The image of Texas held by many unfamiliar with the state is that of rocks, and cactus, and snakes all laid out on a landscape as flat as an ironing board. While that notion may apply to a part of Texas, residents of the Lone Star State all know how native it really is, and we seldom pass up the opportunity to set the record straight.
A few Texans, the lucky ones, live in the heart of the state. Once this piece of land was known as La Lomerta, or the Hill Country, and it is the most geographically diverse region in Texas.
Every spring, due to the extraordinary abundance of wildflowers we are host to thousands of visitors from all sections of the state and beyond. Some 170 miles across, the Llano Uplift can be traversed in an hour and a half, but this time of year thats nearly impossible unless youre immune to beauty.
The abundance of minerals in the soil is responsible for the thick stands of wildflowers along the roadsides and covering fields throughout the area. The Bluebonnets, Indian Paintbrush, Indian Blanket, Phlox, Evening Primrose, Prickly Poppy, Mexican Hat, Verbena, Spiderwort and Texas Star are but a few of the hundreds of wildflowers that adorn the landscape this time of year.
Although these plants bloom in profusion, most of us are hard-pressed to name but a handful, and sometimes theres a good deal of argument over their common names. The Indian Blanket some say is the Firewheel, and both are right, although the Indian Blanket is the most common name. The Bluebonnet was once referred to as Buffalo Clover but no one calls it that today. Exactly how a given plant comes by its common name is anyones guess, but at some point early-on a name sticks and thats that.
Many of the wild plants are foreigners. Little more than a third of the plants nationwide, are native to America. The Mayflower brought its share. Most of the settlers of the New World carried with them a wide variety of plants for nutritional, medicinal and ornamental purposes. Also, tons of seed-laden dirt served as ballasts for ships and was then routinely dumped overboard upon reaching port. Those seeds, like the immigrants that came with them, took root, propagated, and spread themselves across the vast North American Landscape.
Information regarding plants and their uses was exchanged between the immigrants and the Indians. That exchange affected the course of history on several continents. Irelands dependence on an American import - the potato - eventually resulted in the famous Potato Famine. Use of the Indians tobacco spread quickly throughout European society as did the use of corn, pumpkins and squash. After the first century on contact of 50 dietary staples found their way from the New World to the Old. The exchange was inordinately on-way, and the Indians were often left with unfamiliar diseases for which they had yet to discover a cure.
The Indians viewed illness as an imbalance between ones self and nature. Their extensive use of native plants for medical purposes was not intended to cure an illness so much as it was to restore the balance between themselves and the natural world. In a fundamental sense even medicinal plants were regarded as food. In fact, many plants which they consumed on a regular basis had medicinal as well as nutritional properties.
Many Cures became a part of the body of Indian folk medicine. Their results stood the test, time and again; the details passed from generation to generation. Today, some of those cures, after stringent laboratory tests, have been added to the pharmacopeia of modern science.
I first learned some of the Indian uses of native plants from my grandmother, Rosa Daniels. And Grandma Rosa learned what she knew from her full-blood Cherokee mother, Sarah Jane Kelly. I was late in learning that Grandma Rosa taught me more than a list of used for a specific plant. I found that a proper understanding of her knowledge gradually altered my relationship to nature, and through that, my view of the world.
Like many other people, I saw in nature a weed-ridden landscape, wild and unproductive. "Some people look out there," she once told me, "and all they see is weed, weed, and more weeds. Well, Theres hundreds of different plants right out there. The thing is to stop seeing the green and see each plant and each part of each plant. Learn where they grow and when.
"Seeds, leaves, bark and roots - they all have their uses. I dont suppose there a thing on Gods earth that isnt good for something.
"Back in the Depression we lived more off the land then we cared to, but we werent hungry and we never had to stand in line like them folks back east just to get a bite to eat.
"My mama taught me all about such things. When I was a little bit of a girl, she would take me out gatherin plants. If it hadnt been for her we might of starved, but she knew the Indian ways and could make do without much store-bought goods. And she had a cure for everything.
"I never say a doctor till I was a young woman. Werent none around. Of course we had our ways, like gatherin wild sage for tea to cure for sore throat, or peach leaf tea for upset stomach - such as that. My mama was Cherokee and knew ever plant by name, and all their parts, and what they were good for. She taught me like her mama did her. Of course I dont know so much anymore."
Before long I began supplementing Grandmas instruction with books on the subject. Form time to time I would show her a book to see what her comments might be.
"The prints too small, I cant read it," she said once as she passed an open book back across the table, her index finger on one of the illustrations. "Whadda they call this one?"
"Coltsfoot," I read, "a salt substitute."
"Thats right," she concurred immediately. "Does it say how its fixed?"
While I scanned the page for an answer she kept talking.
"You roll the leaves up into balls and dry them in the sun. After that you set a fire to them and use the ashes for salt. Thats the was my mama did it - the Indian way.
"My daddy used to mix it with his smoking tobacco," she continued. I put down the book and started taking notes. "Especially during hard times so his supply of tobacco would go further. Does it say that in there?"
