Desert Medicinal Plants

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Recently, John and I (Chrissy) were fortunate to head down to the desert to get a little bit of sunshine and heat.  We headed to one of my favorite backpacking spots in Arizona where the water is scarce and the saguaros grow tall.  I received my undergrad from Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff which is a couple hours north of our destination, so this trip brought back fond memories.

This is an area rich in history with Native Americans, miners, trappers and sheep herders (see picture above of the pottery shard I found, possibly made by the Yavapai Indians).  Though there have been many people that have passed through this area, it does not mean it is for the faint of heart.  It is a hot desert, with iffy watering holes, and where basically all the plant life is out to cut you!  That is why I find it so fascinating that natives and miners lived here until the late 1800’s!

Below are some plants that we came across that the natives used to heal themselves:

Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens):

The parts used are the bark, roots and flowers.  The natives use it in many different ways such as fatigue, swollen limbs, coughs and as a blood purifier.  I use it similarly to how Herbalist Michael Moore used it in Medicinal Plants of the Desert and Canyon West; a fresh bark tincture can be made by chopping or snipping freshly removed bark into 1/2-inch pieces. It is said to be useful for those symptoms that arise due to fluid congestion and to be absorbed from the intestines into the lymphatic system of the small intestinal lining. This is believed to stimulate better visceral lymph drainage into the thoracic duct and improve dietary fat absorption into the lymph system.


Jojoba (Simmondsia chinensis):

The large acorn-sized nuts borne only on female shrubs are bitter, but edible and are the source of the jojoba oil.  When made into an oil it is a thicker substance that actually is a liquid wax.  It helps create a barrier between you and the environment. It is often used in products to extend the shelf life of your products. I love this oil to soften the hair!


Globe Mallow (Sphaeralcea ambigua):

This plant comes from the Malvaceae (mallow family) which is why it contains abundant mucilage, with soothing properties. Externally it is used for sores, wounds and snakebites (you can’t walk out of this desert without one of these happening).  The leaf tea is great for treating coughs, colds, upset stomach and constipation (sounding familiar? Yes, you use just like marshmallow root!)

globe mallow

Cats Claw (Acacia greggii):

This plant (might I mention has ripped countless shirts of mine) is a shrub mostly found along the washes.  The natives used the sap from the branches and stems in warm water to sooth coughs and throat irritation.  It was also used externally for burns and rashes.  The ripe fruit is an important fruit.  Warning the leaves and twigs contain cyanogenic glycosides which have been responsible for cattle poisoning in the area.

cats claw

California Poppy (Eschscholiza californica):

We were lucky to see this plant blooming all over the place in the lower elevations.  This is one of my top favorite herbs to use as a sedative and to relieve anxiety.  Since it is in the same family as opium poppy it also has some pain relieving properties.  The native used this plant similarly to how we use today except they also rubbed in hair to kill lice, and used the root juice for stomach aces and sores.

california poppy

Saguaro Cactus (Cereus giganteus):

An impressive cactus that can reach up to 40 feet high! Did you know it takes about 100 years to start growing its first arm! Many of the natives used this plant as food and medicine.  Mostly the fruits and seeds were used.  The internal skeleton, when dried, were used to splint broken legs.  Note: this is an endangered plant so please don’t going cutting this down or damaging them.


Prickly Pear (Opuntia engelmannii):

This plant is spreading quickly in this area due to the large amount of cattle in the area.  The cattle tend to kill off the woodsy bushy plants and plants such as this take over.  The more recent natives in this area had seen plenty of this plant but we probably see much more of it today.  They used the stems of this plant for wounds, back aches and diarrhea.  They also peeled this plant and applied externally to sores and ate as a diuretic to promote urination.  Not sure if you have ever eaten the fruit but they are tasty!

prickly pear

Banana Yucca (Yucca baccata):

This plant was a very important food and fiber plant for the Native Americans.  The leaf was used to treat vomiting and heartburn.  Crushed root poultice can be applied on the chest for sunstroke.  Due to its anti-inflammatory properties it is popular for arthritic conditions.  Please note: the root contains saponins which can potentially be toxic.


Desert Agave/Century Plant (Agave deserti):

The leaves, flower buds and central crowns of the Agave was one of the most important foods to the natives.  The juice was used as a laxative, diuretic and to relieve menstrual difficulties.  A tincture of the fresh leaf has been used to relieve indigestion and a tincture of the root is used as a antispasmodic for gastric cramps.  Note: fresh juice can cause dermatitis.


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Showing 4 comments
  • Humaid

    Thank you very much for the information, great efforts and good work! Wish you all the best 🙂

  • Bj

    Greatly appreciate info on Native Plants; how they function and are used. Keep Up the good work to bring awareness, enlightened; inform; educated. We all need this knowledge. Thanks.

  • Lina

    Thank you for taking your time to educate us and give your insight. It is greatly appreciated.

  • a

    You can also eat ocotillo leaves, but they kind of taste like lettuce with pepper on it.

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