By Thea Summer Deer
I must confess. I am having a love affair with the American Southwest. Granted, I lived there for practically a decade and go back almost every year to visit, but sometimes it feels like being torn between two lovers. In the Southeast my love is for the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains where I live and it is rooted in personal history and medicinal plant life diversity. The Southwest on the other hand is the new frontier where fragile and powerful medicinal plants have adapted to the harshest of extremes. They grow protected within the arms of desert canyons, surrounded by cathedrals of stone and mountain ranges with names like, Sangre de Cristo, that reflect what is sacred and holy. One place is yin, cool, moist, and holding. The other is yang, hot, dry and expansive. Migrating between the two seems to be one of the ways I restore personal balance.
So it is that I return to the Southwest year after year in order to satisfy my longing for a greater sense of space and light, the smell of roasting chili peppers and piñon pine, Native culture and a landscape sacred and sublime. It has become my ritual on this yearly pilgrimage to find and name one new plant with whom to spend the year communing.
This past year it was Grindelia squarrosa, or more affectionately, Curlycup Gumweed. A small, aromatic plant in the Asteraceae family, Grindelia is known for its copious amount of milky white resin found on the immature flower heads. When I first started wildcrafting this herb I found its resinous sticky latex to be quite sexy, but it serves as protection against herbivores, not for procreation. The medicinal properties of this plant also seem to reside in the resin that it exudes, a resin that may replace pine resin in some applications. A patent has even been issued for a freeze resistant latex prepared from Grindelia extract that is added to latex paint. Grindelia contains a storehouse of chemicals, including resins, diterpenes (grindelic and tannic acid), flavonoids, volatile oils and the alkaloid grindeline, which may be responsible for its bitter principle. It has a balsamic (pine) odor and bitter taste.
I was introduced to Grindelia on a plant identification walk in Taos, New Mexico led by Dr. Rob Hawley, co-founder of Taos Herb Company* and a student of Michael Moore. Officially recognized in the United States Pharmacopoeia in the late 1800’s it was Michael Moore, the “godfather” of American herbalism who rescued it from obscurity. The flowers are yellow and small, about 1 inch in diameter with distinctive curved bracts around the base of the flower head. It is a biennial or short-lived perennial that blooms from June through September and propagates itself through oblong, cream colored seeds. There are some 50 species; camporum and robusta to name a few, and all are native to Western North America and highly drought resistant. Robusta most closely resembles squarrosa. Grindelia can be found in pastures, rangelands and in disturbed or waste areas.
Native Americans used this plant as a remedy for poison ivy, poison oak and a host of other ailments. Early American settlers used it for whooping cough, pneumonia, bronchitis, asthma and colds. It has been described as sedative, tonic, antispasmodic and stimulating expectorant. Medicine is made in the form of tinctures or infusions from the leaves and flowering tops, which are collected when the plant is in full bloom and can be used fresh or dried.
Today, Grindelia is considered to be valuable in dealing with cases of bronchial asthma due to its anti-spasmodic and expectorant action. It acts to relax smooth muscles including the heart muscle which may explain its use in the treatment of asthmatic and bronchial conditions, especially when associated with rapid heartbeat and nervous response. It also slows and regulates the pulse through its sedative action and may reduce blood pressure. The internal use is of particular interest and value to me because I have a granddaughter who suffers with asthma. It is no accident that the spirit of Grindelia called for me to come closer so I could get to know her better, or that my friend Toni Leigh*, owner of Desert Blends of Taos, would send me home with a Grindelia tincture she had wildcrafted and made herself. If we learn to listen we will be called, and if we come when we are called we will be gifted for the gifts of nature are infinitely abundant.
Grindelia can be easily taken as an infusion by pouring 1 cup of boiling water over 1 teaspoon of the herb, steep for 15 minutes, strain and drink 3x a day. In the form of a tincture (1:5 with 80% alcohol) take 1.5-3 ml (20-40 drops) up to 3x a day.
*Taos Herb Company carries wildcrafted Grindelia, and Toni Leigh’s products have been personally tested by me and are of the highest quality.
Medical Herbalism: The Science and Practice of Herbal Medicine, by David Hoffmann
Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West, by Michael Moore