NOTE: This post is for educational purposes only. Learning the native plants around you is a methodical process that must be approached carefully and preferably via someone who is an expert or at least well familiar with the plants. This holds true especially for medicinal native plants since they are as likely to cause allergic reactions, side effects, and in some cases may even be harmful to those with preexisting medical conditions. Always, consult with your doctor before you begin using any type of medicinal native plant either by ingestion or topically.
There are two types of gardens: The garden you put in every spring or early fall and then the garden growing naturally in the woods or vacant lots around you. It’s just a matter of learning what plants are edible or medicinal and then acquiring a sufficient body of knowledge to know either how to eat those native plants or use them for some medical purpose.
My introduction into using native plants for food began when I was only a child. Nopalitos (Opuntia engelmannii) were a regular household item especially at my grandmother’s house where she cooked them with picadillo or scrambled eggs or even just by themselves. My grandfather and I would make forays at the ranch looking for edibles and it was through him that I first became familiar with pitaya strawberry cactus (Echinocereus enneacanthus) and coma fruit and with other plants like the small elongated red fruit of the pin cushion cactus (Mammillaria heyderi). My Papagrande would notice a plant and then tell me whether it was edible or had some sort of medicinal value. We’d always speak in whispers and I’ve carried that practice into adulthood when in the woods. The learning process began at about the age of seven and by the time I reached Junior High School I had acquired enough expertise to go looking for plants on my own. Even so, some of my fondest memories are of walking through the quiet woods with my grandfather searching for plants to collect to eat on the spot or that would be taken back to the brick cabin that served as ranch headquarters, the place for family gatherings and sleepovers.
All these years later I still roam the woods examining the foliage and making note of where all the edible and medicinal trees and shrubs are located. I visit those spots often to check on the various plants. Is the fruit ready to eat? Is there some plant nearby I can use for a tea or for insect repellent? Perhaps there is a plant about ready to flower and the flowers themselves are edible. I’ve learned to differentiate between the species of prickly pear growing around me noting which ones produce the best nopalitos or the best tunas or the best darts. Yes, you read correctly; I said darts. I keep forgetting to show all of you how to make nopal darts and so sometime this week I’ll go out looking to see if I can find any prickly pear still blooming. When I was a kid we’d make darts from the bright yellow or red flowers and then spend an hour or so having dart games on the nopal pads. It’s the kind of simple pleasure that ranch kids enjoy and I assure you it is in many ways infinitely more productive than the modern obsession with sitting for hours in one’s room playing computer games. As we played darts we’d be surrounded by nature with all its sounds and smells and the intense hues of greens and yellows, reds, blues, pinks. We’d stop to sniff the air as a group of javelina passed nearby or perhaps if we heard a deer snort not far away. It was never quiet but it was not noisy either. Noise is what people experience in cities and on highways. Noise is some fellow driving up alongside with the speakers in his auto rumbling and shaking the very earth beneath you. I always think those ignorant fools will be deaf before they reach the age of forty. Too bad, so sad. But in nature the sounds are soft and pleasant and comforting.
Nature’s garden is a mecca of teas. There is the tea from salvia (Croton incanus) and oregano (Lippia graveolens). There is the tea from colima (Zanthoxylum fagara) and from mejorana (Salvia ballotiflora). There are, in fact, so many teas available that given a supply of water one will never be without some pleasant beverage while woods roaming or camping. At my dad’s ranch in Mexico we’d drink a tea made from ebony beans. The locals also made a tea from mesquite beans and from huisache (Acacia farnesiana) beans. We ate the fruit from the brasil (Condalia hookeri) and from lote bush (Ziziphus obtusifolia). We munched down on granjeno (Celtis pallida) and chapote (Diospyros texana) berries. Here at our place I am surrounded by duraznillo (Prunas texana) shrubs. I’ve written about duraznillo (little peach) and about many of the plants mentioned above. I play a game with the local birds every spring to see who gets the small peaches that amass on the duraznillo shrubs. The birds always win.
