Genealogical and Historical Society next month . . . .

Grocery Store Snacks from Native Foods

Grocery Store Snacks from Native Foods

Cooking Wild Plants with Leslie Bush

 

Hot Acorn Bread Fresh From the Oven

Hot acorn bread fresh from the oven

My guest blogger today is Dr. Leslie Bush, (https://Macrobotanicalanalysis.com), an expert in edible wild plants. In her day job, she identifies plant remains from archaeological sites. But at home she like to cook with wild plants that she gathers or even finds online.

Dr. Leslie Bush analyzing ancient plant remains.

Dr. Leslie Bush analyzing ancient plant remains.

Leslie: My interest in wild cooking comes from history and archaeology, from wanting to understand what common foods of the distant past tasted like. I also wanted to share the dishes with archaeologists and native plant enthusiasts here in central Texas.  Acorn-producing oak tress are common in many parts of  Texas, and acorns were used extensively as food by ancient people.

Boiling acorns

Boiling acorns

Friends and the Internet both told me I should make recipes that mix acorn flour or mesquite flour with wheat flour and leavening, to give people a chance to taste the unique ingredients in a form they’d enjoy. Despite their advice, I decided to be a purist in my first attempt. I harvested acorns from the red oak tree in my front yard.  I discarded acorns with obvious worm holes and those that floated in water. After an hour’s soaking, I shelled the acorns by cracking them with a river cobble on my concrete porch. I wasn’t  particularly careful about removing all the thin film of inner husk that clings to the acorns. I also used fresh acorns, not ones that had aged for at least a year, as she recommends. Once the acorns were shelled, I boiled them to remove the tannins. I was careful to make sure they never cooled down, transferring them from pot of simmering water to another. I used ten(!) changes of water, and the nuts were still fairly bitter.

Many people recommend grinding the acorns into flour before leaching out the tannins, so working with whole acorns is

Roasted acorns

Roasted acorns

probably another reason my acorns were bitter. (Apparently, you can wrap the ground acorn flour in cheesecloth and leach out the tannins by placing it in running water. I’ve heard putting the flour in the back tank of a toilet is great because the water isn’t wasted and gets changed frequently, but I couldn’t bring myself to try it.) For the final step, I rubbed the acorns in oil to replace what they’d lost in boiling, then roasted them in the oven. They had the taste and texture of bitter corn nuts.

Mary: I learned that acorns are high in carbohydrates and fat, which is good if you are living entirely on native plants and animals, as native peoples did. One hundred grams of acorns has about 387 calories, 41 g carbs, 24 g fat, and 6.2 g of protein.

Acorn Bread

Acorn bread

Leslie: After that first round of acorn adventures, I knew I should order acorn flour to make acorn bread this spring. Even processed by a pro, the flour still has a slight tannic bite, but it bakes up wonderfully. I can see how people crave the taste of acorns! This is the recipe I used:http://www.food.com/recipe/acorn-bread-267655.

I also want to share my recipe for yaupon tea. Our native Texas yaupon is a species of evergreen holly with the ominous botanical name Ilex vomitoria. It’s a close cousin to the plant that makes yerba mate, Ilex paraguariensis. Both plants have caffeine in their leaves and make excellent tea. In its strongest form, yaupon tea is the Black

Leslie Bush explains edible wild plants

Leslie Bush explains edible wild plants

Drink that Native ancestors used in ceremonies across much of what is now the eastern United States. I like to make yaupon as a gentle green tea. The taste is very similar to yerba mate, but the homemade yaupon is much fresher – and it’s free!  Yaupon may be harvested at any time of year. Cultivated dwarf yaupon and pencil yaupon varieties are also acceptable. Any fruits should be removed prior to toasting. Here’s my recipe:

Yaupon Tea

Toast yaupon leaves and small branches in shallow pan or baking sheet for 30 minutes at 350 degrees F. Higher temperatures will result in a darker tea with more caffeine. Leaves should fall from most branches during the toasting process. Remove any remaining leaves from all but the smallest branches and discard bare branches.

Toasted leaves may be cooled and placed in a sealed container for up to three months.

Boiling ilex, or yaupon

Boiling ilex, or yaupon

Measure 1 part tea to 4 or 5 parts water. Boil water and pour over tea leaves. Steep until tea reaches desired concentration. Tea leaves may also be brought to a boil in the water, although this produces a harsher tea.

