Native Plant Use


1. Larrea tridentata (Creosote bush) Zygophyllaceae (Caltrop family). –

1.     The most, ubiquitous, and characteristic  shrub of the Mojave and southwestern deserts.

2.     Wood was burned for fuel.

3.     Wood was used for digging sticks, tool handles.

4.     Branches were used to build summer shades against desert heat.

5.     The lac, a sticky exudate made by insects, was an important glue, binding agent, and sealant. Creosote bush lac has been identified on archaeological arrow and spear points and knives, indicating that it was commonly used to hold the stone tool or bone awl in its shaft.

6.     Lac was used to mend pottery and waterproof baskets.

7.     Southern Paiute considered the plant a cure-all, with various teas, formulas, and baths devised to help measles, rheumatism, cramps (tea), chicken pox, sores (lotion), venereal disease (tea).

8.     Boiled leaves used as a liniment.

9.     Antimicrobial activity.

10. Has the ability to inhibit aerobic combustion of the mitochondria of the cells. In the desert, oils leeched out to the surrounding soils inhibit seeds from burning up their sugars; the seeds can’t sprout unless the oils are washed away by heavy rains (allelopathic).

11. Today chemists obtain a remarkable drug which is used commercially to delay or prevent butter, oils, and fats from turning rancid. The drug is being produced in large quantities from the leaves and twigs of the plant (antioxidant abilities). Essentially used for oils you aren’t going to cook with: massage, ointments, or salves.

12. Leaves were burned during religious ceremonies.

13. Experimental test of its cancer-curing properties have been inconsistent; however, recent cases of liver damage have been associated with internal use of creosote.


2.Ephedra spp. (Mormon tea, Indian tea). Ephedraceae (Joint-fir family). Medicinal qualities of the tea were well-known: used to treat a variety of ailments, including stomach, kidney, and other internal disorders.

1.                            Dioecious, gymnosperm, with jointed green photosynthetic stems, and scale-like leaves arranged in 2s and 3s around the nodes (joints).

2.                            Tea used to treat venereal disease or stimulate urination (diuretic).

3.                            Ephedra seeds were parched for eating. Bread was made from the ground seeds into flour.

4.                            Refreshing drink was made by steeping the stems, either green or dried, in boiling water. Length of time brewing depended on the strength of tea required.

5.                            Tea also used as a tonic for kidney ailments, to purify the blood, and for colds and stomach disorders and ulcers.

6.                            The dried stems were ground to powder and used on open sores or mixed with the resin from pinyon pine and used as a salve. For burns this same salve was used with a little added water to make it into a poultice.

7.                            In China, Ephedra is known as Ma-huang, and has been used in Chinese medicine for over 5,000 yrs as a treatment for fever, nasal congestion and asthma. It is also an effective respiratory sedative and cough remedy. The effectiveness of Ephedra as a nasal decongestant may be attributed to its alkaloid extract, ephedrine. The southwestern U.S. species of Ephedra do not contain ephedrine, but do contain other pharmacologically-active alkaloid compounds (that protect the plant from pathogens and stem and seed feeding insects) known as kynurenates (kynurenic acids). Kynurenates in stems may also screen photosynthetic tissue from radiation damage.

8.                            This plant contains ephedrine and pseudoephedrine which are used in over the counter medications for asthma (ephedrines) and as a nasal decongestant (pseudoephedrine). Ma huang is also sold as a stimulant and weight-loss product.


 3. Datura wrightii (Jimson weed, thorn apple). Solanaceae (Nightshade family)


1.       Cosmopolitan distribution, used by many indigenous peoples for both medicinal and hallucinogenic purposes..

2.       Generic name is based on a Sanskrit word dhatura, meaning poison, reflecting its toxic properties.

3.       Datura stramonium is cultivated for its scopolamine content, used today for motion sickness and its sedative effects.

4.       Common name, jimsonweed or Jamestown weed, refers to an incident of accidental poisoning of British sailors in colonial Virginia in 16786. They mistook Datura for an edible plant and suffered the consequences. Thornapple refers to its spiny, seed-bearing capsule.

