Herbs that have helped generations of New Mexicans feel better could be growing just outside your kitchen door or along your daily walk.
While many of the traditional healing herbs polka-dot the mesas and mountains with their blooms in the wild, several area herbalists say cultivating these in your garden could help you feel better and ensure the native and locally adapted plants don’t disappear.
“Haven’t you ever just brushed against lavender and find its fragrance calms you?” asks Mary Deaguero, a volunteer at the Albuquerque Garden Center, sitting next to a stand of the aromatic blooming plant. Deaguero, a retired teacher, has led a tour of the healing plants growing at the center.
Herbalist Beverly McFarland, who has offered herbal apprenticeships every summer for 20 years, takes her students to find native healing plants on the east side of the Sandia Mountains: “We are developing healing relationships with the plants rather than just using them. So much of their medicine is transmitted to us and available to us when we are in their presence in nature. Just sitting with a plant – even in our own backyards – makes us feel better. Feeling better energizes the healing process whatever our healing needs may be.”
The globe mallow with its nickel-size orange blooms, a remedy traditionally boiled into a tea for inflammation, poor digestion and sore throats, grows indiscriminately in medians, vacant lots and sidewalk cracks, but it flourishes with about 60 other healing plants in McFarland’s Sandia Knolls home garden.
Her garden has many healing herbs, many to reinforce her students’ lessons from the mountain. “I have them, but I don’t make medicine from them, because I’m never sick.”
Learning to identify plants and how they grow in nature with an expert keeps beginners safe. For example, monkshood, a poisonous purple flowering plant on a stalk, looks a lot like it’s non-lethal cousin, a wild geranium, she says.
Among her favorites are the fuschia-colored blossoms of wild oregano, the furry-leafed mullein that has golden blooms on tall stalks, and the daisy-shaped pink blooms of echinacea or coneflower.
She does harvest echinacea, which acts as a preventive and rescue tonic for respiratory problems. She makes a tincture, two parts fresh flowers and one part 100 proof grain alcohol, and takes a few drops before she travels or goes to the dentist.
She makes lavender honey, as much for the flavor and aroma as its calming effect. She tamps down fresh lavender buds into a jar and covers it with local honey and closes the jar, letting the honey sit from summer to fall before she adds it to her hot tea.
She loves the lacy fronds of yarrow with its palm-size clusters of white or colored blossoms that can tickle your calves on mountain hikes, but also grows in her garden.
It’s drought tolerant and grows easily and abundantly in the Southwest, can be chewed and placed on a wound to stop bleeding with quick results. She knows its benefits firsthand. The plant helped her son when he was a teenager stop the flow of blood from a foot injury, so he could get to a place with a phone to call her.
Dianne Rand, a retired family nurse practitioner and another Garden Center medicinal plant tour guide, says, “Yarrow is known as a heroic plant, an ally to soldiers. It’s good for everything. It’s antimicrobial.” That means it wards off infections, viruses and fungi.
She says she grows it in her garden, too.
Rand recommends people start with favorite plants or plants that offer the healing they need in their gardens. “There are so many classes around town, it’s easy to learn.”
From her days of medical practice, she knows that not every ailment needs the attention of Western medicine. “A lot of my patients had home remedies that supported them.” She adds it’s important to remember that before the advent of pharmaceuticals in the 1900s, medical doctors were also herbalists.
Herbal educator Dara Saville, who has a herbal garden in her limited urban space, offers many of those classes. She also advocates for yerba mansa, a traditional herbal plant under stress and in decline in the wild. “Yerba mansa is really in need of a reciprocal relationship.” She and her students have cultivated it in their gardens, but she also has a larger project.
To help the plant with roots that healed many people with resistant lung infections in the late 1800s, Saville has organized volunteer crews, working with the approval of the Albuquerque Open Space, to restore yerba mansa’s habitat along Tingley Drive, south of Central.
It grows along the river banks in the Southwest with runners like strawberries. “I can explain medicinally how it works, by going to its ecology. Yerba mansa aerates the soil and helps move water in a boggy, slow-moving environment. Yerba mansa does for your body, what it does for the bosque.”
“Plants and wilderness have so much to teach us, if only we make the time to slow down, sit and perceive what is around us with more mindful awareness,” she says. “It leads us to a place of being with plants in which we realize that all life is interconnected and we become the medicine that we seek.”