 

Recommended Resources

Parker, Julia F. It will live forever: Traditional Yosemite indian acorn preparation. 

Buy acorn flour http://buyacornflour.com

 

Bees and Trees, Update

Flowering Purple Sage

Flowering Purple Sage

I had the good fortune to be in the Lower Pecos near Langtry, Texas (population 18), in the desert west of Del Rio and right on the Rio Grande, recently.  When I walked out of the house just as the sun was coming over the horizon, I heard the most astonishing thing: a purple sage bush was buzzing, humming, vibrating with unmistakable energy.

BeesandFlowersCommunicate050313When I went to inspect it closer, I discovered hundreds, nay thousands, of bees diving into the purple flowers sucking up nectar as fast as they could. There were two kinds of bees feasting on the plant: one a large black one, and the other much smaller and more golden color. I really don’t know much about bees at all, so cannot tell you the official names of these lively creatures. But I thought it was significant that there were TWO different kinds dining at the same time on the same flowers.

If there are any bee people out there, can you help me out?  I looked at the plant again towards sunset.  The

Tickle Tongue, or pickly ash, is covered with thorns

Tickle Tongue, or pickly ash, is covered with thorns

bees were gone, and the plant was quiet once again.

That evening we had dinner with rancher Jack Skiles, who has lived in Langtry most of his life. He commented on my blog about toothaches, and said he knew of another plant besides leatherstem that was good for aching teeth.  That plant is tickle tongue, also called prickly ash or Texas Hercules’ club.  He said if you chew the leaves, the mouth will go completely numb. He said he did not have one on his property, but knew where one was nearby. No doubt tickle tongue would have been a great addition to the Archaic Lower Pecos medicine kit I have written about in past posts.

Tickle Tongue

Tickle Tongue

For more information, see

http://www.dirtdoctor.com/Tickle-Tongue-Tree_vq3014.htm

Ow! Aching Teeth in the Lower Pecos Archaic

Tooth loss is no laughing matter

Tooth loss is no laughing matter

How are your teeth? Probably better than the people living in the Lower Pecos region of Texas 4000 years ago (plus or minus).  We should count our lucky stars that we have toothbrushes and dentists.  Archaic people’s dental problems must have caused them great pain, with very little to ameliorate the situation, and affected many areas of their lives.

Many, if not most, of the adult Archaic skeletons discovered by archeologists in the area of Texas where the Pecos river meets the Rio Grande, show that the population was relatively free of disease except for extreme tooth decay (Rose, et al., 1988; Turpin, 1994).  Mailloux (2003) analyzed teeth from 38 Archaic skeletons and found that the majority of the tooth crowns had been “obliterated.”   This high incidence of tooth decay and tooth loss has been attributed to the sugar content of the diet, which partially consisted of large quantities of prickly pear and agave (Turpin, Henneberg and Riskind, 1986; Danielson, 1998).

Watch this 2 minute video to understand what happens when a tooth becomes decayed. If it does not load automatically, just hit “watch it on YouTube.”

You can easily see how tooth decay and abscess would be painful.  There are other consequences if many teeth are affected or missing (as is the case with the above mentioned skeletons). First, there is the problem of eating. Food would need to be mashed and carefully swished around the mouth to get the benefit of saliva, which breaks down certain chemicals in food, then carefully swallowed so as not to choke.  This type of food preparation would be time consuming in the stone age kitchen, and impose an extra burden on the chef. So that big hunk of charcoaled venison you wanted for dinner is definitely out.  You get raw mashed venison liver instead. Probably healthy, but not so good in a taco.

In addition, a lack of teeth causes a loss of support for the lips and cheeks, giving a “sunken in” look to the

This lady with missing teeth may have trouble being understood

This lady with missing teeth may have trouble being understood

lower third of the face. This causes the tongue to broaden out and affects pronunciation of many words.  We have many consonants in English which require the tongue to strike the teeth for proper pronunciation. For instance, think of the sound of the letter “t”.  Feel how the tongue curls to strike the upper teeth when you repeat the sound.   Not being able to do this would make it difficult to communicate clearly and undoubtedly cause frustration to all parties.

Eventually, the loss of many teeth can reduce the flow of saliva in the mouth. Saliva washes away bits of food on the teeth and neutralizes acids produced by bacteria in the mouth.  Without this A) you get dry mouth, which is not very comfortable in the desert), and B) the body becomes more prone to heart disease, which tooth-painmeans you probably die young (as most of the skeletons discussed above did).