5.       Local plant is Datura wrightii. It’s a sprawling perennial with an enormous taproot, that may extend 2’ into the ground.

6.       The whole of the plant contains tropane alkaloids: atropine, hyoscyamine, scopolamine

a.    they affect the central nervous system

b.    they relax smooth muscles

c.    dilate the pupils of the eye (atropine: once considered to be a beautiful and mysterious look in Italian women – belladonna means “beautiful lady”, so named because sap from the closely related belladonna plant, Atropa belladonna, was used as eyedrops to dilate pupils.)

c.       dilate blood vessels

d.       increase heart rate and body temperature

e.       induce sleep and lessen pain

f.        stimulates and then depresses central nervous system

g.       induce hallucinations

h.       as a group tropane alkaloids are extremely toxic, capable of inducing coma and death due to respiratory arrest.

i.         they can be absorbed thru the skin and mucous membranes (they are fat soluble).

7.       Uses


In ancient India, priests ate the seeds of datura for hallucinogenic, prophetic and oracular states. European priest drank a concoction of datura for the same purpose.


Thieves in India and Europe used datura as “knockout drops” to rob stupefied victims.


In India and other parts of the world, it was used as an aphrodisiac – especially important in love potions and witches’ brew.

          Salves and ointments were applied to various parts of the body.

Witches putatively rubbed their bodies with the hallucinogenic ointments of belladonna, mandrake, and datura.

Much of the behavior associated with witches is as readily attributable to these drugs as to any spiritual communion with demons.

A particularly convenient method of self-administering the drug is thru the moist tissues of the vagina – the witches’ broomstick being the effective applicator.

The common image of a haggard woman on a broomstick comes from the belief that the witches rode their staffs each midnight to the sabbat (orgiastic assembly of demons and sorcerers). It now appears that their journey was not thru space but across the hallucinatory landscape of their own minds.

Some aboriginal Indians in South America gave a datura-alcohol beverage to wives and slaves of dead warriors and chieftains: the powerful brew induced stupor before they were buried alive to accompany their dead husbands and masters on their long journey to heaven.

Probably the best know use of datura among the North American Indian tribes (Algonquin) was the puberty ceremonial dances involving the drinking of a “toloache” (datura) infusion by young boys preparing to enter manhood.

Adolescents were confined to a longhouse for up to 2 weeks sand fed a beverage based in part on datura. During the extended intoxication, and subsequent amnesia (a pharmacological feature of the drug) the young boy forgot what it was to be a child so that he might learn with it meant to be a man.



4. Prosopis spp. (Mesquite). Fabaceae (Legume family).

1.     Important food throughout the southwest.

2.     The plant grows as a shrub in washes, dunes, and low-lying places of the Colorado and Mojave Deserts. It is a phreatophytic plant, which extends its deep roots into the capillary fringe of perennial water.

3.     Green pods of spring were roasted over hot stones to make a tart food, or boiled and eaten like string beans.

4.     Ripened, but not yet dried, pods were pounded to make a sweet drink.

5.     Ripened and dried pods were pounded on a metate (flat stone) into a meal (flour). The meal was made into a mush that was the base or many stews, or formed into a cake (trail food or stored for later use). (Two women pounding away could produce about 88 lbs of flour in a day, if a helper supplied them with seeds. Enough food energy for 3 adults for 3 weeks).

6.     Sweet pods made a molasses.

7.     Wood was used in construction and for firewood. Excellent cooking fuel because coals hold heat for a long time. High specific gravity for wood (dense). Charcoal.

8.     Charcoal was used for tattooing.

9.     Mesquite stick serves today as a ceremonial poker in the Native American Church, where the wood is considered sacred.

10. Arrow tips were fashioned from the fire-hardened mesquite tips, attaching them to shafts of common reed (Phragmites australis) with an adhesive made from creosote bush lac.

11. Gum, which exudes from cuts in the trunk of the tree (and is water soluble) was edible. Dissolved in water, it was used to ease sore throats, and as a lotion for sore eyes. It was used as glue and as a black dye for decorating pottery. The boiled gum, mixed with mud, was plastered on the hair by both men and women, and left for a day or two. When the “pack” was washed off, it left the hair black, glossy, and free of lice.

