Beguin: Medicine Plants on the Pajarito Plateau

Medicine Plants of the Pajarito Plateau
Los Alamos

My last column talked about five common medicinal plants found in most gardens and landscapes in the Mountain West. 

Now we will move out into our local canyons and take a look at easy-to-identify medicine plants found there.

Despite wildfire and flooding, the canyons of the Pajarito Plateau remain a verdant realm of greenery. When my soul grows weary from the lack of large trees in my neighborhood, I know that I can head into any one of the canyons and escape into a world filled with plants, shrubs and trees, and I can hear my soul breathe a sigh of relief. 

In fact, plants have long fulfilled so many facets of my being—stimulating my intellect as I key out species and review medicinal properties and methods of preparation, as well as sparking my creativity through poems, essays, and artwork.

I got hooked on identifying and collecting medicinal plants back in 1990 when a friend gave me Michael Tierra’s Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West for a birthday present. I headed out to Mitchell Trail that evening and discovered Oregano de la Sierra, Oregon Grape, Yarrow and Mullein all before I even made it to the canyon bottom. From that day on you could pretty much bet I’d be tromping through the canyons and up the slopes searching out more plants to identify and learning all I could about how to collect them, preserve them, and use them.

Thanks to the variety of topography that exists in the Jemez Mountains, an incredible variety of western plants make their homes here. From the banks of the Rio Grande, to the tops of our largest peaks, you are guaranteed to find medicinal and edible plants in our region. 

One of the greatest benefits of learning to identify and collect your own medicine is discovering how simple and satisfying it is to become familiar and develop a relationship with these plants that surround us year after year. 

While gardening, it is easy to feel an intimate attachment to our tomatoes, chard, and bean plants, and we experience a great satisfaction when we harvest and create wonderful meals thanks to our hard effort. Medicine plants don’t require our hard work for their growth (although they do require our attention when we choose to collect them in the wild), but there is a similar sense of satisfaction and joy that accompanies pulling out a jar of cough syrup during the winter, knowing exactly where it came from, and remembering the hike it took to obtain the plants used to create it.

Evening Primrose. Courtesy photo

With the unusual June moisture we’ve received, it is easy to see how opportunistic plants can be as the trails are lined with countless plants reaching upwards in their efforts to flower and spread their seeds. If you wander up any one of the canyons on the west side of town, chances are high you’ll encounter Evening Primrose (Oenothera spp.).

Evening Primrose is easy to recognize once identified, and is about 2.5 to 3 ft. tall with delicate-looking, large yellow flowers. During the early summer, Evening Primrose blooms in the evenings, and has a sort of luminescent appearance when seen from afar. The flowers remain open through the early morning, but will droop and close in the heat of the afternoons. The roots of Evening Primrose are one of the few widespread, edible root vegetables of the West. The starchy roots are turnip-like and slightly peppery. Like most non-cultivated plants, the roots are an acquired taste, but definitely an important survival food, especially given the ubiquitous nature of the plant.

Evening Primrose also produces copious amounts of seeds, that are roughly poppy-seed sized and rich in linoleic and gamma-linolenic acids. Medicinally, the flowering tops can be collected (shaken a bit to free the beetles and other insects that enjoy the spacious flowers) and prepared either fresh or dried with honey to create an cough syrup that is soothing and antispasmodic, which can be particularly helpful for the dry, spasmodic coughs that sometimes accompany our arid climate. The root can be prepared the same way. Evening Primrose is slightly diuretic, can be a gentle laxative in some individuals, and can be particularly useful in suppressing both skeletal and smooth muscle pain, especially of the reproductive organs, although its effect varies from person to person.

Yarrow. Courtesy photo

Yarrow (Achillea lanulosa, A. millefolium) is another medicinal that can be found in abundance in our area. Yarrow has fern-like, silvery-green leaves with stems topped with an umbrella-like cluster of snow-white flowers.  While Yarrow can be confused with Wild Carrot and Hemlock (get a verification from a botanist or herbalist if you are unsure), it has a distinct scent and stem formations, and once you know it, you will likely know it forever.

Yarrow is an excellent herb to maintain in your medicine cabinet, as it can be effective for a variety of different ailments. Yarrow is used as stomach tonic, stimulates sweating during fevers, brings on delayed menstruation, decreases excessive menstruation, shrinks and soothes bleeding hemorrhoids, and the fresh plant can be chewed and applied to open wounds as an immediate styptic, stopping bleeding (even huge, gaping-wound bleeding), thus its reputation as the “Warrior’s Herb,” known throughout antiquity for saving legions of wounded soldiers.

Mullein. Courtesy photo

I’ve been scouring our area for plants for over two decades, but I’ve never seen the Monster Mullein I’ve been seeing of late. I took a photo of one plant a few weeks ago that was the biggest Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) I’d ever seen. Yet, this morning, on another herb walk, I saw Mullein that are truly monstrous in size! Fondly called the “toilet paper plant,” Mullein is known for its large basal leaves, and its upright flowering stalks filled with small, yellow flowers.

The flowers are harvested in the fall, and are used to make an effective oil for ear infections (combined with garlic and olive oil). The large basal leaves can be used alone or combined with the flowers for acute respiratory illnesses, congestion, and dryness of the mucosa, coughs, hoarseness, and asthma. The flowers have also been used for nerve conditions such as neuralgia and nerve pain in the extremities, such as toes, ankles, and fingers.

These are just a few of the useful medicinal plants that grace our area during the summer months, and which provide effective medicine for the fall and winter months. Exploring the woods is a much more enjoyable way to stock the medicine cabinet than trolling through the aisles at the drugstore, and provides a whole other layer of physical and emotional satisfaction.

Kristi Beguin is a clinical herbalist, birth doula, and ecologist. She specializes in women’s and family wellness, and offers a variety of wellness classes, personal development programs, and health consultations. Visit to learn more about her individual and group programs and services.

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