Having fewer teeth in the mouth causes progressive bone loss in the jaw, which in turn causes the lower third of the face to collapse even more. Recent studies have demonstrated a link between periodontal bone loss and osteoporosis, which causes brittle bones that easily break. Again, not good if you must climb in and out of the rugged canyons of the region to find dinner.  The poor condition of their teeth undoubtedly caused shorter lives and many problems for the people affected.

People of the Archaic Lower Pecos had few remedies for all this tooth ache. They did have willow bark  however  ( See my blog entry of April 8, 2013)  for the pain-killing

Lechugilla quids found in rock shelters

Lechuguilla quids found in rock shelters

properties of willow bark.)  Willow bark contains the same active ingredients as aspirin and would have been an effective medicine. You could drink it as a tea, or in another possibility I hearby propose, soak a quid (or wad) of lechuguilla fiber in strong willow tea and hold that against the spot in pain. Lechuguilla quids have been discovered in many rock shelters in the area, but archeologists have proposed few suggestions about their use. Quids might have been soaked in other teas with pain killing substances, such as datura or peyote tea. (See blogs of March 3 and February 4, 2013  for discussion of these plants.)

Another plant commonly known today as leatherstem (Jatropha dioica) was probably used by ancient people. Leatherstem is also known as Sangra de Drago and various other Spanish names, and is found wild all over the Lower Pecos region. This plant has the wonderful ability to go dormant during drought times, and

Leatherstem, or Jatropha dioica, in drought

Leatherstem, or Jatropha dioica, in drought

Leatherstem,or Jaropha dioica, leafed out.

Leatherstem,or Jatropha dioica, leafed out

burst into leaf a day or two after even a sprinkle of rain. It also has the ability to numb pain, particularly in the gums.  Just break off a twig and rub it over sore gums for instant, albeit minor, relief.Perhaps people smashed these twigs and used the paste on their gums as well.

Other antibacterial agents were available to the people as well, such as wild oregano, sage, possibly hot peppers, and charcoal.  People could make a poultice using any, or all, of these ingredients to sooth mouth pain.

If my teeth were hurting as much as indicated for the Archaic peoples along these rivers, I would have used everything available, plus a good dose of ritual from the shaman, to make the pain go away.

Wounds and Bleeding: Medicine Kit of the Lower Pecos, Part III

Archaic peoples had many ways to stop bleeding and heal wounds

Archaic peoples had to stop bleeding and heal wounds, just as we do today

Stopping unwanted bleeding and healing wounds without infection were serious issues for Archaic peoples of the Lower Pecos and others around the world. Fortunately, an efficacious ointment was often at hand, not only along the Rio Grande but almost world-wide. That precious ointment was honey.

Egyptian Healer

Egyptian Healer

Honey was an important ingredient in the Three Gestures of Healing used in ancient Egypt. The protocol went like this: First, wash the wound. Second, apply a plaster of honey, animal fat, and plant fiber. And last, bandage the wound.  Sounds reasonable even today. In fact using honey to treat wounds was also used by the Greeks and , and even up to World War II.

When penicillin and other antibiotics came in after WWII, honey was often forgotten.

But new research has recently shown the antibacterial properties of honey itself.  Professor Peter Molan at the University of Waikato lin New Zealand says “in honeys, there is–to

Honey and comb

Honey and comb

different levels–hydrogen peroxide produced from an enzyme that bees add to the nectar.”

The particular type of New Zealand honey he studies has been found to work in a very broad spectrum. “It works on bacteria, fungi, protozoa.  We haven’t found anything it doesn’t work on among infectious organisms,” concludes Professor Molan.

So it seems likely that at least some kinds of honey, particularly those from wild organic flowers, could be quite effective for preventing infection in open wounds.

Black brush, a bee favorite, in bloom in a canyon

Black brush, a bee favorite, in bloom in a canyon

Fortunately the Lower Pecos has both wild organic flowers and bees, in abundance.  Flowers bloom across the Lower Pecos region after every rain, even a tiny amount. They grow hanging from stone canyon walls or sprouting from stone pavements on the floor. They attract many wild bees that build nests in rock crannies, even ceilings of rock shelters with painted walls.

Wild honeycomb in a rock shelter in the Lower Pecos

Wild honeycomb in a rock shelter in the Lower Pecos

Ancient people had intimate knowledge of their landscapes and would have undoubtedly made use of all their resources, including robbing bees for their honey. Honey was likely kept at hand by the ancient people who lived in the region to apply to cuts and wounds to promote healing and prevent infection. Poultices of various kinds were likely made and bound to the wound with strips of hide or cordage.