12. Trees were used for shade.

13. Nitrogen-fixer: associated with the Rhizobium bacterial nodules in a mutualistically beneficial relationship.


5. Yucca spp. (Spanish bayonet/Mojave yucca, Banana yucca, Joshua-tree). Agavaceae (Century plant family)

1.     Small fruits of the yuccas were occasionally roasted and eaten. Banana yucca fruits (Y. baccata) were gathered in the fall, cut into strips, and the flesh dried for storage. Dried fruit was sweet and eaten as dried apples, or they were ground into flour and made into cakes or mush.

2.     Fruit of Y. brevifolia (Joshua-tree) were pit-roasted like agave heads; cut in half and placed on top of dirt-covered coals in a pit, then sealed over with dirt and steamed for a couple of days.

3.     Occasionally the flowers were eaten.

4.     The strong leaf fibers were used for making baskets, sandals, cordage, and rough cloth. Baskets were particularly important to SW desert tribal people because pottery-making was known to only a few desert and river Indian tribes; most were dependant u[on baskets for cooking, storage, and carrying vessels.

a.      To obtain fibers, green leaves were soaked in water, then pounded on a flat rock with a wooden mallet or stone, and plunged into the water from time to time during the process to wash out the skin and softer tissues, leaving behind the fibers (decortication).

5.     The pithy insides of the Mojave yucca leaves and roots (saponins) were used as a soap and shampoo (emollient). Saponins are also said to be effective in reducing blood cholesterol levels.

6.     Leaves were also tied together to make a slow match for carrying fire.

7.     Strands from roots of the Joshua-tree (Y. brevifolia) were used for red or brown design elements in basketry.

8.     During WWI, ca. 8 million lbs. of burlap and bagging material were made from Yucca fibers. During WWII, strong wood from Joshua-tree was used for making splints. Fortunately, this practice has been discontinued since Joshua-tree is very slow growing, and any extensive use of the wood might seriously reduce the numbers of this historic species.


6. Opuntia basilaris (Beavertail cactus). Cactaceae (Cactus family)

1.     Fruits were eaten fresh or dried, known as tunas.

2.     Fruits still made into jelly.

3.     Dried pads were boiled with a little salt and eaten, referred to as nopales.

4.     Cactus blossoms and buds were collected and eaten in the spring.

5.     Prickly fuzz from the pads (glochids) were rubbed into warts to remove the growths.

6.     The scale that often attacks the pads of a variety of species of Opuntia (prickly pears), the female Cochineal scale, was used for its crimson red coloring as a dye. It had been used for the regal purple robes of Aztec emperors, the redcoats of the British army in the Revolutionary War, used in Maraschino cherries, lipstick, and litmus paper.

7.     The pulp of the beavertail pads were scraped out and used as a dressing on cuts and wounds.


7. Agave utahensis (Century plant or Mescal plant) Agavaceae (Century plant family)

Grows chiefly in rocky, mountainous areas. In spring, if the plant is going to flower (it is monocarpic and has but 1 flowering event in its lifetime; often takes about 25 yrs before it flowers, then it dies, giving over to the pups that is has spawned.) the flower buds shoot up from the center of the rosettes. Indians came in large numbers where these plants grew in abundance. They camped for weeks at a time, gathering, cooking, eating, and preserving the Agave “heads”.


The “heads” were gathered in spring when the flower buds were just beginning to shoot up from the rosette of leaves, just as the Agaves approached sexual maturity. The mescaleros (or Agave/mescal harvesters) were able to tell when the plant was ready for harvesting by the way the lower leaves would spread apart (to make way for the burgeoning flower stalk?) and the way the base of the plant would swell with succulence. This was the time of maximal production of the carbohydrates that would eventually nourish the developing inflorescence. The mescaleros would also harvest agaves which had already begun to put up flower stalks from the center of it rosette of sword-like leaves. Before the flower stalk got too large, expending its caloric supply the century plant had been storing over its lifetime, it is carefully “castrated”, cut back to its base with a machete. Instead of being converted fro growth into a huge flowering branch, the plant’s carbohydrates simply well up into the leaf bases of the plant over the following 2 or 3 months, making the heart of the plant sweeter.


