We meet in a canyon greened by early spring rains and filled with the lush plant life that will fill our baskets and bags by the afternoon’s end. The people who gather to celebrate and learn about the local flora are as diverse as the plants themselves, ranging from Spanish abuelas to ranching families with small children to older couples to seasonal visitors. What they have in common is a love for the wild terrain of the Gila, a deep appreciation for self-sufficiency and a desire to increase their ability to live directly off the land.
Crowding along the edge of the creek bank, we crouch down for a closer look at the incredible variety of plant life at our feet. While the Southwest is often thought of as barren by outsiders, we locals know that our rivers, wetlands, mountains and even deserts are actually an incredible haven for a wide variety of native flora. I point out a particularly pretty yellow flower with distinctive orange spots, this common little Seep Monkeyflower is a powerful anti-depressant and excellent treatment for nerve pain and anxiety attacks. When still small, its tender upper leaves make a tasty cooked green or a crisp addition to salads.
Further back from the water are an abundance of vivid green plants deceptively resembling Peppermint. “I know those ones”, a little girl exclaims, “they sting!” And indeed, these Mountain Nettles have formic acid filled hairs covering them that sting the skin when touched or brushed against. Despite this initial inconvenience, Nettles are one of our most important and widespread wild foods and remedies. Rich in vitamins and minerals, they are an intensely nourishing and their sting quickly disappears upon drying the plant or cooking it. Medicinally, they can help treat allergies, hypothyroid conditions, adrenal fatigue, psoriasis and a host of other common ailments.
With the continuing decline of the American economy, it’s more important than ever that our communities remain as self-sufficient as possible. A big part of creating and maintaining that kind of sustainability is being able to feed and keep ourselves healthy with locally available resources. This means utilizing our knowledge of wild foods and medicines and increasing our experience whenever we can.
We may sometimes think of the plants growing in our backyards or along the acequias as weeds or even pests, but they are often a plentiful (and free) source of food, medicine, dye and other important resources for anyone willing to learn about them. Many of can’t afford the luxury of medical insurance these days, and herbs provide a cheap and sustainable alternative to mainstream medical care for many mild illnesses and common health issues. Similarly, fresh produce is often imported from far away and we rural folk pay for that distance through both our pocketbooks and the lessened quality by the time it actually reaches us. By eating local produce we can cut down on cost while improving on taste.
As we continue our walk, old-timers frequently chime in with medicinal uses that their grandmother taught them when they were only children, supplying us all with precious and often nearly forgotten knowledge. One great-grandfather of six recalls how his mother showed him how to treat burns and wounds that wouldn’t heal with the smooth leaves of the yellow-flowered Evening Primrose. Without these important sharings, this valuable information will die with our elders and our children will be poorer for the loss of New Mexico’s traditional wisdom.
Along the dusty dirt road back to the parking area, we find a lanky plant that looks remarkably similar to Alfalfa but is adorned with a multitude of white flowers. This common Sweet Clover has a sweet vanilla smell and is a favorite with the bees now buzzing all around it. With pleasantly distinctive flavor, Sweet Clover makes an delicious local pesto, especially when combined with some Wild Oregano or Nettles. It’s also lovely as a tea and has many uses as medicine. It can treat issues as diverse as mastitis, varicose veins, venous fragility, menstrual cramps and even some kinds of heart trouble. An eleven year old boy picks a few leaves to chew as we pass by and lights up with surprise at the mild taste. After a moment of consideration he heads back for some more, this time accompanied by several other curious children.
The better we get to know our green neighbors the more we will appreciate the richness they provide us with – putting dinner on the table, healing our community and providing us with a renewed sense of well-being and wealth.