I am unclear about the existence of bees 4000 years ago in North America, however. The beautiful booklet “Bee Basics” by Drs. Beatriz Moisset and Stephen Buchmann of the USDA Forest Service (http://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb5306468.pdf) seems to make a distinction between honey bees and other types of bees considered native to this continent. In fact they state that honey bees did not appear here until some escaped from European imports. Hmm. Bee people, can you help me out?

The plot thickens with the discovery of honey bee fossils in Nevada from  millions of years ago in 2009 (see          http://ucanr.org/blogs/blogcore/postdetail.cfm?postnum=1544). Just makes me wonder about how much we don’t know about even the simplest things.

For the Archaic people of the Lower Pecos, however, other issues concerning blood were likely treated with wild plants. Blue Skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora) is native to Texas and grows near streams or marshes. Yes, there are such places even in the desert of the Lower Pecos. An infusion of the plant can be used to promote menstruation, and large doses can induce miscarriage. Overdoses can cause giddiness, confusion and twitching.  In cases like this, the patient should seek immediate medical attention.

There are over 350 varieties of skullcap

There are over 350 varieties of skullcap

Letha Hadaday, adjunct faculty for the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens and Beth Israel Medical Center in New York, is an expert in the use of Chinese medicinal herbs (www.asianheathsecrets.com). According to her, skullcap may also help prevent strokes by increasing bloodflow to the brain, and has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. While little Western research validates these statements, they are well accepted in Chinese medicine.

Another plant that can induce labor or alter menstrual cycles is stinging nettle

Stinging Nettle Rash

Stinging Nettle Rash

(Urtica dioica). Yes, the one I remember so well from childhood for the painful red welts on my arm.  If you get into them, the rash can itch horribly for at least a week, so watch which weeds you are pulling, especially in flood plains or shady spots near creeks. Stinging nettle affects blood flow, and can contribute to miscarriage as well as stop hemorrhaging during childbirth.

Ken Kramm: Creative Naturalist

My guest today is Dr. Kenneth Kramm, former professor of ecology at Michigan Technical University and the University of Houston.  He is a Texas Master Naturalist and hosts a Facebook page on bushcraft and nature at  http://www.facebook.com/BuschcraftAndNature   and a Youtubechannel at http://www.youtube.com/user/kennethkramm?feature=mhe

Ken Kramm and friend

Ken Kramm and friend

Hi Ken. Tell us a little about your video “Prehistoric Indians of the Lower Pecos Region, Seminole Canyon, Tx.”

Seminole Canyon State Park is a wonderful park with a nice campground and interesting history.  Hopefully, the video will encourage people to visit the park and learn about the prehistoric indians who who lived here nearly 12,000 years ago.  They were attracted by the rivers, wildlife and rock shelter caves.  Guided tours of the rock shelters are particularly interesting.  Different parts of the shelters were designated for activities such as sleeping and cooking.  People slept on woven mats, which are still present in the shelters.  Over a period of 4 to 6 thousand years, the walls were decorated with pictographs.  In spite of the harsh environment, the Lower Pecos Region of Texas provides many photo opportunities for wildlife and wildflowers.

What other videos do you have on your Youtube channel?  http://www.youtube.com/user/KennethKramm?feature=mhee

My YouTube Channel includes videos on a wide range of nature-related topics 1) hiking and camping adventures (to locations such as Texas State and National Forests), 2) relaxing nature videos for meditation, 3) and wilderness survival techniques and bushcraft.   I am currently producing a video miniseries on “How To Camp Out — Advice From an American  Civil War Veteran.”   We can learn much about how to survive and thrive outdoors by following the recommendations of pioneers in the 1800s.

This one shows how to forage for dinner, including “Roly Poly Soup.” Tastes like shrimp. Honest.

 Very clever. How do you create these videos?

Topics are suggested by subscribers.  Before making a video, I research the topic using the internet, books, articles and talking with local experts.  The US Forest Service, Texas State Forest Service and Texas Master Naturalists assist with the production of many videos.    After outlining the video design, I start filming with a Canon Vixia Camcorder, point-and-shoot camera, and smart phone.  The videos are edited with Final Cut Pro X.

