Medicinal Plants

Pen and ink line drawing of the volcanic escarpment with the cinder cones in the background.
Pen and ink line drawing of the volcanic escarpment with the cinder cones in the background.

Ray Kriese, park volunteer artist.



Prior to the arrival of the railroads in the 1880s, there were no physicians in New Mexico who were trained in modern medical science. The Indigenous and Hispanic peoples of the territory dealt with illness by combining long traditions of religious and spiritual healing with the use of natural resources that the land provided, including native herbs and plants. The West Mesa, the Volcanoes, the escarpment – all areas within Petroglyph National Monument – were significant areas related to these aspects of healing for the people of the region. While many searched for plants that grew elsewhere, such as in the mountains, many others were found here. There use as supplements to modern, nontraditional medicine continues today.

Native Uses

Plant materials have been and continue to be collected by the Pueblo, Navajo, Apache, and other southwestern tribes for both individual medicinal use and ritual healing purposes. These include a wide variety of plant species. For example today at Zuni Pueblo, 14 different plants with emetic qualities have been identified for treatment of stomachaches because they induce vomiting.

In addition to therapeutic uses, Pueblo people have collected wild plant products as a part of pilgrimage. Through the act of carrying certain plant and animal products back to their villages, they brought the life energies from distant parts of their natural world which benefited the entire community. This is often done by members of religious societies who leave prayers, offerings, and prayer sticks in exchange for harvesting and using plant products for healing ceremonies. Ceremonies conducted without prescribed plant materials would be considered ineffective.

As evidence of these ritual practices in the past one can find smooth, bowl-like worn areas in the basalt boulders. These grinding slicks were where native people are thought to have ground seeds and herbs in preparation for medicinal uses.

Hispanic Use

Self-appointed healers in the Hispanic community – usually women who were called medicas or curanderas – collected, dried, processed, and administered herbal remedies. Using leaves, roots, or seeds of various plants, she made concoctions for her sick patients.

The medica, who served as midwife, nurse, and doctor, might be paid in coin or in edible produce. She brought with her many folk beliefs from medieval Europe. These may have included a belief in magic or witchcraft; a tradition of using Oriental spices; or a familiarity with the Doctrine of Signatures, a codification by the Roman Catholic Church of many pre-Chrisitan healing traditions. The codification stated that one could learn the use of a plant by observing some marking or color. For example, plants with yellow flowers might be used to treat jaundice and those with a red signature to treat blood disorders.

Method of Usage

Plants believed to have medicinal qualities were used to treat many human illnesses, oftentimes in conjunction with the performance of healing ceremonies or prayer.

Plants, or preparations there from, were chewed, applied topically, ingested, used for bathing, or they might have been used exclusively in ceremonial practices.

Various parts of plants (roots, stems, leaves, flowers, bark, etc. ) were used depending on the particular species or the particular purpose. Roots or leaves might be ground into a powder, which then might be mixed with water or other ingredients to make a poultice. The boiling of leaves or twigs or roots, or even the entire plant, was often performed to create a tea for drinking or a decoction in which the patient was bathed.

Plant Names

In New Mexico, each linguistic group has their own names for the native plants that they have traditionally used.

Indian names, which differ among the five Pueblo language groups, are typically compounded, and refer to attributes such as size, shape, color, smell, habitat, associations with animals, or ritual uses.

In the Hispanic community, some plant names are Moorish in origin – introduced by the Arab conquerors of the Iberian Peninsula and brought across the ocean to the New World by Spanish explorers and settlers.

From Mexico have come names and uses borrowed from the Aztecs. From their Pueblo neighbors in New Mexico the Hispanic people have also learned the names of local plants.

Medicinal Plants in Petroglyph National Monument:

Over 20 plant species found within or near the boundaries of the Monument are known to have been used medicinally:

Sand sage or Romerillo (Artemesia Filifolia)

Four-Wind Saltbush or Chamiso (Atriplex Canescens)

Rabbitbrush or Chamiso Blanco (Chrysothamnus Nauseosus)

Doveweed, Texas Croton or Barbasco (Croton Texensis)

Jimson Weed or Toloache (Datura mteloides)

Mormon Tea or Canutillo del campo (Ephedra Torreyana)

Buckwheat (Erioganum sp.)

Apache Plume or Ponil (Fallugia Paradoxa)

Snakeweed or Escoba de la vi Bora (Gutierrezia Sarothrae)

One-Seed Juniper or Rama de Sabina (Juniperus Monosperma)

Wolfberry or Tomatillo or Chico (Lycium Pallidum)

Wild Four O’Clock or Maravilla (Mirabilis Multiflorum)

Scorpionweed (Phacelia sp.)

Purslane (Portulaca sp.)

Three-Leaf Sumac, Lemonade Bush or Lemita (Rhus Trilobata)

Dock or Cana Agria (Rumex Hymenosepalus)

Horse Nettle or Tomatillo del Campo (Solanum Elaeagnifolium)

Globe Mallow or Yerba del Negro (Sphaeralcea Angustifolia)

Indian, Navajo, or Hopi Tea or Cota (Thelesperma Megapotamicum)

Almost no scientific study or chemical analysis has been done on these native species to determine if or why they might be effective, or what active ingredients they might contain.

Sand Sage contains aromatic oils, including camphor, and was used for stomach disorders and treating colds. The penitents washed their lacerated backs with romerillo tea. Most of the Rio Grande Pueblos made a tea from Rabbitbrush for treating stomach disorders.

Doveweed contains croton oil, a cathartic, and was used as such at Isleta, Acoma, Laguna, and Zuni. Preparations of the plant have been used for rheumatism, paralysis, earache (seeds placed in ear), and headache (inhalation of smoke from burning plant).

Jimson Weed (the English name comes from its effects on the early Jamestown settlers) is an extremely toxic plant that has been used for its anesthetic and analgesic effects.

Mormon Tea contains tannin and pseudoephedrine as has been used for urinary disorders, diarrhea, venereal disease, and skin itch, in addition to tanning animal skins.

Ground Apache Plume roots have been mixed with sugar for a cough; ground leaves mixed with wild tobacco (punche) for rheumatic joints; ground flowers mixed with horehound, flour and water to massage swollen parts of the body, and ground plumes mixed with commercial Dragon’s Blood (sangre de venado), rock salt, soot, and wine to drive away evil effects of bewitchment.

Juniper-Sprig Tea was given to postpartum mothers, as was snakeweed tea. Juniper was also used for a number of other ailments. The pitch was ground with white beans and horehound to make a concoction (Almaciga de Sabina) to rub on swelling of the face.

The powdered roots of Dock contain an antibacterial substance and were applied to burns, sores, and rashes, or a rinse was made for sore throat or pyorrhea. The green berries of horse nettle were crushed, mixed with salt, and bound to the throat for enlarged tonsils.

Additional Reading

Dunmire, William W., and Gail D. Tierney, Wild Plants of the Pueblo Province, Exploring Ancient and Enduring Uses, Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press, 1995.

Curtin, L.S.M., Healing Herbs of the Upper Rio Grande, Traditional Medicine of the Southwest, Santa Fe: Western Edge Press, 1997.

Moore, Michael, Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West, Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press, 1979.

More, Michael, Medicinal Plants of the Desert and Canyon West, Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press, 1989.

Last updated: January 31, 2018

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