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The Painted Desert: A Southwestern Ethnobotanical Perspective

The Arizona Ethnobotanical Research Association Celebrates 25 Years of Plant Documentation in the Little Colorado River Basin

By Jessa Faith Fisher and Phyllis Hogan

The pink and yellow blooms of spiny milkwort, Polygala subspinosa, at Crack-in-Rock Ruin, Wupatki National Monument. Photo ©2008 AERA.

Two integral threads in the web of life on this planet are increasingly threatened: (1) native plants and (2) the ancient indigenous wisdom and ritual surrounding their use. One place in the United States where native plant traditions are still alive is in northern Arizona, where many indigenous tribes still use plants that their elders have used for generations before them. An organization supporting this continued tradition and movement back to the land is the Arizona Ethnobotanical Research Association (AERA).

The AERA is a nonprofit, tax-exempt under code 501(c)(3), bioregional organization established in 1983 to promote environmental education and ethnobotanical awareness in the southwestern United States. The AERA mission is to investigate, document, and promote the use of traditionally utilized plants of the Southwest and to aid in preserving this knowledge for future generations.

Phyllis Hogan, a Southwestern herbalist, co-founded the AERA in 1983 with Navajo traditional herbalist Hastiin Sam B. Boone Sr. Other charter members include noted southwestern herbalist, author, and educator Michael Moore and rare plant botanist Jill Dedera. Hogan initiated the founding of the AERA in response to requests by indigenous herbalists and healers to assist them in preserving the beneficial plants of the region, their habitats, and their uses.

The turquoise-blue waters of the Little Colorado River (LCR) at the sacred confluence of the Colorado River and the LCR.  Photo ©2008 Billy Gobus.

The AERA was and still is completely respectful of the wishes of these tribal elders, documenting only what they care to disclose. AERA representatives never go into a community uninvited and always with deference and an aim to assist in whatever way possible. They place their emphasis simply on helping indigenous elders pass on their oral traditions to their youth, without focus on developing natural products from these herbs for the wider consumer. Working with this oral history is what makes the AERA dynamic and so necessary in this time of global transition. Forging the wisdom of traditional native knowledge with contemporary scientific methods ensures a strong interdisciplinary palate with which to face the unknown future.

The AERA is based in Flagstaff, Arizona, a small mountain city surrounded by National Park and National Forest areas. To the north and extending into the two adjoining states of Utah and New Mexico is the Navajo Reservation, the largest in the country.1 Other reservations in the area include the Hopi, Havasupai, Hualapai, Kaibab-Paiute, and Yavapai-Apache—tribes whose territory formerly covered all of northern Arizona and beyond. Flagstaff and the surrounding area is a hotspot for tribal activism and environmental justice, with many groups campaigning currently against coal mining, ground water drilling, salt mining, and desecration of sacred sites on and around their reservations.

A sun dial, one of the many petroglyph carved in sandstone at Wupatki National monument. Photo ©2008  Billy Gobus.

One such group is Just Transition Coalition, a partnership of indigenous groups and nonprofit organizations working together to transition from non-renewable resource extraction, which is harmful to both humans and the land, to renewable energy sources such as solar and wind energy. Another influential group active with tribes all over the Southwest is the Tucson-based Native Seeds/SEARCH (Southwestern Endangered Aridland Resources Clearing House). Hogan served on the board of directors for this nonprofit organization for 12 years. Ethnobotanist and prolific author Gary Paul Nabhan, PhD, plant ecologist Karen Reichhardt, archaeologist Barney Burns, PhD, and community gardener Mahina Drees founded Native Seeds/SEARCH in 1983, the same year as the founding of the AERA. Their mission is to protect and promote the agricultural diversity of the Southwest, and they do so by maintaining a seed bank, educating the community about the importance of crop diversity, and distributing seeds to native tribes.

There are 21 federally recognized tribes in Arizona, and the AERA has worked with different communities and their attendant plants from all over the state. Their main area of interest is the dynamic ecosystem centered on and around the Little Colorado River (LCR) basin, where people have lived for millennia and many of the AERA focal plant species grow.

Desert Rue, Thamnosma texana, blooming in the Verde Valley during March. Photo © 2008 Max Licher.