 You also have a Facebook page on bushcraft and nature. What is the purpose of that endeavor? http://www.facebook.com/BuschcraftAndNature

The purpose is for people to share their love of the outdoors and learn from its wisdom.  With each advance of technology, life for human beings becomes easier and better. It is now possible to talk and share experiences real-time with people from all over the world, Wow! This same technology, however, has a downside: human beings have become disconnected from the natural world. We have largely forgotten important lessons of our ancient ancestors. The “Bushcraft and Nature community” shares the best from both worlds. We use technology to communicate a our common love of the outdoors and learn from its wisdom.

Had any interesting experiences with snakes or other critters out in the wild?  

After watching sunset at Lost Maples State Park, I walked a 2-mile trail back to camp without a flashlight.  Fireflies were  numerous, so I didn’t need to turn on my flashlight to see the trail.   All of a sudden I heard awful growling /screeching.  A feral hog and her piglets were crossing the trail in front of me.  The mother decided to attack!  I was scared…. Very scarred…. I screamed, turned on the flashlight and threw it at the hogs.   They retreated.  But my heart  was pounding all the way home.

That would certainly scare me too!  Those things can be vicious.  If you had to live in a tent for the next year, where would you like lit to be?  Why?

One of the best places for year-round tent camping, in my opinion, is southern California.  The weather is moderate; food, water and shelter are readily available from nature.  And best of all the region provides unparalleled opportunities for wildlife observation and photography.

 You wouldn’t have to twist my arm very hard on that one.  Why do you believe it is important for people today to experience the natural world?

See my video on the benefits of bushcraft:

Basically

– NATURE MAKE YOU NICER: communities with more green-space have lower rates of crime and violence

–  GET A GLIMPSE OF GREEN:  hospital patients who can see green spaces from their rooms recover faster and require less pain medication;  exposure to the living world can calm the mind, improve learning and enhance intelligence

– NATURE IS THE BEST NURTURE: reduced anxiety and depression, decreased stress, increased immunity, increased energy; 50% lower diabetes risk, vitamin D production,weight loss and fitness, reduced attention deficit disorder

–  SUGGESTED DOSAGE:  Stress is relieved within 2 minutes exposure to nature, Memory and attention span improve 20% with 2 hours exposure to nature; levels of cancer fighting white blood cells increase 50 in 2 days exposure

– NATURE IS INVENTOR:  velcro is an example; hook &loop fasteners were invented after people noticed burrs sticking to clothes

I couldn’t help noticing you have an insect on your hat.  What is it?

It’s a stick insect (Order: Phasmatodea). He’s  a harmless invertebrate that feeds mostly on leaves.  They hold the record for longest insects in the world.  See Cool Facts About Stick Insects, a weird moovie – YouTube

You do something different with every video! Your videos are both informative and very inviting.  Thanks for being with us, Ken. It’s been a pleasure. Thanks for sharing your love of the great outdoors with us. 

Joint Pain: Medicine Kit of the Lower Pecos, Part II

Handful of native chili petines

Handful of native chiltepines

Human beings have been plagued with joint pain throughout the history of mankind.  Arthritis, the condition caused by the wearing down of beneficial cartilage in the joints, affects over 27 million people in the United States today, according to the Arthritis Foundation

A joint with osteoarthritis

A joint with osteoarthritis

(www.arthritistoday.org). I don’t know enough about the skeletal evidence from the Lower Pecos of Texas to do more than speculate, but at least some people in the region 4000-6000 years ago must have worn out a knee or two climbing up and down steep canyons and running over rough stone outcroppings in the uplands. In other words, they probably had  their share of  “archaic arthritis.”

Ow! Even that phrase hurts!  Osteoarthritis produces stinging pain and can cause swelling and stiffness in the joints affected. Generally, the older you are, the more wear and tear you have on your joints.  A stiff knee could make a thirty-year-old adult from the archaic period feel old before his or her time. But somebody had to hunt, somebody had to gather plants. It’s not like they could just stay at home with their feet up. So what did they do?

Recently I was forced to experiment to find out.  I had to forego my usual arthritis medication from the doctor, and researched various herbal remedies.  I decided to try cayenne capsules, devil’s claw root extract, and yucca root extract to alieve my own symptoms because native varieties of these were likely available during the archaic period in the Lower Pecos.