The buds were cut out from the plant crowns with a long lever of stout wood, beveled at one end to cut the “cabbage” loose. The heads were collected in huge quantities and the cooking became a communal project.

When the baked heads were taken from the pits, the charred outer leaves were stripped, leaving a brown juicy mass, very sweet and nutritious.   A lg.quantity was eaten right out of the pit; some were worked into cakes, dried and redried for winter storage. Dried products were used for bartering with neighboring tribes and was a very similar product as that made from Yucca fruit.


Fibers - extracted from dried leaves by beating, and from the fresh leaves by soaking and rotting off the pulp and outer skin, in much the same way Yucca fibers were made. Dead leaves contained the stoutest fibers, and varying thicknesses of cord and rope were made by twisting together two or more strands of the rolled cord. String of the fiber was often rolled on the bare thigh by women; cordage made in this way was said to be the strongest and used in bow strings, carrying nets, and baby hammocks.

Women also made use of charcoal from burned Agave for tattooing by pricking in the bluish-black patterns with a thorn of cactus, Opuntia.


Drink source – the two main liquid products of Agave are aguamiel (honeywater) in its fresh state, and ‘pulque’ when fermented. The distilled product is known as mescal, which if manufactured in the region of Tequila from an authorized distillery is ‘tequilla’.


Agave roasting pit - earth ovens: a pit dug in the ground, lined with rocks, and heated by building a fire in it. When the rock lining the pit was thoroughly heated the fire was raked out and the food was placed in the hot pit, covered with leaves, and then banked over with earth and sometimes more rock. Agave heads were usually kept in the pit for 24 hours.

The pits were often 1.5’-2’ deep. Great care was taken in selecting the fuel so that none was used which would give the finished product a bitter or undesirable taste. Roasting pits could be up to 9’ in diameter, and were used repeatedly season after season.


8. Nicotiana obtusifolia (Indian tobacco) Solanaceae (Nightshade family) Common on ledges and cliff bases (limestone);

Dried and smoked in pipes for pleasure, as well as for medicinal and ceremonial purposes.

Smoking was chiefly done after the evening meal, in the sweathouses, before going to sleep. It was a social ritual, and the pipe was passed around. 

Also used as a painkiller for ear and toothaches.

Crushed leaves were used as a poultice to soothe rheumatic and other swellings, and to treat eczema and other skin ailments. Smoking was said to cure colds


9. Quercus spp. (Oaks) Fagaceae (Oak family)

1.     Gathered acorns were leached of their tannins (with water), and pounded into a meal for flour (pinole) to be used as cakes, or a thick soup (atole).

2.     Breads were often mixed with red clay to sweeten it.

3.     Bark was used for curing hides (tannins) and making dyes.

4.     The bark was also used, much the same way the bark of Cinchona (quinine) was used – to reduce fevers.




10. Pinus monophylla (Pinyon pine). Pinaceae (Pine family)

1.     Found just above and with the sagebrush community in southern Nevada, at about 5,000’+. Often in association with the Utah juniper.

2.     Wood was used in home construction and for poles.

3.     Pine nuts – unopened pine cones were beaten from trees with long poles, gathered up by women and children into heaps, and set on fire to burn off the waster-insoluble pitch, which is generally abundant on the green cones. Seeds were separated from the charred cones and could be eaten dry or roasted.

4.     The resin (or pitch) was used as glue and as a sealant. Heated, it was used to draw out splinters and toxins from insect bites. It was also made into a paste and used as a liniment for muscle soreness.

5.     The gums (water soluble) were used medicinally; dissolved in water it was used to soothe a sore throat; as a tea it was used to cure rheumatism, TB, the flu, and indigestion.


11. Lophophora williamsii (Peyote) Cactaceae (Cactus family) – Probably the most famous New World hallucinogenic plant is peyote, a small, spineless, globose gray-green cactus native to the Rio Grande valley of Texas and northern Mexico.