Landscape of the Colorado Plateau

The LCR watershed is one of the most sacred and revered watersheds in the country. Within the LCR basin lies the majestic Painted Desert. The Painted Desert is a brilliantly colored plateau and badland region extending 200 miles along the LCR in north-central Arizona. The desert received its name from early Spanish explorers, who called it El Desierto Pintado, because of the brilliant colors of the clays and soils.2 It is an extraordinary land of mesas, buttes, and valleys formed by ages of wind and water erosion. The pastel colors seem to change from blue, amethyst, and yellow to russet, lilac, and red. The Painted Desert is particularly beautiful at sunrise and sunset, when the colors are most brilliant and the shadows are deepest. The bright reds and yellows of the desert come from iron oxides in the soils, whereas hematite is responsible for reds and limonite for yellows.3

The LCR begins its course on Mt. Baldy near the town of Greer, in the White Mountains of Arizona. It flows 350 miles through six vegetative zones. The LCR watershed is the second largest watershed in Arizona, encompassing 27,000 square miles in Arizona and New Mexico. Almost half (48%) of the LCR basin belongs to Native American Nations.4

The LCR is a major tributary to the Colorado River. Near the confluence of these mighty watercourses is the Sipapu—the emergence place of the ancestral Hopi and home of their mysterious deity, creator of humans, Grandmother Spider Woman, Kóokyang’ wuuti.5 A cultural crossroads of immense importance to both Hopi and Navajo, the confluence of the LCR and the Colorado River in the heart of the Grand Canyon is one of the most revered places of which the elders speak. It is a homeland where myths and legends were born.

Navajo medicine man Hostiin Sam Boone Sr. shown in 1982, the year the Arizona Ethnobotanical Research Association (AERA) was founded. Photo ©2008 John Aber.

Along the LCR corridor, there are more than 4,000 archaeological sites and a network of Pre-Columbian trails that link the modern-day town of Zuni in New Mexico with the 12 Hopi villages of Black Mesa in Arizona.4 Upon entering this sacred region, one finds a world that embodies all the mystery and grandeur of the distant past. Like images from a dream, petroglyphs emerge out of the desert pavement, connecting modern people to the ancestors whose wisdom is still echoed in the ancient healing songs and poetic prayers that remind us of our place in the universe.

Modern-Day Research with the AERA

The unique plants growing in the Painted Desert region, along with the rich cultural traditions of tribes in northern Arizona, attracted many researchers, archaeologists, and botanists to the area around the turn of the 20th century. Several botanical and ethnobotanical studies were carried out between 1880 and 1950, when Europeans first established large settlements in the area. Many studies of the Navajo and Hopi were published, including works by Washington Matthews,6,7 Berard Haile,8,9 Jesse Walter Fewkes,10 Francis H. Elmore,11 and Alfred Frank Whiting.12

The AERA today continues this rich tradition of researching and documenting the ethnobotanical uses of plants in the southwest. In the 21st century, the AERA has turned this into an integrated endeavor by having native students carry out the cultural and botanical research that was started by European settlers. In this way, the traditions are kept alive and accessible for the youth to take their applied knowledge back to the tribes and to continue teaching others the wisdom of their elders.

The dried foliage and roots with tufted root hairs of buffalo fir, Acourtia wrightii. Photo ©2008 John Aber.

This is done through mentorships offered to indigenous students interested in applied ethnoecology. The attention is focused on the youth, for the AERA believes if a positive planetary transformation can occur, it will happen by sharing traditional values with future generations. The most recent activity for furthering this aspect of the AERA was the Little Colorado River Basin Field Institute. Hogan, Dedera, other consultants, and many native elders including traditional healers and herbalists, co-taught the Institute.13 Six indigenous youth were handpicked for this project because of their outstanding interest in sustainable environments, as well as their desire to preserve traditional plant knowledge in their own communities. The yearlong learning experience interspersed 12 field trips to local culturally significant sites with nighttime classroom sessions.

