NATURAL USES OF PLANT LIFE
The geological processes that formed the mountains, the weathering and erosion that reduced both the highlands and the lower slopes, the regional climate, and the local rainfall have all had a direct effect upon the kind and distribution of vegetation. Characteristic associations of plants are often found in irregular belts that are closely related to the altitude and the local air currents, Some mountain tops, where there is more moisture, have forests (fig. 55), but others are barren, In general, the lowland eroded plains have the most severe temperatures, the lowest rainfall, and the scantiest vegetation (fig. 96). On the lowland plains may be sotol, Spanish dagger (yucca), candelilla, ceniza (silverleaf), lechuguilla, cacti, and chino grass. Along the arroyos, in the upper part of the plain, are Mexican buckeye, Mexican walnut, desert willow, Apacheplume, Mexican persimmon, ash (Fresno), whitebrush. and buttonbrush. This assemblage extends up the mountain slopes and grades into a belt of vegetation that includes several species of live oak, piñon pine, drooping juniper, alligator juniper, mountain mahogany, evergreen sumac, maguey, sotol, beargrass, and several grasses including thick stands of bluestem and sideoats grama. In the highest mountains are communities of ponderosa pine, Douglas fir, aspen, and maple (pp. 75-77). These northern plant types are growing alongside plants that are characteristic of the Southwest, including ocotillo, sotol, lechuguilla, and many species of cacti.
The vegetation in the Big Bend country has directly influenced human activities in the area. In the early days there was ample forage for the Indians' ponies and for the livestock used by the military, the U. S. Customs and Immigration Service officers, the Texas Rangers, and the early ranchmen. The camp sites along the various trails were at springs, and the first livestock herds were most numerous in the adequately watered lowlands. As more ranchers moved in and the herds became larger, the forage in the watered areas was depleted and the herds moved to higher and rougher terrain (fig. 97). For example, in the Sierra del Carmen where there is excellent range forage but no water, grazing is limited to the marginal areas. Grazing in the mountains is possible only after rains when water stands in the rock waterholes (tinajas, fig. 45).
In a dry country like the Big Bend, many of the desert plants can be used for food, water, medicine, animal forage, or household articles, and we can learn much by observing the wildlife to see how they utilize the natural resources. One of the best ways to locate water is to watch the doves. When a number are seen flying in the same direction, especially if that direction is toward a canyon in the mountains, their general course will commonly lead to a spring or a tinaja (fig. 98). Most game trails lead to water and, normally, the thicker the trails, the closer to water. Deer, and also cattle and burros, take the easiest route and it is difficult to improve upon their established trail to a spring. Water is stored in some desert plants, especially the cacti. The species of plants used by rodents, foxes, coyotes, and deer for their water supply can also be used by Man.
For one who is lost and hungry, there is always food that will prevent death from starvation. Plants the wildlife are eating can also sustain human beings. The sotol plant grows in most Big Bend areas, and sticks or stones will aid in breaking open the sotol head. The fresh sotol tastes similar to raw cabbage. Also edible, but more bitter than the sotol, and easily obtained is the heart of the lechuguilla, which is always present. The tender bloom stalks on the sotol, lechuguilla, and Spanish dagger can be chewed for moisture and nourishment. Chunks from the several barrel shaped cacti, either large or small, contain both food value and water. The fruit of all cacti is edible and some is delicious; the algerita berries and acorns are tasty also. Mesquite beans can be found throughout most of the year. They can be chewed raw when green, and the dry beans can be pounded into flour, which is especially nourishing.
The type and distribution of the vegetation in the Big Bend naturally set the stage for a ranching industry, but the vegetation has influenced human activities in other ways. Some plants have been used commercially and others are used as substitutes for better known commodities. Probably the most widely used plant is the candelilla (wax plant), but sap for making rubber has also been harvested from the guayule. Other Big Bend plants have been used for the production of alcoholic beverages, twine, local foods, and medicines. McDougall and Sperry (1951) reported on the plants of Big Bend National Park. They described and illustrated many of the species, but in their scientific report, they did not include many of the local uses.
Candelilla (Euphoria antisyphilitica).Except for the grasses, the candelilla wax plant was probably the most widely used species of vegetation in the Big Bend. In the past, it was an important part of the local economy, but now (1967), because the price of candelilla wax is low, the harvesting and processing activities have been greatly curtailed in Texas. There is considerable harvesting and processing activity in Mexico. The plant is leafless or nearly so, and has a fleshy reed-like stem somewhat like some cacti (fig. 99). It commonly grows in the lowlands on limestone gravel slopes. in limestone ledge areas like the Sierra del Carmen and Mesa de Anguila, and, to a lesser extent, on some igneous rock peaks and on lava flows. The wax is a gray coating that forms on the outside of the reed-like stem and is a protective device that helps prevent evaporation of moisture from the plant. A common belief is that more wax forms during droughts than in wet years. This may be true, for it has been observed that in the Austin area of Central Texas, where the normal rainfall is about three times as great as that of West Texas, the plant grows rank but produces very little wax.
The candelilla is harvested by pulling the entire plant, which is bound into bundles. Because of the rough terrain in most isolated places, the bundles are packed by burros to the rendering wax vat (fig. 100) where the weed, as it is normally called, is stacked like ricks of hay to await the rendering and refining operations (fig. 101). Most commonly, the place selected for the rendering operation is near water at a site where there is a stream bank 4 to 6 feet high. Here a hole is dug, slightly larger than the vat, about 3 feet back of the bank's face. The vat is then lowered into the hole to a depth that allows the top of the vat to be a few inches above the level of the ground surface. Beneath the vat is the firebox that opens to the bank's face. The raw weed is then placed in the vat, which is filled with a solution of water and sulfuric acid. The fire is started beneath the vat and the boiling solution loosens the gray wax coating on the candelilla stems. The wax forms a scum on top of the water-acid solution which is skimmed and placed in a barrel; after cooling, it forms a hard cake that looks similar to the early twentieth-century homemade lye soap. A small candelilla wax-rendering operation is shown in figure 102.