It is unknown when peyote was first used, but 16th century reports by European explorers describe its use by Aztecs as a divinatory plant.

These accounts refer to peyote as the "diabolic root", because the Spanish observed the Aztecs using the plant ritualistically.

a. The Spanish tried to ban the use of peyote by native Indians.

After the collapse of the Aztec empire the use of peyote survived among a few Mexican Indian tribes such as the Huichol and the Tarahumara. In the U.S. the Plains Indians started using the plant as late as the 1880s.

Indians harvested the plant by cutting off the top of the spineless cactus and leaving the sturdy taproot for regeneration.

The stem tips, called buttons, were either eaten fresh or dried for later consumption.

a.      Dried, the buttons can keep indefinitely, without losing hallucinogenic properties because the active ingredient isn't volatile.

b.     Buttons require a period of softening, either in the mouth or by soaking water, before they can be swallowed.

The initial experience of peyote after swallowing is nausea, which gives way to kaleidoscopic visions and hallucinations after a few hours.

During this period, which last from 5-12 hours, the faithful report hearing the voices of their ancestors, who help them diagnose and cure their problems.


Peyote consists of 30-40 different alkaloids, with mescaline the most active hallucinogen in the group.


There is no evidence that either peyote of pure mescaline is addicting, but both the plant and the compound are illegal to possess or sell in the U.S.

1.     However, one religious sect, the Native American Church, uses peyote as an integral part of its services.

a.      Origins of Native American church goes back to the 1870s, when the Kiowa and Comanche Indians learned of peyote from the tribes of northern Mexico, and brought the plant back with them to Oklahoma (then Indian Territory).

b.     The latter half of the 19th century was a time of turmoil and humiliation for the American Indian tribes.

1.     Their pristine hunting lands were gradually being taken away from them.

2.     They were swindled by Federal authorities.

3.     They were forced to move to reservations far from their homes.

4.     They were forced to attend schools that denied their heritage.

5.     They were corrupted by the white man's alcohol.

6.     And they had Christianity forced upon them by missionaries.

c.     Quanah parker, son of a Comanche war chief, fashioned a series of ceremonies, with cultural elements from Comanche, Kiowa, Apache, and parts of Christianity, and thereby sowed the seeds of a peyote religion that he hoped would bring dignity, the hope for survival, and spiritual sustenance to the native peoples.

d.     The cult grew very rapidly, especially in the southwest, and they formally incorporated themselves into the Native American Church in 1918 in order to protect their religious rights.

e.      The church was initially granted the right to use peyote as a sacramental plant by the Supreme Court, but later, in 1990, restricted that right by upholding Oregon's right to outlaw peyote even for religious purposes.



12. Washingtonia filifera (Palms). Arecaceae (Palm family)

1.     Native palm has been relegated to oasis areas, areas with substantial water (seeps, high water table), and winter rains. They are mostly relicts left over from earlier climates which were more favorable for the average palm – not as cold, not as dry.

2.     Used as food from their copious fruit.

3.     Used for fiber – sandals, skirts, trays, baskets.

4.     Petioles were used as spoons and digging sticks (shovels).

5.     Fronds were used as thatch for armadas (gazebos).

6.     Wood used in construction.

7.     Pith used  for fire – quick fuel, easily combustible.


13. Typha sp. (Cattails) Typhaceae (Cattail family) – perennial aquatic plant that grows in dense colonies and reaches 10-12’ in height. Alkaline and saturated soils. The upper part of the spiked inflorescence contains the male pollinating flowers, whereas the lower part contains the female flowers which eventually become seeds. The brown female spikes ripen in the summer and break open in the fall, releasing millions of tiny seeds along with copious amounts of light brown fluff in to the breeze.

1.     Starchy rhizomes and tender shoots were eaten in winter and spring.

2.     Pollen, rich in food energy, was collected in summer to make nutritious cakes.

3.     Seeds were also eaten. They were collected by flash-burning the fluff, then winnowed in a basket to remove any burned fluff and concentrate the toasted seed.