The AERA’s main repository for indigenous plant knowledge is its herbarium, which is the only ethnobotanical collection of its kind in the Southwest. This compilation of pressed, specially preserved plants contains voucher specimens with ethnobotanical knowledge that will be usable for centuries. The over 2,000 specimens databased by the AERA represent the rare and common plants of the LCR basin region. Many plant uses have been recorded in several special ethnobotanical sub-collections. Sam

B. Boone Sr. and Hogan made many collections from around the Southwest in the 1980s. John Yazzie, a Navajo healer from Sand Springs, made a collection of plants growing around his high-desert homestead, focusing on the wild native plants that accompany cultivated plants as important food sources. William Waddell, a current practicing ethnobotanist and teacher, donated his Northern Arizona University (NAU) thesis collection on ethnobotanical plants of the Northeastern Yavapai, a tribe from north-central Arizona.14 Janneli Miller, PhD, midwife and medical anthropologist, a professor in the Anthropology Department at NAU, Flagstaff, Arizona, contributed her collection of plants used by the Tarahumara in the Sierra Madre of northern Mexico.15

The AERA is currently compiling an annotated guide to the herbarium. Once the historic collection is in good working condition, it will serve as a teaching herbarium, playing a vital role in educating indigenous youth about the importance of native plant uses for food, medicine, crafts, ceremonies, and all aspects of rapidly disappearing traditional living.

The Rare and Special Plants of the Little Colorado River Basin

Probably the most important plant to Puebloan tribes like the Hopi is corn (Zea mays, Poaceae). This food staple factors highly in artwork, ceremony, prayer, and legend. Next in importance to cultivated crops like corn, beans, and squashes are wild plants, some of which grow in conjunction with food crops as weeds, and some of which are harvested in the wild. Desert plants of the Southwest have extensive uses by many tribes and have been incorporated into the modern materia medica of the whole continent. Plants such as osha (Ligusticum porteri, Apiaceae), jojoba (Simmondsia chinensis, Simmondsiaceae), and chaparral (Larrea tridentata, Zygophyllaceae) are southwestern plants so useful that they are now popularized to some extent in the commercial herbal trade. As well, the Southwest has regional species locally substituted for more popular species in the trade, such as Oregon grape root (Mahonia aquifolium, Berberidaceae; the local species being

M. fremontii), valerian (Valeriana officinalis, Valerianaceae; the local species being V. arizonica), and St. Johns wort (Hypericum perforatum, Clusiaceae; the local species being H. scouleri). Many of the common plant uses for regional southwestern plants are well documented in books such as Nanise: A Navajo Herbal,16 The Ethnobotany of the Hopi,13 Medicinal Plants of the Desert West,17 Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West,18 and more recently Herbal Medicine of the American Southwest.19 These common plants are the heart of the AERA herbarium collection, because they represent the daily medicinal, edible, and utilitarian uses of plants by so many tribes and settlers to the area.

If the common plants are the heart of the AERA collection, the rare plants are the soul. The AERA is particularly fond of some special plants, many of which are endemic to the southwest or even certain regions. These plants were never used or known by all members of a tribe, but were specialty plants for ceremonial and specific medicinal needs, utilized only by medicine men and women. Because of their rarity and limited distributions, most practitioners no longer use these esoteric plants. Many of these plants are often found today growing in association with archaeological sites. The AERA has made it a point to search out some of these rarities and document any known information about them. This documentation is especially important in the 21st century. Human caused impacts, such as development, wildfire suppression, ranching, and burning of fossil fuels, make the study of these threatened plants imperative.

Roundleaf Dunebroom, Errazurizia rotundata

Roundleaf dunebroom (Errazurizia rotundata, Fabaceae) is a rare plant known from only a handful of populations, all occurring in either Navajo or Coconino counties in northern Arizona. Some Navajo medicine men call this plant “prairie dog smoke.” A prostrate shrub, it can be up to 30 cm tall, forming clonal rings that grow preferentially on raised hummocks where its roots help hold in the bare soil. It is found in areas where red sandstone and gypsum soils are covered with desert pavement, which is a scattering of rough and rounded pebbles on the soil floor.20

The plant is very inconspicuous, appearing dead until the spring rains, when the pinnately compound leaves unfurl in a fern-like manner, diminishing in size towards the rachis tip. The stems and lower surface of the leaves are covered with fragrant, colorful glands producing a strong lemon scent. The apetalous flowers also feature scent glands on their bracts.21,22