The remains of old candelilla wax-rendering operations are seen throughout the Big Bend. They range from large installations with several vats 20 or more feet long to small portable vats made from a 55-gallon gasoline drum. In some of the old large rendering operations, steam boilers were used for heat (fig. 103); several of these are still present in the Big Bend but are not now in operation.
The refined wax produced from candelilla is water resistant, quite hard, malleable, and has been used in a variety of ways. During the early part of the twentieth century, it was an important constituent in sealing wax, used in the manufacture of phonograph records, and, during World War I, was a vital product used to waterproof munitions and insulation of electric appliances. Later its principal use was in automobile, floor, and shoe polishes; now the largest sales are to the chewing gum industry. Locally, the candelilla plant was used for making candles, thatching roofs, arbors, and porches; small bundles of the weed are sometimes placed between upright poles to make the walls of a house or chinked between the rock and adobe walls in a dugout. Some of the native people used a solution obtained from the plant for treatment of venereal diseases, as indicated by the species name.
Guayule (Parthenium argentatum).Guayule, the Mexican rubber plant, once grew in abundance on the Lower Cretaceous limestone ledges in the Sierra del Carmen. Sap extracted from this plant was used for the manufacture of rubber during World War I. The plant is a non-brittle shrub, normally not more than about 30 inches tall, which was pulled or broken off near the ground, packed on burros to a road, and then hauled to Marathon, Texas, where the crude rubber was extracted. The harvesting activities were thorough and now only a few specimens of guayule remain in the Park and Southwest Texas.
Sotol (Dasylirion leiophyllum).The head or heart of the sotol when stripped of its long spiny blades resembles a pineapple (fig. 104). Both Indians and Mexicans roasted sotol heads for food, and dried sotol cuds are occasionally found in refuse dumps in some caves that were occupied by the aborigines. The uncooked blades in the heart of the plant are crisp, sweet, and similar in taste to raw cabbage. Some of the native Mexican population brew a strong alcoholic beverage from sotol, and probably the Indians used it in a similar way. The sotol heads are also eaten by livestock and game; many ranchers have escaped paying a feed bill during the dry years by cutting sotol heads to make them readily available to their herds. A few ranchmen have made sotol ensilage for fattening cattle, but this activity was not generally practiced in West Texas.
Maguey or century plant (Agave scabra).The maguey is one of the most interesting plants found in the Chisos Mountains. It has very thick, fibrous leaves with spiny teeth along the margins (fig. 105). The flowering stalk appears after the plant is 20 to 25 years old. The stalk grows to a height of 12 to 15 feet in only a few days by using food that is stored in the leaves. The plant blooms but once and after the seeds have matured, it dies. As the plant approaches maturity, off-set shoots may form around the base, and these will continue to grow after the mother plant is dead. There are three agave species in the ParkAgave scabra (described above), which is the largest; Agave chisosensis, which is less spectacular and normally found only in the higher elevations of the Chisos Mountains; and Agave lechuguilla, which is found in the foothills and lowlands.
The maguey was also used by the Indians and early Mexican people as food. The heart of the plant normally was roasted before eating, and old roasting pits are quite numerous in the Park. Juice pressed from the fleshy head was used as cough syrup and for making poultices. The tequila industry in Mexico makes its products from a maguey but from a species that is not native to the Park. The Big Bend variety was probably used only locally for brewing alcoholic concoctions. Livestock and game relish the young tender bloom stalks, which look like giant asparagus and are high in sugar content. Ancient and modern civilizations have extracted fiber from the long leaves which was used for making rope and twine. The maguey ropes are popular with cowboys, both of West Texas and of Mexico, and many of the finest ropes seen in the Southwest are made from the refined maguey fibers.
Lechuguilla (Agave lechuguilla).Lechuguilla is by far the most common agave in the Park. Dense growths on most of the mountainous foothills and many of the desert slopes make walking difficult. Nearly all Big Bend horses have scarred and enlarged fetlocks, because of numerous wounds from the needle-like spines on the end of each lechuguilla blade. The bloom stalk is several feet tall but differs from that of the maguey inasmuch as it is not branched and bears a spike-like paniole of flowers. Like the maguey, several years are required for the lechuguilla bloom stalk to appear; this plant also blooms but once and then dies.
Most of the brushes, insulation fiber, matting, morrales, coarse twine, and rope produced in northeastern Mexico are made from lechuguilla fiber. The leaves are crushed and the fiber extracted and cleaned by hand stripping; the weaving and processing of the various products are also hand-powered operations. Labor costs prohibit this type of industry in the United States so the late L. C. Hannold built a small machine to extract the fiber mechanically. The machine was not perfected, but some fiber was extracted and made into various items that were sold at the Hannold store on Tornillo Creek about 4 miles north of the Rio Grande. J. E. Casner of Alpine also used a machine for extracting fiber from the lechuguilla plant.
Cattle and deer browse the bloom stalks, hearts, and more tender blades of the lechuguilla, but only when other forage is scarce. The native people use juices from the heart of the plant as a substitute for shampoo, and a brew made by boiling the entire plant is one of their treatments for rheumatic ailments. Smithers (1961, p. 37) has reported that a midwest laboratory extracted cortisone from lechuguilla and that another extract is being studied for possible use in the treatment of arthritis.