No, it didnt.
"What you need to do is learn about prickly pear and mesquite first. Theyre everywhere you turn, so thats a good place to start.
"Prickly pear is good for burns, like aloe vera, or you can remove the thorns, cut the pads into strips and cook it like okra. Some folks like prickly pear jelly made from the red fruit. Its good but a mess to make.
"The beans of the mesquite can be ground up to make a flour for pan bread, but the last person I saw do that was my mama.
"When I was a young girl, before mama died, daddyd hitch up the team and haul us all out to the flat near the house. Back then it was all wild and itd be plumb purple with Horsemint. Well, wed pick a whole wagon load of it and be back before dark. Then hed get us kids to draw straws. The one with the shortest had to crawl under the house and spread the mint around. Then, whoever it was would come out and get watered down to rinse off the fleas. I cant count the critters that stayed under the house back then - dogs, cats, possums, coons, and what-not - but we never had what you could call a problem with fleas. We did it ever year that way."
Among the Indians, the uses of native plants were extensive. The plants were familiar friends used for food, medicine, dyes, weaving and a variety of other uses. For Example, the leaves of the buckeye were ground up and placed in pools where fish were trapped. The leaves acted as a poison, causing the fish to float to the surface where they could be easily gathered. Then the small or unwanted fish were placed in fresh water where they recovered and were returned to nature.
Heeding Grandmas advice I decided to first study the obvious plants. Naturally, it was easier and more enjoyable to identify plants when they were in bloom. However, many plants are most useful either as fresh shoots before they bloom, or after theyve dried and gone to seed. There are also some plants that are useful at every stage of growth.
Getting to know Plants the way Grandma knew them meant watching a particular field or patch year-around.
USES OF NATIVE PLANTS
The Mexican Poppy, generally referred to these days as the Prickly Poppy, is regarded as a pest by ranchers and farmers, but to earlier, nonwhite inhabitants of this region it was highly valued for its curative properties. The juice of the plant was used to cure warts, skin ulcers, heat rash, sunburn pain and a host of other uses where a mild sedative was needed.
Many of the other plants which we enjoy today for their beauty alone, were at one time dietary staples and sought-after curatives.
The stems and leaves of the Spiderwort, for example, were eaten raw. Boiled, they were added to stews and soups as were the parboiled roots of the Evening Primrose.
The Dandelion, today considered little more than a pest to lawn was, in times past, one of the most useful plants around. Once used to cure scurvy, it is high in protein, riboflavin, iron, calcium, phosphorus, niacin and vitamins A, C and B1. It is used in salads or cooked as greens. The roots have been used as a coffee substitute. The juice from the stems, like the Prickly Poppy, was used to cure warts.
Boiled Yucca root, taken internally, was used to cure joint inflammations. Its use as a soap was also popular. In fact, it is still used today as a sudsing agent by the cosmetic industry. The Yucca fruit can be used as a food source, but the taste is bland and the texture is mealy. The inner root is said to be a remedy for arthritic pain. One-fourth ounce of the inner root is boiled for 15 minutes in a pint of water and then consumed three to four times a day. And a cup of the fresh or dried root can be foiled in two cups of water. Suds will form which can be used for shampoo.
Sunflower seeds were often ground into a cereal. The early spring leaves were used as a green. A poultice made from the baked root is used for relief of rheumatism. The leaves from the Liveoak, so folk remedies tell us, can be chewed fresh or in a tea made of willow bark are astringents, useful in the treatment of diarrhea. The wild onion, identifiable Spring by its delicate pinkish-white flower was eaten raw or cooked to promote digestion; and converted to a poultice, was used for insect stings.
When gathering plants for such use as teas they should be tied in a bundle and hung upside down in a shady place to dry. Seeds should be allowed to reach maturity before harvesting. Roots can be dried or preserved in a cold cellar, or other cool dark places. Whatever the method, extremes of heat and light should be avoided.
It is interesting to note that wild plants, due to their longer growing period, are richer in vitamins and minerals than domesticated plants. And some of their seeds, such as the Bluebonnets, are still fertile after more than 50 years. A complete inventory of plants, collectively called wildflowers, and their uses is encyclopedic. The plants mentioned here represent a cursory glance at a subject that required thousands of years of trial and error to accumulate. Although some misjudge the abundance and diversity of the Texas landscape, we might as well own up to a little ignorance about the hidden harvest of greenery we wade through on our outings. Of course, the lack of knowledge is curable if we take along a book or two on the subject. Your first attempts at identifying plants may prove a little discouraging, however, as the natural colors of flowers vary as widely as color reproductions of them. But dont give up. Spring, after all, is the best time to identify and locate plants that are with us almost year-round.
A word of warning; prolonged exposure to nature is apt to alter long-held notions about such controversial topics as agriculture, progress, politics and nature in a way the spoken or written word has yet to reach. The beauty of natural plants is brief, but their usefulness spans seasons and transforms whole cultures.