Roundleaf dunebroom is a distinct member of its genus because its flowers are apetalous (no petals) or only a banner is present, and this has lead to a lot of confusion about its classification. The other 3 species of the genus all have 5 petals. Errazurizia is discontinuously distributed over deserts of North and South America. Two species, E. megacarpa and E. benthami, occur in the Sonoran Desert between the Gulf of California and Pacific Baja California;23 E. multifoliolata occurs in the Atacama Desert of Chile.23

A distribution mapping study of the local species, in conjunction with the AERA and NAU, was completed in 2004. Various land management agencies list the plant as sensitive, salvage-restricted and/or endangered, and it is only found in a few areas featuring the specific soil combination the plant prefers. Unfortunately, cattle graze many of these sites, which are found in drought areas affected by off-road vehicle use, and threatened by potential water well drilling.

There is no known literature about the ethnobotanical uses of roundleaf dunebroom. This may be due to the rarity of the plant and the antiquity of its uses. An elderly Navajo herbalist brought the enigmatic plant to the attention of Hogan in the early 1980s because he wanted to pass on the plant use to other herbalists. He mentioned that the plant was very rare, and only a few people knew about its uses or even existence. The AERA was the first entity to document a use for this plant when they were told that Navajo herbalists include the fragrant leaves in a rare ceremonial smoking mix.

Encouraged by this information, Hogan wondered if there were Hopi uses for the plant. Two elderly Hopis who both knew of roundleaf dunebroom said no one had found it in a while and the plant had gone out of use. It was traditionally burned as a fumigant for purification and taken internally in a now extinct ceremony, but the informants never knew where it grew and only recognized the plant because of its distinct fragrance.

Researching uses of roundleaf dunebroom remains an ongoing investigation for AERA. In another partnership with NAU, AERA will look to see if a lost population remains to be rediscovered at the Petrified Forest National Park, Wupatki National Monument, or Homolovi Ruins State Park near Winslow, Arizona. Homol’ovi is an ancestral Puebloan ruin prominent in Hopi mythology.24 Several studies there have revealed an extensive history of lithics, ceramics, and plant uses dating back 2000 years.25,26 Hopi elders have mentioned the plant growing in the area in the past, but no modern populations of this elusive plant have been found as yet.

Another unanswered question is if indigenous tribes have utilized other species in the Errazurizia genera. Hogan has been in contact with Teodora Cuero, the traditional chief and midwife of the Kumeyaay tribe in Baja California. As of yet, no Kumeyaay or Paipai uses of Errazurizia have been revealed, though more investigation is warranted.

Spiny Milkwort, Polygala subspinosa

The Polygalaceae, or Milkwort Family, is only represented by a few genera in Arizona. One genera, where the family gets its namesake, is Polygala. In Greek this means “much milk,” in reference to it being a galactagogue, an agent that stimulates mother’s milk production.27 This genera contains herbs or small shrubs with entire leaves and flowers with 3 petals, the lower one clawed, which are situated in narrow, terminal racemes. The local Colorado Plateau species is spiny milkwort (Polygala subspinosa, Polygalaceae). The common name comes from its branches that end in a spiny tip. It blooms in June and July and in Arizona is found only in northern Navajo and Mohave counties at 5000 to 6500 feet in elevation. It lives under other shrubs and is rather unnoticeable unless flowering.22

One mission of the Little Colorado River Basin (LCRB) Field Institute was to teach students how to search for rare and sensitive species. One of the many sites of interest to the field school was Wupatki National Monument, located in the cinder volcanic hills 40 miles north of Flagstaff towards the Hopi and Navajo Reservations. The AERA had first found spiny milkwort at Wupatki in 1999, noting a new Coconino county and National Park Service Monument record for the shy little plant. In April of 2005, the LCRB Field Institute went to Crack-In-Rock Ruin at Wupatki, just one of many well preserved pueblos at the site, and surprisingly found the rare plant growing in a new area of the monument. The field team recorded data on the plant’s habitat and size of the population. The 2005 sighting confirmed that spiny milkwort is hanging on to its specialized niche.