Spanish dagger, Spanish bayonet, or soapweed (Yucca).Spanish daggers are represented in the Park by six species (fig. 106). All species have large white flowers loosely arranged on a tall bloom stalk. They are pollenated by a small, white wooly moth that collects pollen from the stamens and places some of it on the receptive end of the pistil after each act of laying an egg in the ovary of the flower. Yucca elata, Yucca thompsoniana, and Yucca rostrata are the narrow stiff-leaf varieties with dry fruit pods. In the first, the margin of the narrow leaf blades separates into whitish fibers. In the other two species, the leaf margins are horny and more or less notched with very fine teeth. When mature, Y. elata and Y. rostrata form tall tree-like plants; Y. thompsoniana does not attain the height of the other two but forms a small tree of neat and striking appearance. Y. torreyi, Y. baccata, and Y. carnerosana have broad, large, fleshy leaves and develop fleshy fruit pods that are edible. Yucca torreyi is the common, rather untidy-appearing plant of the open desert; the other two species frequently grow in the foothills and may extend up the mountain slopes. The latter is the predominant species seen in Dagger Flat and along the foothills of the Sierra del Carmen. This plant blooms about Easter time, and the hundreds of white bloom stalks, some of them 5 feet tall, make one of the most spectacular flower displays in the Park.
Blossoms of the Spanish dagger are edible, and when properly prepared, taste similar to brussel sprouts. The needle-like point at the end of each blade is used as an awl, the blade with the needle point attached is used for holding thatched roofs in place, and sometimes clusters of the blades are used as thatching. The sharp spines have been used to pierce the flesh following a rattlesnake bite, and salve made from the powdered dry dagger blades mixed with goat kidney tallow is commonly used by the Mexicans for treating various wounds.
Beargrass or basketgrass (Nolina erumpens).Leaves from the beargrass were used by both Indians and Mexicans for making baskets, sandals, and matting (fig. 107), and specimens of various artifacts have been preserved in some of the dry caves. Fiber from the leaves, when separated into single strands, was used as thread that was twisted or woven to make twine. When a long piece of cord was needed, entire leaves were knotted or woven together. Occasionally, ropes were made from woven beargrass leaves and used for fastening loads to pack animals or for drawing water from a well.
Mesquite (Prosopis juliflora).The mesquite is one of the most characteristic trees of West Texas. It grows fast even in dry years because it has a deep root system which commonly penetrates to a depth as much as 50 feet; the plant spreads rapidly and is now the dominant vegetation in areas where it was unknown 150 to 200 years ago. In the Park, the mesquite ranges in size from a shrub on the desert to trees 20 to 30 feet tall along the Rio Grande; its thorns stab the flesh and the thin-leaved canopy gives little shade. The flowers, long cylindrical yellow spikes, are sweet scented and a dependable source of honey; the bean pods, 4 to 6 inches long, are a food source for humans, livestock, and game. The green bean pods can be chewed raw or boiled like green beans, but the common practice for human consumption is to grind the dried beans in a metate (stone mortar for grinding grain, fig. 60) to make flour. The flour is then wet with water to make dough, which when dried, although hard, is very nutritious. In the early days, mesquite flour was a staple food for many of the Big Bend Indians and early Spanish-American settlers. Mesquite wood is one of the chief sources of fuel, and it is not necessary to have an ax to obtain firewood as the dead limbs are more easily broken than chopped. The roots are commonly larger than the top and are grubbed. The straighter limbs and trunks are used for fence posts, which last for years in the dry climate. The wood is hard, takes a nice finish, and has been used to some extent in the cabinet-making industry. Charcoal, made from burning green logs, is pulverized, mixed with water, and drunk daily for three days as a treatment for dysentery. Gum that accumulates on the bark is occasionally chewed as a confection (chicle), and a solution made by placing the gum in water is another treatment for dysentery.
Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens)Ocotillo is a spiny shrub, with few or many unbranched stems, 5 to 20 feet tall, that is leafless except during or immediately after the rainy season (fig. 108). Repeated rains bring forth a succession of leaves throughout the growing season. The showy flowers normally appear in March to early April and are a brilliant scarlet cluster, 4 to 10 inches long, borne at the terminal end of the stem. Because of the heavy spines, the plant is often mistaken for a cactus, but it is not related to the cacti. It grows on the lower slopes of the Chisos Mountains and at many places on the surrounding desert but is most abundant in gravel deposits derived from igneous rocks.
Ocotillo, which is used to build small corrals, various enclosures, and fences, has the ability to grow when only the stem is placed in the ground. Consequently, it is not uncommon to see portions of a fence growing and blooming in the proper season. Occasionally, two rows of the stalks are placed in the ground about 6 inches apart and the space between the stalks filled with bundles of candelilla or chino grass to form the walls of a house. With canvas hanging over the door and a small fire inside, such houses are comfortably warm even in extremely cold weather. Ocotillo stalks were commonly laid across the "vigas" (rafters) in the ceiling of a house or placed on a frame and thatched to form an arbor. Occasionally during a wet season, when there is enough sap in the ocotillo stalks, they will bloom.
Carrizo cane (Phragmites communis).Carrizo cane, sometimes called giant cane, grows in many thickets along the flood plain of the Rio Grande and at a few well-watered places in the desert. The plant has a straight, unbranched jointed stalk that grows up to a height of 15 feet, and a broomcorn-like brush at the top of the stalk appears in early summer. The mature plants are dry, coarse, hard, and only a few of the leaves are suitable for forage, but when the cane is young and fresh, livestock and game thrive in these lush patches of vegetation. It is a common practice for the Mexican ranchers to burn the cane thickets during the winter so that the fresh tender growth is available for spring forage. The mature Carrizo stalks, when stripped of their leaves, are also used as a covering on top of the vigas before a thatched or dirt roof is placed on a house or arbor. The old Straw House (fig. 109) near the mouth of Boquillas Canyon was constructed of upright Carrizo cane stalks, chinked with bundles of candelilla and chino grass.