Nature’s garden provides all sort of tubers and stalks and leaves and seeds. There is a plant called mala mujer (Cnidoscolus texanus) that is blooming and I look out my bedroom window and see scores of mala mujer in full bloom in my “backyard.” But woe to the poor soul who happens to bump into a mala mujer (Texas Bull Nettle) wearing nothing but Bermuda shorts or perhaps who sees the succulent white flowers and stoops to pick one. Like its small cousin ortegia (Urtica dioica) (stinging nettle) the hairs on the mala mujer (bad woman) inject a potent mixture of histamine, formic acid and serotonin—except that in mala mujer the inoculation is about ten times stronger. A lady wrote me recently saying she had mowed her lawn using a weed eater and had decided to mow the mala mujer as if they were just another small shrub. Fortunately, she was wearing glasses but she had on shorts and a short-sleeved shirt and when she mowed the bull-nettle it sprayed all over her. Instantly, her skin was on fire. The pain was horrific. Her neck, face, arms and legs became nothing more than giant red welts that felt as if someone had poured acid on her skin. Her email to me was written in desperation. Dear Mr. Longoria what can I do? I’m in terrible pain. I wrote back and told her to make a paste of baking soda and to apply it directly to the welts and irritated skin since the baking soda would help neutralize the acid. She said she’d taken a Benadryl tablet but it had done little good. I advised her to keep taking the Benadryl since it would counter the histaminic effects of the nettle. Then I asked her to please see a doctor if the pain did not subside. She wrote back saying she would take my advice. She made the baking soda paste and applied it to her body. I can only imagine what she must have looked like covered in welts and red irritated skin. I imagine the pain was excruciating. But here’s a little secret…or perhaps a secret that most people don’t know but that now you will know. The seeds of mala mujer are quite tasty. They are large seeds and one simply gathers the seed pods (very carefully!) and places them on a table then allows them to dry. When the pods ripen they burst open exposing the seeds. You roast the seeds or can even grind them up to make a coffee/tea drink. So you see even the most vicious plants are edible. In fact, stinging nettle (ortegia) can be harvested, boiled (which destroys the toxins) and then eaten. They are rich in vitamins and taste somewhat like cooked spinach. Another one of my favorites is called pepino del monte that grows wild all around this area.
Medicinal plants abound. I make a very effective insect repellent from a species of lippia known as Lippia alba. A species of croton (Croton incanus) also produces an effective insect repellent. This species called salvia is used as a medicinal tea to treat bronchitis. One late summer when the ragweed got me bad I drank salvia tea on a daily basis to help with the congestion. The inner bark of the chaparro prieto (Acacia rigidula) was used to treat diabetes and arthritis. The “juice” from the leather stem or Sangre de drago (Jatropha dioica) was used to heal mouth sores and tooth aches. Some claim it was also used to treat kidney disease. A toxic concoction made from pita (Yucca treculeana) leaves was used to induce abortions. Alcoholic “medicines” were made from prickly pear, mesquite beans, and agave and from various wild berries. The list of medicinal plants is extensive—far too long for a blog post. In my novella, The Trail, I incorporate many of the traditions of South Texas especially those related to native plants. But native plants are not the only “wild” foods available. In northeastern Mexico the nopal rat is considered a delicacy. A scene in The Trail revolves around the consumption of nopal rats. By the way, I’ve had a number of requests to bring out The Trail in a paperback edition. I have heard you and have asked to have inexpensive paperback editions printed for my blog readers. Those should be available soon.
The root from the guayacan (Guaiacum angustifolium) makes an excellent soap as does the root from the agave. Agave stalks, by the way, are edible and quite tasty and the root bulb is sometimes cooked in a pit overnight. Excellent dyes can be made from colima, chapote, coma (Sideroxylon celastrinum), brasil, tuna and several flowers. Sealants can be concocted from nopal. Glue is made from mesquite sap (Prosopis glandulosa).
This blog is about Bushcraft (Woods Craft) and preserving nature, and in another world most of what laymen call Woods Craft is known as the field of ethnobotany. Most people aren’t really all that interested in taking Woods Craft to the highest levels. I understand that and know that for many the field of Bushcraft is mostly about talking about knives and making bow-drills and camp shelters. Bushcraft can be practiced in many ways. The majority of aficionados do not aspire beyond the most rudimentary skills. But for those seeking a “Ph.D”. in bushcraft then a thorough knowledge of nature’s garden is essential.