The uses of P. subspinosa might have been lost through time, due to its small distribution and 20th century cultural shifts. Navajo uses are not documented. Alfred Whiting, the eminent Hopi ethnobotanist, found the plant growing on Third Mesa on the Hopi Reservation in 1967, only noting that the plant was “an extremely rare species that seems to be very important to the Hopi, but just why and how it’s important, I just don’t know.”28 Theodora Homewytewa, a Hopi medicine woman, noted the roots of the plant were used as a blood purifier, but that it was an old Hopi medicinal which few people know about now.

Other species of Polygala throughout the United States and the world are used medicinally for a broad range of ailments including snakebites, coughs, and insufficient milk production. The most well known species in indigenous and western herbal use is Seneca snake root (P. senega), native to the eastern United States and Canada.29

Peebles’ bluestar, Amsonia peeblesii

Another rare plant of ethnobotanical note in the Painted Desert region is Peebles’ bluestar (Amsonia peeblesii, Apocynaceae), an Arizona endemic. This herbaceous perennial has branched stems 40 to 90 cm long. Numerous oblong-linear to linear leaves grow alternately along the stems. Panicles of small white to light blue trumpet-shaped flowers appear in spring at the ends of the branches.22,30 The plant grows primarily in shrublands and grasslands in the LCR basin. The stunning plant makes an appearance every year for those who visit Wukoki ruin at Wupatki National Monument in the cinder volcanic hills 40 miles south of Flagstaff. It was first documented at Crack-In-Rock ruin at Wupatki in 1999.31

A closely related species, Jones’ bluestar (A. jonesii), has a more extensive range, reaching to Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico, the four corner states.32 In the early 1980s, several Navajo herbalists visited Hogan at her herb store, Winter Sun Trading Company, asking for aze-do-clish, “blue root medicine,” which Hogan later learned was Jones’ bluestar. In 1981, Sam B. Boone Sr. brought Hogan a specimen of Peebles’ bluestar and explained that the plant is known to some of the Western Dine as “turkey corn.” It became clear that both Peebles’ blue-star and Jones’ bluestar were important medicinal plants to the Navajo and were sometimes used interchangeably. Boone Sr. said the leaves and roots of the plants are used in the Lifeway Medicine ceremony, one of the many Navajo healing ceremonies involving herbs, chanting, and ritual objects. Peebles’ bluestar has also been used for skin irritations caused by chicken pox or measles. Jones’ bluestar, the true “blue root medicine,” is used as an eyewash.13

In 2003, Sharlot Hart, an undergraduate student at the University of Arizona, worked with the AERA interviewing herbalists and traditional elders of the Navajo Nation about their knowledge of Peebles’ bluestar. She found many conflicting reports on its uses, both herbal and ceremonial. This could be for several reasons, which expose the difficulty in translating traditional plant uses from indigenous languages to English. Some of the subjects in the study mentioned they weren’t familiar with the plant because only certain medicine men are allowed to know uses for herbs, only obtained after years of training and learning the specific songs dedicated to individual plant species. Although not all of the information was consistent, all of the informants in the study had some knowledge of Peebles’ bluestar.33

Blue Sage, Salvia pachyphylla

Blue sage (Salvia pachyphylla, Lamiaceae) is also called thick leafed sage, rose sage, or purple sage. True to the characteristics of this famous family, purple sage is covered with glands, which exude a pleasantly pungent scent. This shrubby plant has gray obovate leaves, smaller than but similar to white sage leaves (S. apiana), which are commonly used in smudge sticks. The typically bilabiate mint family flowers on this plant are a brilliant blue, extending from purple to rose bracts, as seen flowering from July to October.22

Most populations of blue sage are found on the mountain ranges in the Mojave Desert of southern California and Nevada, and in northern Baja California, Mexico. A smaller disjunct group occurs in eastern Arizona near the southern edge of Navajo and Hopi reservation lands near Winslow, and also in the Petrified Forest National Park, as well as Apache, Navajo, and Coconino counties. The plant prefers dry rocky slopes in open pinyon-juniper forests.34

Blue sage has been used in the past and is presently used by the Hopi, Navajo, Northern Pauite, and Kawaiisu tribes as a ceremonial tobacco and medicine. Theodora Homewytewa, a Hopi medicine woman, says that Hopis make a tea from the leaf, which they drink for menstrual depression and hysteria.