The cactus family.The Big Bend cacti probably have a wider variety of uses for both man and beast than any single plant. The low round forms are a good source of a substitute for water, which is obtained by cutting off the top of the plant and removing chunks of the fleshy mass beneath. When such chunks are chewed, their juice not only ends the craving for water, but it also has some food value. Many of the barrel-shaped varieties have scars, showing that rodents, birds, and other wildlife have broken through the spiny skin to obtain moisture.
The fruit of several cacti is edible, but the pitaya (Echinocereus stramineus) fruit is the most delicious (fig. 110). When ripe, this fruit is dark red to purple, contains many small black seeds, has a tart flavor, and when served with sugar and cream, tastes similar to strawberries; hence the common name, strawberry cactus. There may be as many as 50 fruits on one plant, and although the fruit is covered by many spines, they are easily removed by rolling the fruit on the ground or brushing with a twig.
Prickly pear (Opuntia) is also edible but not so delicious or popular as the pitaya. It was an important seasonal food for the Indians, however, and Cabeza de Vaca made his successful escape from slavery when his captors went westward to gather tunas (prickly pear fruit). In recent times, the principal food product made from the fruit is jelly. This is sold by a few southwestern stores, and the product is good, but most jars of cactus jelly are purchased as a novelty; the product probably will never replace jellies made from domestic fruit. Livestock and game thrive on the prickly pear fruit, and it is not uncommon to see animals with their heads stained red by the cactus fruit juice.
There are several species of prickly pear in the Park and all bear fruit, but the most common species are Opuntia engelmannii and Opuntia rufida. They are the largest and have the tenderest pads. Occasionally, the tender joints are eaten raw, mainly in salads, and in recent years they have been canned and sold in some stores. The principal use is as a substitute for avocado in huacamole salad.
When all other forage crops fail, livestock turn to eating prickly pear. In South Texas, most ranchmen burn off the spines with a small flame thrower, called a pear burner; then the livestock and game eat the cactus and fatten. In the Big Bend, however, there is very little pear burning and the cattle browse on some cactus throughout the year. When cattle are trained to eat prickly pear, they are apt thereafter to eat nothing but prickly pear, burned or unburned, and they fill their tongues with spines. In extreme cases, the tongue may swell out of the mouth, and the animal, being unable to eat, starves.
One of the Big Bend species, Opuntia rufida, is commonly called the blind prickly pear. This plant has thousands of tiny short spines known as glochids that shower from the pads when the plant is shaken. Cattle browsing on this species of cactus will get a face full of spines at every bite. Some of the spines may get into the animal's eyes, causing a wound and sometimes an infection that is commonly called cancer-eye. If the infection is not checked, it will eventually cause blindness and sometimes death, either from worms that get into the wound or from starvation because of blindness.
Tasajillo (Opuntia leptocaulis).The tasajillo, rat-tail or pencil cactus, is a branching plant with many pencil-size cylindrical joints and numerous long slender spines. It is one of the most annoying plants in the Big Bend. It may grow in thickets in overflow areas, where the plants reach a height of 3 feet, or there may be only a single plant. Seemingly, a single plant has the ability to hide its presence in another bush, and as one walks across country and brushes against the bush, the long thin spines of the hidden tasajillo penetrate the fleshy part of a leg to the depth of one inch. This is very painful. The spine ts covered by a thin almost invisible sheath that ruptures and remains in the wound, and the spine, which is retorsely barbed, commonly breaks before pulling free. This commonly causes infection and an annoying wound that requires a week or longer to heal.
The tasajillo has a lemon-yellow flower that is not especially spectacular, but there is an abundance of bright red fruits that ripen about Christmas time. The plant is commonly called the Christmas cactus and is frequently used for ornamental plantings and Christmas decorations. The fruit is filled with hundreds of small black seeds that are relished by quail. Thickets of tasajillo are a favorable habitat of blue quail.
Cholla (Opuntia imbricata).The cholla is also a branching, cylindrically jointed cactus covered with spines. In the Park, it grows mostly in the lowlands and seems to be most abundant in a gravelly soil derived from the dark (basic) igneous rock. The woody stalks are intricately veined, and when the reticulate cylinders are freed of the fleshy tissue, they are used for making ornamental furniture, napkin rings, picture frames, lamp stands, and walking sticks. When cuttings are placed in rows in the ground, they eventually become an attractive hedge.
Peyote (Lophophoria williamsii).The peyote (mescal button or devil's root) was used by certain Indians for its narcotic and delirium-producing qualities. The effect on the user is probably similar to that of opium, and according to legend, the narcotic effects of the peyote protected the user against witches and evil spirits. Peyote grew sparsely at some places in the Big Bend during the early twentieth century and Indians came there to gather it. A few plants were growing in the old Indian camp near Glenn Springs as late as 1962 (B. H. Warnoch, personal communication, June 17, 1964).
Grasses.Grasses were and still are the most important forage crop in the Big Bend. There are many species in the Park and some are more valuable as forage for livestock and game than are others. Two of the species found in the Park are chino grass (Bouteloua breviseta) and tobosa grass (Hilaria mutica).