The “hotness” of chili peppers is measured in Scoville units. Cayenne is measured at between 30,000 and 50,000 Scoville units, but our native chiltepine pepper comes in at a whopping 50,000-100,000 Scoville units!  The “heat” is caused by capsaicin, which is present in all hot peppers to some extent. capsaicin is a main ingredient of various topical creams available today to treat arthritis. Some sources suggest rubbing the cream on the affected areas four times a day for best results.  Capsaicin seems to work by interfering with the perception of pain (aside from burning tongues!)

While cayenne does not grow wild in west Texas, chiltepines should. I recently asked four people who know the land and plants in that area intimately (ranchers, archeologists, botanist), however, and they could not recall seeing a wild chiltepine plant in recent years. So, even though the plant should be well suited to the area, there must be some reason why they are not currently in evidence.  At any rate, IF they were there during the archaic period, it is likely the people would have utilized the small peppers for flavoring and medicinal purposes. One way they might have used the little chilis would be to apply crushed pods to swollen joints, perhaps mixed in a plaster of some sort. Another way might be to drink the crushed peppers as a tea, although that would burn the mouth.

Devil's Claw

Devil’s Claw  seedpods

Another plant the ancient people likely exploited is Devil’s Claw (Proboscidea parviflora), which grows in dry places throughout the American Southwest. The dry seed pods which give the name to the plant were used by the Pima Indians in basketry and well as for medicine. They  broke off a piece of the claw and pressed it onto the affected area. Then the claw must be lit on fire and allowed to burn down. Ouch!

Devil's Claw plant

Devil’s Claw plant

Another variety called Harpagophytum procumbens has been studied for effectiveness. The journal Phytomedicine (2002) reported a study of 227 people treated with Devil’s Claw extract for eight weeks.  They each took 60 mg of the extract daily, and at the end of the study, about 60% reported decreased pain and increased mobility and flexibility. People are cautioned not to take this if they are pregnant, have gallstones or ulcers, or are taking antacids or blood thinners (see http://www.arthritistoday.org).

Yucca Root

Yucca Root

Yucca root is also known to have been used by Native Americans to alieve joint pain, among other things. The root has anti-inflammatory  properties, but little reasearch has been done to support effectiveness (see http://www.livestrong.com). I can say from the experience of taking four tablets of yucca root a day in addition to Devil’s Claw extract and cayenne capsules, that the combination reduced the stinging pain in my wrists and I had more flexibility in my knees.

The last plant in my Lower Pecos pharmacy for joint pain is stinging nettle (Urtica dioica).

Stinging Nettle--handle only with gloves

Stinging Nettle–handle only with gloves

As the name implies, contact with the leaves, or little tiny hairs on the leaves, can be rudely painful. The leaves and stems are widely used in Germany, however, to make a tea for both rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis. A small study from the University of Maryland was inconclusive regarding the anti-inflammatory compounds in stinging nettle as a topical cream.

As you can see, people living in that beautiful region we call the Lower Pecos, between the Pecos, Devil’s and Rio Grande rivers in south Texas, could have used several natural pain relievers to help keep their joints moving 4000-6000 years ago. I wish I knew their medicinal recipes…

10 Deadliest Plants: How Many Are in Your Garden?

This video focuses primarily on plants of European origin, but here in Texas we also have to watch out for the red seeds of common Mountain Laurel, which can also cause violent illness. See my blog from January 2013 on Mescal Beans (Mountain Laurel) for more. Also see my post on moon flower, also called Angel’s Trumpet, from February 2013 for more information.

I love white baneberry, don’t you? It looks like little white eyeballs on red stems. What could be creepier than that?

Aches and Pains: Lower Pecos Medicine Chest, Part I

Common white willow

Common white willow

Headaches, fevers, and those general, ever-changing, daily aches and pains we all experience are not new to the modern world.  They are, in fact, one of the things we have in common with the people who lived thousands of years ago. Today we generally reach for the nearest pill to dull painful sensations. But how did archaic people of the Lower Pecos deal with them 4,000-6,000 years ago?    For the next few posts, I will write about medicinal herbs that were likely available in the ancient Lower Pecos and how they were possibly used. Think of it as the archaic Lower Pecos Medicine Chest.asprin

One of the most frequently used natural remedies for general pain found in the Lower Pecos was likely the common white willow.  The bark, and to some extent leaves, contains salicylic acid, the same active ingredient in aspirin, truly one of the wonder drugs of the world.  The bark from a twig (not the main trunk, which is rough and hard) could be scraped and boiled to produce a tea for pain relief.