4.     Shoots and stems were used for making decoys, baskets, sweathouse mats, shelters and boats.

5.     Sheaves of leaves were used to make shingles to cover houses.

6.     Dried stems and fluff were occasionally used as tinder for fire.

7.     The flowering heads were sometimes eaten to stop diarrhea.


14. Salix spp. (Willow) Salicaceae (Willow family) –

1.     Young shoots and branches were important in the manufacture of baskets, water jugs, and cradleboards. One of the most important basketry material in the region. Appropriate stems were cut in winter, before leaves sprouted. Material was soaked to be made pliable.

2.     Larger stems and branches were used in construction, walls and posts of dwellings.

3.     Stems were used for hunting bows and arrows.

4.     A tea made from boiled twigs was used for venereal disease.

5.     Charcoal made from willow roots was formed into pills for the treatment of dysentery and influenza.

6.     Young twigs steeped in water made a laxative.

7.     Mashed roots applied to gums eased toothache. An extract from boiled leaves and twigs rubbed into the scalp prevented dandruff.

8.     Medicinal uses: to relieve pain, the bark was either chewed of boiled to make a tea to obtain the salicylic acid, the active ingredient in aspirin.

a.      The most widely used synthetic drug, its origin is botanical.

b.     The bark of willow trees (Salix spp.) has long been known as an effective treatment for reducing fever and relieving pain.

c.     The ancient Greeks used an infusion of the bark from white willow (S.alba) to treat gout, rheumatism, pain, and fever. Many Native American tribes independently discovered the healing powers of the willow bark.

d.     In 1828, salicin was isolated from the willow bark. Salicin is an glycoside of salicylic acid (salicylates occur widely in species of Salix as well as Spirea ulmaria, poplars (Populus), and wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens).

e.      Salicylic acid was used for rheumatic fever, gout, rheumatoid arthritis, but is today primarily used topically to treat skin ailments, like the removal of warts and corns.

f.       In 1898, while looking for a compound that caused less gastric distress, Felix Hoffman, a chemist with Bayer Co., came across acetylsalicylic acid in the chemical literature. This new compound was called aspirin: “a” from acetylsalicylic acid, and “spirin” from Spirea, the plant from which salicylic acid was first isolated. Salicin and salicylic acid refer to its Salix origin.

g.     Aspirin is valued for:

i.                    anti inflammatory properties

ii.                  antipyretic (fever-reducing)

iii.                analgesic (pain-relieving)

iv.               prevention of heart attacks - administration of aspirin following a heart attack or stroke reduces the risk of a second heart attack or stroke. It also statistically reduces the likelihood of an initial heart attack in men, and studies show it probably also has prophylactic effects with women as well.

v.                 aspirin suppresses the aggregation of blood platelets, a necessary step in the formation of blood clots that can block blood vessels and lead to heart attacks and strokes.

vi.               Aspirin suppresses prostaglandins (grp of local hormones): an overproduction of prostaglandins leads to headaches, fever, menstrual cramps, blood clots, inflammation, and other complaints. Prostaglandins also prevent the overproduction of acid in the stomach, and promotes the secretion of mucus that blocks self-digestion of the stomach lining. So, coupled with relief from headaches, menstrual cramps, fevers, etc, comes irritation of the stomach lining with the administration of aspirin.

vii.             Salicylic acid may be a naturally occurring plant hormone involved in a number of reactions, including plant protection. It may be the signal that turns on a plant’s systemic acquired response, a plant defense against secondary infections. This may result in synthesis of specific proteins that increase resistance. The external application of salicylic acid (or even aspirin - acetylsalicylic acid) to plants will also stimulate this immune response. It was recently discovered that stimulation of salicylic acid in an infected plant can also turn on responses in neighboring plants. Some of the salicylic acid was converted to methyl salicylate, a volatile compound that readily evaporated from the diseased areas of the plant. Healthy plants nearby absorbed the airborne methyl salicylate molecules and converted it back to salicylic acid. This stimulated defenses, making healthy plants more resistant to this pathogen.