Chino grass (curly grass of the Mexicans) grows in bunches on many of the gravel ridges and on most of the lower foothills. It is a perennial and greens up readily during the rainy season (July to September) but may be gray and dry during periods of drought. The seeds mature in the fall, at which time the grass is harvested both for hay and for grain for livestock and game. Chino grass was the chief feed for horses of the cavalry, the U. S. Customs and Immigration officers, the Texas Rangers, and other law enforcement men who patrolled the Big Bend. The Mexicans pulled the grass, bound it into bundles, and packed it to the various camps, where they found a ready sale. The more or less permanent cavalry posts, such as old Fort Davis, and the stage, freight, and mail route stations, where horses were regularly kept, contracted for tons of chino grass each month. Most of the trading posts also included chino grass as one of their regularly stocked commodities.
Tobosa grass is a desert grass that grows best on broad overflow areas and on low gravelly hills. Prior to 1910, tobosa was the predominant grass on Tornillo Flat and on the low plain bordering the Rio Grande west of Mariscal Mountain (fig. 4, in pocket). It is a perennial with stout rhizomes (underground stems). It greens up rapidly after rains and was an important range grass, especially for horses. Evidence of old fences indicates that many of the tobosa grass areas were used as horse traps where the saddle stock were held when not being used for normal ranch work.
The Mexican people are very fond of sweets and their principal natural source of sweets is honey. The honey bees are the black wild variety, and since there are very few hollow trees in the Big Bend, the honey is normally stored in small caves. Bee caves may be found in almost any cavity along the face of a rocky cliff (especially near permanent water) where there is some protection from the weather (fig. 111). There used to be several bee caves in Pulliam Peak along the rocky cliff opposite the lower water barrel north of the road that leads into the Basin.
There are many flowering plants in the Big Bend and most of them are a source of nectar for honey, but the principal sources are whitebrush, catclaw, and mesquite. The whitebrush (Aloysia lycioides) is commonly found in thickets on overflow areas alongside the arroyos. Its many small white flowers in long slender spikes have a strong fragrance of vanilla. The plant normally blooms after each rain, and during most years there is a succession of blossoms from May to late autumn. The catclaw (Acacia greggii) is a prickly shrub with curved spines that catch and hold the clothing if one attempts to walk through the bushes. There are scattered growths, from individual plants to small clumps, extending from the intermediate mountain slopes down to the lowlands, but the best stands are in thickets along some of the arroyos. The blossoms are cylindrical spikes of yellow flowers and are very fragrant. The time of blossoming depends upon the moisture, but normally it is during late April or May. The mesquite (Prosopis juliflora) ranges in size from a shrub to a tree and grows almost anywhere but is most common in well-watered places, such as near springs or along the flood plain of the Rio Grande. The flowers are in pale yellow cylindrical spikes that appear in February along the Rio Grande but progressively later farther north.
Most of the Anglo-American settlers brought with them, or later acquired, a few colonies of bees for their own honey supply. Naturally, some of the colonies escaped, so that now most of the bee caves are occupied by once domesticated varieties that have gone wild; one seldom sees colonies of the small black wild bees that were native to the area. Perhaps the reason why only a few of the native bees are to be found is because the wild bees are very fierce and it was necessary to use smoke to rob the cave of its honey. Some of the native colonies were totally destroyed during the honey-robbing operations or were so weakened that they starved during the winter.
Several of the early West Texans discovered that honey is a dependable crop and that there is a market even in small towns. They increased the size of their apiaries and some of them leased bee pastures from their neighbors, establishing colonies over a large area. Others began moving their bees in large screened trucks and followed the flowering seasons from south to north across the country. To these few, the honey industry became a year. around business. They have modern extracting equipment, wholesale honey to large distributors, and continually improve their colonies by selective breeding.
One of the earliest bee keepers in the Big Bend was a Mr. Blaine who made his headquarters at San Vicente. As the flower crop declined along the Rio Grande, Blaine moved the bees farther north. One of the comic incidents related in the Big Bend is about the bee truck and the mail carrier's truck that met in collision along the old road on a narrow winding hill about half a mile southeast of the lower Tornillo Creek bridge. Both vehicles rolled down the embankment, which greatly irritated the wild black bees, and on that day, the mail delivery to Hot Springs was delayed. Remains of the Model T trucks are still strewn along the base of the bill.
During the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth century, the services of a physician were not available to many of the Mexican people living in the lower Big Bend country. Some of the older people had learned from their parents that certain plants could be used for treating human ailments, and this knowledge had been handed down from generation to generation. Those who knew the plants, how to compound a prescription, and had obtained a reputation for treating the sick were known as "curanderos" (men) and "curanderas" (women). They were not doctors but healers, and their treatment of the sick was not a profession, for the "curanderos" did not charge a fee but made their living by herding goats, trapping, gathering and selling chino grass hay, working on the Anglo-American ranches, and other kinds of work. It was generally believed that the "curanderas" (women) were the more successful because they acted both as healer and nurse; also, it was believed that the "curanderas" were more successful with adults than with children.
Most Mexican people are strong believers in being treated for any ailment that affects them. Those who have been treated by a medical doctor prefer his treatments to those offered by the native healer (enrandero), but they have confidence in both. The curanderos cannot perform surgery or set broken bones.
Most patients arrived at the curandero's home in the afternoon and stayed several days. The curandero, after diagnosing the patient's ills, normally sent one of his children to gather the proper plants that were to be used in the treatment. Some of these plants grew wild in the Big Bend and not uncommonly several miles from the curandero's home; others had been transplanted and were cultivated in small gardens. Normally the curandero's wife, whether or not she be a curandera, prepared the prescription in her household utensils. The curandero knew the proper amount of the plant to be used to prepare the prescription, how much the patient was to be given, how often the treatment would be repeated, and how long the treatment should continue. Most treatment began early in the morning, as most prescriptions were required to cool or stand over night.