I remember seeing a large willow tree years ago, I believe in Rattlesnake Canyon. It was huge, and spread its branches like a giant umbrella over the canyon floor. Light was coming through the leaves, pale and beautiful.  The twigs from that very tree could have been used by people long ago to make their headaches go away.

Mariola

Mariola

Another plant that could have been used was Mariola. A dry, carefully folded  specimen of this plant was recovered from Fate Bell Shelter in Seminole Canyon State Park during past archeological excavations. Ancient people could have made a tea for general pain relief.  Many people are allergic to the latex and sap of this genus, so please, do not try using this plant at home.

A little plant called dogweed, or fetid marigold, could also possibly have been used in ritual healing for fevers and general pain. The Navajo considered dogweed to be “red ant medicine,” and used it to treat illnesses attributed to swallowing red ants. Again, I’m warning you right here, please do not ingest red ants as part  of any perceived “natural” diet or practice.  No. Don’t do it.

Dogweed, or Fetid Marigold

Dogweed, or Fetid Marigold

For more severe injuries and illnesses in archaic times, the ministration of a shaman was most likely involved. This person was trained to sing the appropriate songs and perform the appropriate rituals necessary to comfort the patient and the family. Ethnographic accounts of shaman healing practices describe elaborate rituals that can last many hours or days. Anthropologists suspect that shamanistic practices were part of the ancient culture in the Lower Pecos, but we shall never know exactly what the ceremonies were or how they were performed.

The final plant I will mention today is the Buttonbush. T.N. Campbell (1951) recorded that the Choctaw used the bark and stems in an unspecified manner to treat fevers.  Buttonbush contains very active, bitter glycosides that can cure or harm. Therefore, people should not use this plant except with the assistance of an experienced herbalist.

Buttonbush

Buttonbush

The ancient people  had  extensive knowledge of local plants and their medicinal uses. This knowledge must have been gained over a long period of time and handed down from one generation to another, a remarkable feat. Without writing, without “science”, without Google, they determined the ways in which various plants could be useful to human kind. Such knowledge was likely  passed on to younger generations through explicit teaching.

Both the “discovery” and the “teaching” imply various things about cognition among ancient people of the Lower Pecos. Someday when I can wrap my head around it, perhaps I will write about that. To me it seems pretty clear that the extent of their knowledge, distributed and maintained through an oral tradition and remembered in the head, was impressive by any standards.  But I digress.

Many of the plants I will discuss in future posts had more than one use, and some could be lethal if mishandled. So the knowledge had to be precise, and all aspects had to be transmitted and understood in order to preserve the health of the people. Botany was a serious thing, and accuracy–or “getting it right”– could be a life or death matter.

Thanks to Dr. Phil Dering for his articles on the website Texas Beyond History, where I cribbed most of this information.  If you want to learn the real truth about these plants, go to Phil.

Sickness and Heath in the Ancient Lower Pecos

Healing often involved medicinal plants as well as ceremony and prayers

Healing often involved medicinal plants as well as ceremony and prayers

Everybody gets sick. Everybody gets injured. At one time or another in our lives, we all experience illness and some sort of wound, just as every generation before us has. The people of the ancient Lower Pecos faced the same physical ailments we do, in most cases, but dealt with them in very different ways, with more or less success. Many ailments were beyond their control, however, and people simply suffered.

This article begins a short series on medicine and healing as it might have been 4000 years ago in the desert of the Lower Pecos.  We know from skeletons and other evidence that the people rarely lived more than 35 years.  That is not to say there were never any “old” people.  There were. But many died before their hair turned gray. medicine_manIf sickness did not kill them, then a broken bone would. We can probably assume that infant mortality was high due to insufficient diets at times or other issues.  Pregnancy and birth were undoubtedly fraught with complications. Falls could kill. Teeth would rot.

While we may never know exactly how disease affected ancient people, we can assume they faced some of the same ailments we know, like cuts and burns.  This article begins a short series about the Lower Pecos Medicine Kit as it might have been 4000 years ago.  I will look at various common ailments and suggest ways that may have been treated.

Future articles will discuss ways to ameliorate arthritis, poor digestion, burns, wounds, broken bones, tooth decay indiansleep problems, and issues concerning blood. Before you get too excited, however, let me make clear that I am not a trained health care provider, herbalist, or medicine woman.   All I can tell you is what I think would have been likely. I invite you to join in the discussion as we progress, and especially to help keep me from going astray. Believe me, I’ve got friends who will set me straight!