Yes, it is January here in the mountains of New Mexico.
Yes, it does get to less than -10F out there some nights.
And why yes, that is a lovely new vivid green leaf from a picture I took just yesterday.
Specifically, it is the leaf of a Wax Currant (Ribes cereum) growing down by the river among the Canyon Walnuts and Grape vines. While it will still be quite some time before they flower and fruit, they are well known for their persistence in leafing out even during some of our coldest weather. I greatly appreciate this tenacity, especially as we get to the part of Winter where I feel an increasing longing for green growing plants.
Another persistent plant that manages to grow throughout the Winter, and sometimes even flower, is one of our native vervains. Dakota Vervain (Glandularia bipinnatifida) is a sprawling, colorful plant that grows in gravel, creeps from rock crevices and sometimes flowers in great cheerful clumps by the river. There’s no telling where it will pop up from year to year, but it is consistently abundant and beautiful. This particular plant is growing from a pile of rocks where the arroyo runs into the San Francisco River. I find its vibrantly pink and purple tinted leaves especially uplifting and frequently go sit near it during my recent afternoon walks. This Vervain is also one of my favorite medicinal plant and has relaxant nervine properties similar to other Verbena species. However, Glandularia bipinnatifida lacks the bitterness typical of most Vervain and seems to specifically excel as a nervous system tonic or trophorestorative.
Pointleaf Manzanita (Arctostaphylos pungens) is a common evergreen shrub at middle elevations in the Gila bioregion. It reddish stems and brilliant green leaves are always a welcome haven even in our snowiest, coldest months. And of course, it’s another favorite medicine. For those of you less familiar with Southwestern herbs, Manzanita has very similar properties to a more widely known medicinal plant usually known as Uva Ursi or Bearberry (Arctstaphylos uva ursi) and is particularly useful where there is atony of the uterus and urinary tract. It’s often just known as a plant for UTIs but this is a vast oversimplification of the far wider usefulness of this herb. I am especially inclined to work with Manzanita (or Uva Ursi) when there are chronic reproductive or urinary tract infection, often accompanied by discharge, a dragging sensation in the pelvic region and overall tissue atonicity.
The Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) leaves tend to be mostly died back this time of year, but some of the yellow and green leaves still persist, usually in great floppy masses that make for rather cuddly looking Mullein piles. Those of you who’ve been reading my blog for a while and have read my previous ode (otherwise known as a monograph) to Mullein , know how fond I am of this common and valuable medicine, whether roots, leaves or flowers.
American Speedwell (Veronica americana) thrives in our river, usually on sandbars, where the bank meets the water or in this case, in rock crevices where small boulders jut from the river surface. The petiolate leaves are especially sweet and juicy tasting this time of year, perfect for adding the zest of wild greens to any meal. They combine well with Watercress and Dandelion greens, both of which are sometimes found this time of year but seem to be in short supply this particular time around. Speedwell is also a traditional medicine, although not much used in US herbalism as far as I can tell except by those either well versed in traditional European herbalism or indigenous medicine. It’s a favorite alterative of mine for where there is lymphatic stagnation, “bad skin” (including eczema in many cases) and frontal, nauseating headaches. It combines well (once again) with Watercress for all sorts of hepatitis (meaning any kind of liver inflammation), especially where the urine is dark and scant.
And of course, we mustn’t forget the Nettles! Our local species, the annual Mountain Nettle (Urtica gracilenta) is a common and vibrant presence throughout our Canyon winters. No matter how many times it freezes back, it reemerges in brilliant shades of green as soon as we have a few warm days in a row. I have worked with (and written about) Nettles at length , but continue to be yet more amazed by them as each year goes by. My favorite medicine are almost always also foods, and this goes triple for Nettles, which end up in so many teas, infusions, soups, dips, tincture formulas and other recipes that it’s hard to keep track of. Whether root, fruit or leaf, this plant is a medicine powerhouse and one recognize the world over for its healing and nutritive powers. And in the middle of Winter, with snow and dead leaves all around, its glittering greeness is a medicine all its own. One that never fails to put a smile on my face, even on the chilliest, darkest days.
As the light grows longer and stronger, and humans grow restless in their cozy dens, the plants begin to reemerge, to spring in small but decisive bursts from sun-warmed and snow-wet ground. I know that for most of us, there are still several long months to wait before the season begins to truly shift. In the meantime, there is still time to rest and to watch the quiet persistence of green medicine through evergreens, seedlings and the tenacious leaves that grow back, time after time, from the roots.
Monkeyflower (Mimulus guttatus) leaves in the riverbank sand.