The common treatment for minor ailments, such as a sore, boil, bruise, burn, various wounds, a sprained ankle or wrist, was a poultice. These were made from the seeds, leaves, and roots of various plants. The powder or pulp derived by pounding the desired part of the plant was normally mixed with yellow laundry soap, sugar if available, and kidney fat from either a goat or deer. Some kind of a poultice was made for almost every pain and however queer the treatment may seem now, it frequently appeared to be effective. Some curanderos rendered oil from rattlesnakes, which was widely used for sore muscles, stiff joints, and rheumatic pains.
Many Mexican Revolutionists were wounded by the Mexican Federal soldiers and a few by the United States soldiers, U. S. Customs and Immigration officers, and the Texas Rangers. Medical services were not available to many of the wounded, so most of the casualties were concealed by their friends and treated by curanderos. Because the curanderos feared possible reprisals from the Mexican Federal soldiers, they would not talk about their patientswho they were, where they lived, the nature of the wound, or the treatment. It is surmised, however, that most gunshot wounds were treated with poultices and solutions made from the various local plants. Naturally, many of the wounded died, but some of them survived and departed this life at an old age from natural causes.
Sunstroke.Victims of sunstroke were treated with a sort of poultice made by mixing powdered sunflower seeds with cottonseed oil to make a paste; rendered animal fats were used when cottonseed oil was not available. This paste was spread on thick wild tobacco leaves, which were placed paste-side down on the patient's forehead and temples. These were left on for half an hour or so and replaced; it is reported that the tobacco leaves turned red after being used. This treatment continued for several hours or until the tobacco leaves no longer turned red. In the meantime, the curandero's family began gathering and boiling sunflower blossoms. This solution cooled over night, and on the next day, about a quart of the brew was poured over the head, neck, and shoulders. This liquid was allowed to soak into the scalp for half an hour, then the treatment was repealed up to half a dozen times.
Three species of sunflowers have been found in the Park, but Helianthus anuus is the most common and this is the species from which the large cultivated sunflower is derived. The curanderos used both the wild and cultivated plants in their treatment, but they seemed to prefer the seeds from the domesticated plants. This probably was because the seeds were larger and more readily available, as most families grew a few plants in their herb gardens; the seeds were gathered and stored for future use.
The Big Bend tobacco (Nicotiana glauca) plant, sometimes called tree or wild tobacco, is a large shrub, with smooth gray bark, smooth green leaves, yellow tube flowers, and numerous small black seeds. It grows in abundance along the flood plain of the Rio Grande. This shrub is a native of South America and is supposed to have spread to the Rio Grande Valley via Mexico.
Arthritis.The curanderos used the creosote bush (Larrea divaricata), sometimes called greasewood, as their chief treatment for arthritis. They boiled large quantities of the leaves and the upper portions of the stems in water to make a solution that was poured into a tub. The patient was then placed in the tub and the ailing parts soaked and sponged for about 30 minutes. This routine was repeated daily for three or four days, which completed the treatment. The curanderos also steeped the creosote bush leaves in a small amount of water to make an antiseptic lotion. The lotion was used for treating cuts and bruises on both man and beast. It was considered especially good for the treatment of saddle sores on horses.
The creosote bush is a strong-scented, sticky-leafed evergreen shrub with small yellow flowers and a gray-white, densely hairy seed capsule. During the rainy season the leaves are fresh and dark green, but during hot, dry periods they may have a yellowish-green hue. The plant is considered a weed by the ranchmen for it spreads rapidly in overgrazed areas and is not eaten by either livestock or game. It was reported, however, that the camels used experimentally as beasts of burden in the Big Bend browsed the creosote bush and seemed to prefer it to many other types of vegetation (Echols, 1860). In recent years, some experimental progress has been made by grinding and treating the leaves and small twigs for use in a processed livestock food. Solutions from the creosote bush have been experimentally used for lengthening the period of preservation of certain processed animal fats, such as lard and butter. Some of the Mexican people made a brown dye by boiling the creosote bush roots in water. The dye was used to color wool for their blankets.
Yellow jaundice.The curanderos used two of the local plants in their treatment of yellow jaundice. First, they gathered leaves and stems from the tarbush or blackbrush (Flourensia cernua) which were broken into small pieces and boiled in water. About a pint of this liquid was taken as a laxative. The liquid was reported to have a tangy acid flavor and to get the desired results in about three hours (this was also used as a laxative to correct other disorders). Meanwhile, a tea brewed from the Mormon Tea (Ephedra aspera) plant was being made. This, when drunk daily for two or three days, corrected the disorder in the kidneys and liver, and except that the patient must follow a vegetable diet for about a week, this completed the treatment. In addition to the above treatment for yellow jaundice, the curanderos used Mormon Tea for treating almost any kind of kidney or liver disorder and for a general tonic. It is much used in some parts of Mexico for treating gonorrhea; sometimes the stems are pounded into a pulp for use in making poultices.
The tarbush is a very leafy and much branched shrub about 3 to 4 feet tall with small clusters of yellow flowers or florets. It grows normally on dry deep soil and on many of the foothills surrounding the Chisos Mountains, and if there is any question as to its identification, chew a few leavesthey have a strong tar-like taste.
There are three species of Mormon Tea in the ParkEphedra trifurca, E. aspera, and E. antisyphilitica. The first two species are the most common and were probably the most widely used by the curanderos. The plant is recognized by various common names. The Mexicans call it Popotillo, but most of the Anglo-Americans use the term Mormon Tea, and it is also known as desert tea, kidney weed, straw weed, clap weed, and joint fir. The stems of all species are sometimes steeped as a substitute for tea and were formerly much used by the Mormons for that purpose. The tea does not have an objectionable taste, and to a camper who runs out of coffee, it is a fair substitute for a hot drink.
