The Native Americans’ everyday interaction with the earth very likely served not only as a foundation for their harmonious relationship with the land but also the spiritual reverence that pervaded their everyday life.
On a practical level, the Native Americans’ profound understanding of the land was demonstrated by their knowledge of the medicinal, nutritional, and material usage of plants.
Here is a sampling of easily recognizable plants that were prized by this area’s indigenous peoples.
Agave or Century Plant
Agave was an important plant to Southwest Indians and virtually every part was used.
- Food: Agave was a sweet, nutritious treat after being baked in a deep pit – one of which you can view at the Palatki ruins. The leaves were eaten like artichokes and boiled to make a syrup (sound familiar?), the stalks were baked and pounded into cakes, the young flower stalks were made into a heady drink, the boiled flowers were eaten fresh or dried, and the seeds were pounded into flour.
- Fiber: Agave leaf fibers provided rope, thread, nets, etc., and the sharp spine at leaf’s end attached to the long fibers was perfect for
sewing. Dried, baked leaves and their fluffy internal fibers were used as hairbrushes for both themselves and their horses.
- Miscellaneous: After the fire, agave juices formed a hard layer called mescal. These hard layers could be pounded and formed into armor for Yavapai warriors. It also provided a brownish paint for cosmetics, face paint, and other ornamental uses.
- Medicinal: Roasted and pressed agave leaves provided a bitter juice that helped cure scurvy; infections were treated with wet leaf compresses; wounds were treated with juice of the plant’s root; and bleeding, even after childbirth, was helped by a cloth soaked in mescal wine.
Yucca (including Banana Yucca)
- Food: The fleshy fruits were a delicacy and eaten every which way possible: raw, boiled, baked, dried, and even ground. Their skin and seeds and pulp were crushed and the paste sundried and made into cakes for later use. The blossoms, seeds, and baked flower stalks were all consumed.
- Fiber: The yucca was a superb source for strong fibers and perfect for baskets, mats, sandals, etc.
- Medicinal: Yucca fibers were used for rheumatism and colds by having the person chew on the fibers while in a sweat lodge and expelling toxins through vomiting. Boiling the root concentrated the steroidal saponins for a tea that reduced inflammations, such as arthritis and joint pain, and useful for blood purification and kidney and liver cleansing.
- Spiritual: Yucca was important because its roots, when soaked and pounded in water, produced rich, soapy suds that were used for ritual cleansing in ceremonies, including: washing a mother and her newborn child; for the bath and shampoo in a girl’s puberty rites; and for purification by Yavapai warriors after returning from battle. Baked yucca fruit pulp was dried on yucca leaves and decorated with sunflower blossoms by the Apache. This was symbolic of the sun’s importance to plants and was intended as a prayer to the sun for its continued blessings upon the land.
Mormon Tea (Ephedra viridis)
This medium sized, stiff shrub with slender, jointed needles looks like a stunted pine and is easily found in Sedona.
Food: Its green or dried stems make a pleasant tea. For long trips, the raw stems induced salivation to help relieve thirst. The plant’s seeds were roasted and ground into flour or mush for a bitter bread.
- Medicinal: One of its most important uses was a cure for syphilis. It was also a remedy for kidney pain and fever, canker sores, ulcers, cold symptoms, and stomach disorders. Its dried root powder was sometimes used to relieve sores and made into a paste for burns. Some Indians boiled the entire plant into a tea to stop bleeding.
Almost everywhere you look in Sedona, you’ll see a one-seed juniper. There are other varieties, but you’ll recognize this one by its small, bluish-green berry with a thin, whitish coating.
Food: Its bitter berries (watch out for the internal hard seed) were a food source. Juniper leaf ashes, an excellent source of calcium, iron, and magnesium, were added to many of the Navajos’ foods, including tea.
- Medicinal: A tea or infusion from the leaves was used for constipation, coughs, colds, and stomach aches. Pregnant women used it to help relax muscles before childbirth. Chewed bark was helpful for healing spider bites and greatly relieves burns. Tea from the cones was used to treat dysentery and stomach ills. Juniper resin, or gum, helped relieve dental cavities. Juniper berries are an effective remedy for allergies to the plant – they can be eaten or boiled for a tea – and are also a strong diuretic.
- Spiritual: This juniper is highly important because its leaves are used by the medicine men of many tribes in traditional ceremonies and blessings. When they are burned, their fragrant smoke is used in a sacred way to purify the air around the event and, specifically, around the bodies of participants in order to clear their energetic field.
Creosote Bush (Chaparral)
This very common plant was used extensively by Southwest tribes and provides so many remedies it’s surprising it isn’t nicknamed the “medicine bush.”
Medicinal: It has been used for fever, colds, gas, gout, arthritis, sinusitis, fungal infections, and even anemia. It is an effective antimicrobial remedy: a dry powder from its leaves acts as an antibacterial for cuts and burns. Some other uses include autoimmunity diseases, menstrual cramps, and as an analgesic, antidiarrheal, diuretic, and emetic remedy. In salve form, it was used for skin problems. As a tea, it was used for tuberculosis, respiratory infections, constipation, and even venereal diseases.
Other Plants Used for Spiritual Purposes:
Sacred Datura (Jimson Weed, Angel Trumpet, etc.): This herbaceous perennial has white, trumpet-shaped flowers and is used almost exclusively for spiritual purposes, such as vision quests. It is an extremely powerful and dangerous hallucinogen used all over the world since ancient times. After ceremony in which questions are posed, some will still use parts of this plant placed between their pillow and the pillow covering to get questions answered by Creator. Medicine men have extensive knowledge on its harvest and preparation for spiritual quests. Otherwise, ingesting any part of this plant can be lethal – and even touching it can cause irritation. Keep this one out of your garden!
Osha: Used to cleanse any negativity in one’s psyche.
- Bitterroot: If one chewed this and it was sweet to them, it was quietly accepted that they were possessed and others would try to help them.
- Corn pollen: Used in ceremony for prayer, protection, and for blessings and abundance for all.
- Sage – Extensively used for ceremony in this region, sage is dried and then burned; its fragrant smoke is considered to clear any spiritual negativity.
You would probably agree that just what these few plants offer is impressive, but there are so many more – hundreds more – that possess extensive healing qualities. Everything we would ever need for our health – or our spirit – is right here at our feet, courtesy of Mother Earth!
Acknowledgements: Indian Uses of Desert Plants, by James W. Cornett; American Indian Food and Lore, by Carolyn Niethammer.