Medicinal Plants Found in the Deserts

Plants contain a variety of chemical compounds

by Damian Fagan

I'm always amazed to see herbal products on my local grocery shelves that contain ingredients from medicinal plants growing right here in the Southwest. I marvel at the trial-and-error process that generations of humans have gone through to learn which plants to use to treat particular ailments. Some cultures, the Greek and Chinese, for example, have relied on written records to pass down what they learned about medicinal plants. Other cultures, for instance, Southwest or Amazonian Indian tribes, with no written languages, depended on oral histories to convey information about the plants through the centuries.

In the 1700s your physician might be trained, not only in anatomy and medical science, but also in botany. As part of his practice, he would identify and collect plants from the local area to make into a treatment for your ailment. Fortunately, much of this information, collected over thousands of years from many different cultures, has been retained, both in print and in oral histories. There are numerous herbalists, doctors, healers, nutritionists, botanists and home gardeners who are trained to utilize the healing power of plants. In modern Western medicine, doctors tend to use synthetic versions of natural plant compounds, but in underdeveloped countries, an estimated 75 to 80 percent of the population still receives medical treatment through traditional herbal remedies. The plants might be grown in local gardens, harvested from the wild, or acquired from commercial suppliers.

Chemicals, Chemicals

Plants contain a variety of chemical compounds that may benefit the host plant. These compounds may protect the plant from herbivores, attract pollinators or prevent competitive germination within a plant’s growing space. Several of the more than 5,000 identified alkaloids – organic compounds that have alkaline properties – that are found in angiosperm (flowering plants) plant families include caffeine, nicotine, morphine and quinine. In contrast, glycosides, chemical compounds with one or more sugar molecules, are found in plants like ginseng, almonds and foxglove.

There are numerous ways in which these and other plants are prepared for use. For example, roots, stems, leaves, flowers and berries may be used in their natural form or processed into capsules, powders, extracts, tinctures, creams or oil products. The treatment of injuries or illnesses with these products, is nothing to sneeze at—it is a $1.5 billion annual industry, a number that is probably underestimated.

A Word of Caution

Plants do not bear warning labels. Some, like sacred datura, contain alkaloids that are strong and dangerous mind-altering narcotics. Others, like poison ivy, can cause painful skin reactions or life-threatening respiratory conditions from inhaled smoke. Even dried herbs found in a health food store can cause permanent illness or death if used improperly. Caution and research are essential. There are numerous books, websites, journals, herbalists and teachers ready to provide information about the uses and medicinal benefits of certain plants. When in doubt, seek professional advice. Your life may depend on it.

Southwestern Plants

Here are just a few of the many native Southwest plants that have medicinal qualities.

Pleurisy-root or Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa)

A member of the milkweed family (Ascplediaceae), pleurisy-root grows in well-drained soils in prairie fields or canyon bottoms. Its gorgeous orange clusters of flowers attract numerous insects, particularly butterflies, that can negotiate the insect-trapping characteristics of the flowers and access the plant’s nectar reserves. The dried roots of the plant are added to teas to treat lung ailments (pleurisy) or winter illnesses. The genus name Asclepias honors Asklepios, a Greek herbalist and physician who boasted that he could raise the dead. Hades, the god of the dead, took exception to the braggart. He had Zeus torch Asklepios with a lightning bolt. Because of his medical prowess, the gods put Asklepios up in the night sky, making him, in effect, a constellation for permanent house calls. Even today, in the medical world, Asklepios’ signature serpent-entwined staff is still the emblem representative of the medical profession.


Wild Licorice (Glycyrrhiza lepidota)

A member of the pea family (known as Leguminosae or Fabaceae), wild licorice grows in small, dense stands in fields or disturbed areas. The roots are ground up and added to teas as a support for the immune system. Commercially, licorice is used in lozenges, teas and syrups. These large plants (up to four feet tall) bear tight clusters of whitish-colored (sometimes greenish-white) pea flowers. The one-half inch long seedpods are covered with hooked spines and contain small black seeds. The seedpods may remain on the plant through the winter. Glycyrrhiza is derived from Greek words meaning "sweet root," a reference to the slightly sweet taste of the root. Lepidota means "scaly," a reference to the brown spots on the leaves.

Wild Licorice

Mormon Tea (Ephedra viridis)

Mormon tea derives its name from the Mormon settlers who collected its stems to brew a bitter herbal tea, which is still used to heal urinary tract infections, respiratory illness, colds and nasal congestion. Related to Chinese ephedra, from which ephedrine is commercially extracted, our Mormon tea contains low levels of pseudoephedrine, related to ephedrine, (hence the genus Ephedra). Mormon tea is a gymnosperm (a nonflowering plant), and produces small cones that the casual observer might mistake for flowers. The plant has tiny, scale-like leaves found where the short stems join.

Gumweed (Grindelia fastigiata)

Gumweed is a member of the sunflower family (Asteraceae). The plants contain grindelia, a medicinal spasmodic compound used to stimulate mucous membranes in the treatment of asthma or chronic bronchitis. The floral heads may be eaten whole, popped in the mouth like a menthol lozenge. If you feel the sticky floral heads of gumweed, you’ll understand the name. It grows in sandy soils, disturbed areas and along stream banks. The genus is named for David Grindel (1776 to 1836), a Latvian professor. Gumweed blooms in the later part of summer. There are several different species, some with the sunflower family’s strap-like ray flowers, others without them.



There is a cornucopia of wild plants that may be converted, not only into medicinal products, but also into foods, spices, soaps, insecticides or industrial products. This botanical gold mine has barely been tapped, but more and more companies are exploring the plant kingdom for additional medicinal and chemical products. Unfortunately, at the same time, vast tracts of wild plant communities are being systematically destroyed, especially in the tropics, where the next cure for cancer may lie. The old phrase, "better living through modern chemistry," might certainly apply, if we can only learn to treasure the raw materials that nature provides.


More plants of the Deserts


Prickly Pear Cactus

There has been medical interest in the prickly pear plant. Some studies have shown that the pectin contained in the prickly pear pulp lowers levels of "bad" cholesterol while leaving "good" cholesterol levels unchanged. Another study found that the fibrous pectin in the fruit may lowers diabetics' need for insulin. Both fruits and pads of the prickly pear cactus are rich in slowly absorbed soluble fibers that help keep blood sugar stable. These are ongoing studies, and at this point there are no proven results on humans. You can make your own study and see if works for you, which is the only test that really counts. More...


Mesquite Tree

Medical studies of mesquite and other desert foods, have said that despite its sweetness, mesquite flour (made by grinding whole mesquite pods) "is extremely effective in controlling blood sugar levels" in people with diabetes. The sweetness comes from fructose, which the body can process without insulin. In addition, soluble fibers, such as galactomannin gum in the seeds and pods, slow absorption of nutrients, resulting in a flattened blood sugar curve, unlike the peaks that follow consumption of wheat flour, corn meal and other common staples.

"The gel-forming fiber allows foods to be slowly digested and absorbed over a four- to six-hour period, rather than in one or two hours, which produces a rapid rise in blood sugar."

Mesquite Meal


Indian Uses of Desert Plants



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