Heart disease.The curanderos treated heart ailments with about two teaspoons of a powder obtained from a shed deer antler mixed in a cup of animal blood diluted with water. The antler was powdered by rubbing it on a grater or rasp, and if these were not available, then a rough stone was used. The blood of a buck deer was preferred, but doe and even goat blood was sometimes used. The victim drank this concoction slowly, the procedure was repeated once the next day, and later only the blood was drunk.
High blood pressure.There seemed to have been several remedies for treating high blood pressure, none of which was always successful. Most of the curanderos apparently agreed on at least two procedures: (1) to keep the patient quiet, preferably in bed, and (2) to keep the body temperature low by placing damp cloths on the forehead and sometimes on the upper torso. Some curanderos prescribed a fresh vegetable diet with plenty of liquids, a quart of which was to be Mormon Tea (Popotillo) daily. Others did not prescribe the vegetable diet but gave to their patients a brew made by boiling Spanish dagger blades in water. One healer, after unsuccessfully trying a variety of treatments, reportedly bathed his patient in the mineralized hot water at Hot Springs, which gave the desired cure.
Pneumonia and colds.The treatment for pneumonia and severe colds was similar to the remedies used in the early Anglo-American homesto get the patient in bed and cause heavy perspiration. Instead of the hot-lemonade treatment, the Mexican people commonly used a hot-tequila drink. For common colds, slices of onion were placed in a dish, covered with sugar, and allowed to stand several hours, preferably over night in the cool air. Next morning, the patient drank the syrup produced by the sugar and onion juice and ate the onion slices.
Poison.When someone accidentally took poison, the patient was persuaded to drink a large glass of warm water to which about a tablespoon of lard or rendered goat tallow was added. The second glass of hot water contained a little vinegar if it were available. This was usually followed by a glass of soured goat's milk. The patient was kept on a vegetable diet for several days which normally included vegetable soup and boiled greaseless vegetables including turnips, onions, squash, and mesquite beans. Watermelon was eaten in season and boiled fish was sometimes a part of the diet.
Rattlesnake bite.The victim of a rattlesnake bite was commonly alone and the first treatment was self-administered. It was the general practice to apply an improvised tourniquet, frequently a piece of wire, above the bite and this sometimes caused a serious condition. During the early years the victim pierced the bite area with the sharp point of a Spanish dagger blade. This caused bleeding and washed away some of the venom, but it seemed to be generally believed by some people that the dagger point neutralized the snake venom. In more recent years the victim has slashed the bite area with a knife and sucked out the venom with his mouth.
When the victim reached the curandero, he was given a cup of warm water and goat blood to drink slowly and later a cup of non-diluted blood. This was supposed to replace the blood lost by the wound. A poultice was then applied to the bite area. Some curanderos made the poultice from crushed Mormon Tea stems, others used mashed prickly pear pads, or powdered dry Spanish dagger blades mixed with goat tallow.
Tonics.Many of the Mexican people became affected by what Anglo-Americans might call spring fever. They could become "muy malo" (very bad) in a short time and remain in that condition for weeks. The general treatment for such ailments was a tonic, and various plants were used by different curanderos to make the tonic. Probably the most common tonic used was a brew made from the Mormon Tea (Popotillo) plant. The use of this treatment among the Mexican people probably rivaled the popularity of sassafras tea and the sulfur and molasses concoction used by the early Anglo-American settlers.
One tonic that seems to be unique to the Rio Grande area of the Big Bend was made from the roadrunner, sometimes called the chapparal bird or paisano. The roadrunner is a slender bird with long legs, neck, and tail; it spends most of its time on the ground and is frequently seen in the Southwest. The curandero prepared the bird by killing it without the loss of blood. It was then covered with clay, placed in a hole in the center of a large fire, covered with hot ashes, and cooked for about two hours. When the bird was recovered from the fire and the clay removed, the feathers came off with the clay. Eating the entire bird was the prescription for the patient.
Pyorrhea (Riggs' disease), gum infections, canker sores, fever blisters, and similar ailments of the gums, mouth, and lips were treated by massaging juice from the leatherplant (Jatropha spathulata) onto the affected part. The treatments were commonly self administered, and only when the victim was "muy malo" (very bad) did he go to the curanderos for help. They normally pulled a branch from the plant, using the frayed end of the twig as a brush for applying the juice. The treatment was repeated several times daily, or until the cure was effected. When a leaf is pulled from the plant, a small droplet of reddish juice appears at the point of separation. This is sometimes shaken into the eye as a treatment for sore eyes.
The leatherplant, sometimes called leatherroot or bloodweed, is a desert shrub, 1 to 2 feet high; sparingly branched, it has spatula-shaped leaves about 1 inch long that are attached to a short stem. The branches are reddish brown, have smooth bark, and are easily bent without breaking. The staminate and pistulate flowers have conspicuous light-lemon corollas that grow on separate plants. The shrub is found in abundance at lower elevations in thin rocky soil throughout the Park.
The old towns of Terlingua (fig. 112) and Study Butte may be reached from State Highway 118, the entrance road from Alpine; Terlingua is on State Highway 170, the Presidio entrance road. The two villages grew up around the quicksilver mines that played an important economic role in developing the Big Bend. The Chisos mine, which was at Terlingua, was abandoned in 1946 (fig. 113). This was the most important mine in the district and was the last to produce large quantities of quicksilver. Cinnabar was first mined in this district in 1896, and up until mining operations ceased, the district had yielded about one-fourth of the total mercury production in the United States, being second only to California. Some of the production came from the Mariscal (Lindsey) mine southeast of the Chisos Mountains (p. 53), and mineralization has been reported from time to time in the Christmas Mountains (fig. 4). However, most of the mines which accounted for the production were located in an area about 6 miles wide extending from Study Butte westward through Terlingua nearly to the Rio Grande.
