by Margaret Elizabeth Johnston
We are so blessed here in San Antonio and the Hill Country to have some fabulous medicinal plants that grow wild near where we live. The Prickly Pear, Aloe, Yucca and Agave are four plants that spring to mind. These four plants are incredibly versatile and are available to anyone who cares to go searching for them. The Native Americans enjoyed the healing quality of these plants and put them to good use, and we can learn to do the same.
Most of us are familiar with the health benefits of the Aloe. You can slice open the leaves and scrape the gel off and keep it in a zip-lock bag in the fridge to use on your skin. It is an anti-irritant and emollient, and it can help with acne and scarring, chronic skin diseases, healing of wounds and of course sunburn. Aloe contains beta carotene and vitamins E and C, which help with skin elasticity and keeps skin hydrated and firm. This marvelous gel/ juice also can be ingested. It helps with arthritis, rheumatism, stomach ulcers and can help improve digestion. Perfect for beauty and health inside and out, incorporating Aloe into your daily lifestyle can be key to staying youthful and “fresh-skinned.”
The Prickly Pear is a cactus that the Mexican culture is very proficient at utilizing. It is not only a medicinal plant, including both the nopals and the pads, but can be used as a fiber. It is very helpful in Texas, as it can help to control herd grazing. It can even be beneficial for Type 2 diabetes because the consumption of the pads provides pectin, which lowers blood glucose by decreasing the absorption of sugar into the stomach and intestines.
Prickly Pear is high in dietary fiber, and it has vitamin C content of 23 percent and magnesium of 21 percent. It can even help lower your cholesterol levels and help fight viruses in your body. The prickly fruit is even a helpful remedy for obesity, alcohol hangover, colitis and diarrhea. The fruit, flowers, pads and young stems are all edible.
The Yucca is another of our beautiful desert plants. Yucca can help with arthritis and hypertension, and can help reduce blood pressure and serum cholesterol levels. It is best dried after harvesting, and the roots contain the active compound steroidal saponin. The Yucca root is popular with Native Americans. You can slice the dried root and boil it in water for tea that is anti-inflammatory, anti-rheumatic, and that acts a laxative and blood purifier. The dried root can also be pounded into a poultice and applied to skin inflammations and sores; it even helps stop bleeding.
Soapweed Yucca makes a nice lather for washing hair and body and is part of the agave family (Agavaceae). The leaf juice can be used as a poison for arrow tips and to stupefy corralled fish, making them easier to catch.
Speaking of Agave, you can eat the flowers, leaves, stalks and sap. The stalks, when roasted, taste like sugarcane. You may be familiar with agave syrup or nectar; it is a vitamin and mineral-filled sweetener, a good substitute for basic white sugar. A tincture and tea from the leaf can be beneficial for arthritic joints. Once again, Native Americans knew how to utilize this plant. The Navajo in particular would bake the stalks and pound into an edible paste, store it for winter and also squeeze juice from it to make a beverage. The sharp tips would make good sewing needles and basketry awls.
Margaret Elizabeth Johnston is a naturopathic educator and holistic practitioner. She is also a botanical illustrator and artist who enjoys painting medicinal plants in unique and interesting ways to interest people in holistic health. She will be showing some new works “Art in the Hills” in New Braunfels at the New Braunfels Art League. To learn more, including information about her consulting practice, visit www.mejcreations.com.