Buffalo Fir, Acourtia wrightii

Acourtia wrightii (Asteraceae) has the descriptive Navajo common name of buffalo fir, referring to the color and soft feel of the tufted hairs at the base of the stems. This shrubby perennial is a true southwest beauty, ranging from Nevada and Utah southeast to Texas. It has several stems with alternate, toothed leaves. The bright pink flowers on buffalo fir are clustered into paniculate heads at the end of the branches.22,35

While this flower is not federally or state listed, it is not considered common. It grows in the Verde Valley of northern Arizona at elevations of 6000 feet or less, preferring to live in canyons or on foothills, where it can gather up any extra water. The tuft of wool might be a water saving adaptation.

Indigenous tribes all over Arizona have found uses for buffalo fir, also sometimes called brownfoot. The Hualapai name for the plant is Arizona cotton or puchwam. The Hualapai, their reservation now limited to land on the rim of the Grand Canyon, use the tufted fur of the plant to stop bleeding. The Navajo, who call the plant lyani ghaa, also use the plant as an astringent. In their case, they have found the plant helpful for post partum bleeding after a woman gives birth. The Pima in central Arizona and other tribes in northern Mexico find use for this astringent plant as well.13

Desert Rue, Thamnosma texana

Desert rue, or rue of the mountains (Thamnosma texana, Rutaceae), is in the same plant family as citrus plants like orange and lemon, and common rue (Ruta graveolens). Like these plants, desert rue is covered with aromatic, viscous glands with essential oils. It is herbaceous, or sometimes woody but only at the base of the plant. Desert rue has thin, alternate leaves on its many green stems. The flowers are yellow with a purplish hue, and the fruits are capsules with two lobes, like an hourglass.22,35

Desert rue can be found growing in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas. It grows from sea level to 4,500 feet, preferring mesa slopes and open areas.22 A favorite spot for the AERA to find this plant is in the area around Montezuma Well National Monument, in the Verde Valley of Arizona. The LCR Basin Institute took a field trip here during springtime to observe and assist in a baseline study of the plant.

Theodora Homewytewa recalls collecting desert rue with her uncle in the 1970s. He and other Hopi healers used the aerial parts of the plant in a tea for infant diarrhea. Among the Navajo, Boone Sr. used the plant and a related species, turpentine broom (T. montana), for rheumatism, arthritis, and in cases of menopausal osteoporosis.13

A Southwestern Legacy Written by Plants and People

These are just some of the many special and unusual plants found only in this part of the world. They all have unique adaptations to surviving in the high desert of northern Arizona. These plants have a rich legacy of human use, which is threatened in many different ways. This time in history is like no other, when ancient ways of life co-exist with modern technology. It is a time of great flux with climate shifts, a rapidly increasing human population, and shrinking wilderness areas. All over the world, native elders who retain plant knowledge handed down from generation to generation are slowly passing on, taking their wisdom with them. Plant species with extremely narrow living requirements are fading from the planet as introduced exotics rapidly expand into disturbed areas. All of this can be disheartening when considering how one can make a difference in this rapidly changing world.

The AERA chooses to face these challenges head on with creative twists on old, trusted methodologies. The use of plants has been an instrumental and universal aspect of human survival on earth for countless centuries. It was only in the mid 1900s when petroleum-based products, laboratory-created medicines, and large scale farming were found to be economically viable substitutes for the many products that wild plants used to provide. It only makes sense to return to a more simple way of living as oil, land, and mineral resources dwindle. True to their belief that the only way to a sustainable future is by learning from the wisdom of the past, the AERA strives to keep alive the teachings of the plants and elders for the next seven generations.

Jessa Faith Fisher graduated from Northern Arizona University with a masters in environmental sciences and policy in 2005. She is currently the president of the Flagstaff chapter of the Arizona Native Plant Society and assistant herbarium curator for the AERA.

Phyllis Hogan has been a practicing herbalist for 31 years. She is the proprietor of the Winter Sun Trading Company, located in Flagstaff, Arizona, established in 1976. Winter Sun specializes in Southwest American Indian art and traditional herbs and has served as Hogan’s ethnobotanical laboratory for 31 years. In 1983 she co-founded the Arizona Ethnobotanical Research Association and has continued to work with native plants and people ever since.

The AERA can be reached for its newsletter and activities at

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