The quicksilver ore, mostly cinnabar, was furnaced locally at Terlingua (fig. 82) and Study Butte. The recovered metal was placed in 76-pound iron flasks and freighted to Alpine (fig. 114), which is 84 miles from Terlingua and even farther from Study Butte. Fuel was always a problem in the furnacing operations. Many of the early quicksilver retorts used rendered candelilla wax weed or bales of desert brush for fuel, but when the operation grew beyond the prospecting stage, a more permanent fuel supply had to be established. For many years, wood was cut in the Chisos Mountains and used as fuel at Terlingua. This partly explains the absence of forest growths on the lower foothill slopes and in the more accessible places on the higher peaks of the Chisos Mountains. Some of the older citizens (now deceased) who were familiar with the Big Bend about 50 or more years ago reported that places like Green Gulch and the Basin were covered by a dense pine forest in the early 1900's; some say that the virgin forest that once clothed the Chisos Mountains was destroyed by fire in 1901. There is evidence that both fire and cutting have destroyed much of the forest.
In the 1930's, the management at the Terlingua mine started development of a small coal mine to augment the dwindling and hard-to-get wood supply in the Chisos Mountains. The coal deposit was in Cretaceous rocks about 12 miles northeast of Terlingua. Sub-bituminous-grade coal was hauled to Terlingua and converted into producer's gas, which was used as the principal fuel in the 1930's and early 1940's. The last operator, during 1942 to 1946, used butane that was trucked from Alpine and electric power that was generated locally.
Today Terlingua is a ghost town; the mining equipment is gone, and most of the houses are in ruins but there is renewed activity at Study Butte where the Diamond Alkali Company plans to begin operations. At one time, however, about 1,500 people lived in Terlingua and 100 or more at Study Butte. Most of the inhabitants were Latin-Americans, and Mexican architecture and customs prevailed. The chief period of celebration was Cinco de Mayo (May 5), the date when the Mexicans defeated Maximilian, and this date was one of the few days when the mines were closed. A few days before the holiday, the houses, cemeteries (fig. 115), and community center were decorated. A baile (dance) was usually held and the villagers came in their finest costumes. The dance was held at the community center, which at Terlingua was a small frame house with an outside concrete dance floor. Electric lights were made possible by wind-chargers; the musical instruments were usually violin, guitar, and harmonica. Although the villages of Terlingua and Study Butte were purposely excluded from the Park because of the possible mineral wealth of nearby quicksilver mines, both settlements are extremely interesting, and the Latin-American influence displayed there is certainly an important part of the Big Bend country.
Terlingua.The principal mines in the Terlingua district were at Terlingua and in the area immediately to the west. Ross (1935) has described the district as follows:
Ores occur in lesser quantities in the overlying Boquillas Formation (table 1). Some of the ores in the area contain small amounts of petroleum and there has been some small seepage of solid bituminous material from the adjacent rocks. Udden (1918) compared the occurrence of some quicksilver ores which are present at the crests of anticlines in porous limestones below impervious clay, with the accumulation of petroleum, which also commonly occurs in porous strata on anticlines.
Study Butte.Most of the ore from the Study Butte mine, about 5 miles east of Terlingua, came from a soda rhyolite intrusion about 400 feet thick. The intrusion is in part conformable to the bedding of the nearly flat flagstone and clay beds (Boquillas and Pen Formations) that enclose it. Locally, the intrusion cuts across the beds in an anticline; perhaps the anticline was broken by faults before the intrusion, or perhaps both the anticline and faults were developed by the intrusion. The igneous rock is complexly jointed (or cracked) and most of the ore follows the joints. The most prominent joints, both on the surface and in the accessible parts of the mine, trend roughly N. 65° E. These are comparable with the principal joints at Terlingua, but ore has also been mined from joints that trend N. 10° E., and there is some mineralization along partings with variable trends (Ross, 1935, p. 568).
Lajitas.Lajitas, which in Spanish means "little flags," was named for the flaggy rocks of the Boquillas Formation which crops out in that area. The village is outside the northwestern Park boundary and is accessible via State Highway 170 from Presidio, Texas, to the Park (fig. 1). Lajitas is at one Rio Grande crossing of the old Comanche Trail; it has been an important crossing of the river since the days of the early Spanish and was visited by Lt. Echols and the camel caravan in 1860. In its heyday of prosperous trade, Lajitas was a port of entry and was occupied by a small garrison of United States troops. Ruins of the old fort are still visible (fig. 116). During his regime, Pancho Villa controlled most of the State of Chihuahua, Mexico, and dominated the border area in the Big Bend. Villa's brother was wounded in a skirmish and brought to a cave across the Rio Grande from Castolon and Lajitas; he was befriended by people on both sides of the river, which no doubt saved his life. Although Villa's followers traded at the Lajitas store, they never committed any acts of violence there.
When peace came to the border country, the settlement died except for a few families who continued to live there. Some of the families had a few goats and others worked on the surrounding ranches, gathered the candelilla wax plant, and in the mid-1940's worked at Big Bend National Park. Activity was temporarily revived during the search for uranium in the 1950's but Lajitas is again a quiet border village. The property is now owned by Rex Ivey (one of the County Commissioners) who operates a trading post and farms irrigated fields. Gasoline, curios, cold drinks, groceries, Big Bend agate, plants, and other commodities are offered for sale at the store.
Last Updated: 08-May-2007