The southwestern region of the United States is known for its diverse landscapes, rich ecosystems, and unique flora. Within this arid and semi-arid environment, numerous medicinal plants have been traditionally used by Native American and indigenous communities for their therapeutic properties. From the desert plains to the high mountain ranges, the Southwest is home to a wide variety of plant species boasting valuable health benefits. These plants have provided remedies for ailments, skin care, and overall wellness for generations. If you’re interested in foraging for your own medicinal plants while hiking through the Southwest, here are some common medicinal plants and their uses.
Aloe vera is a succulent plant that is well-known for its numerous therapeutic and medicinal properties.
Appearance: Most aloe plants have a rosette growth, where lance-shaped leaves radiate from a central point. The leaves come in various shades of green and are typically fleshy and thick, designed to store water. Some species also have leaves with reddish or brownish tints, especially when exposed to high levels of sunlight
Where to Find it: You’ll often find species of aloe in desert terrain. Aloe plants are native to arid and semi-arid regions. They’re incredibly hardy which makes them well adapted to hot and dry climates, and their succulent nature allows them to store water in their leaves for periods of drought.
Medicinal Uses: Aloe plants are known for their gel-filled leaves, which contain a clear, viscous substance that is rich in nutrients and has various medicinal properties. This gel is commonly used to soothe skin irritations and burns, heal wounds and insect bites, moisturize hair and skin, and treat acne, eczema, and other skin conditions.
Western Blue Flax
Western Blue Flax, scientifically known as Linum lewisii, is a flowering plant native to North America, particularly the western United States and parts of Canada. It is a member of the Linaceae family and is recognized for its striking blue flowers.
Appearance: Western Blue Flax is a herbaceous perennial that typically reaches a height of about 1 to 2 feet (30 to 60 cm). It has slender stems with alternate, narrow, lance-shaped leaves that are gray-green in color, however, its most distinctive feature is its vibrant blue flowers with five petals.
Where to Find it: This plant is well-suited to various soil types, including well-drained and sandy soils, and it can be found in a variety of habitats, including open woodlands, grasslands, and meadows. It can thrive in both sunny and partially shaded locations and blooms from late spring through summer.
Medicinal Uses: Western Blue Flax has been traditionally used by some Native American tribes for its potential medicinal properties. The seeds have been consumed to soothe digestive discomfort, while poultices and salves made from seeds or leaves have been applied topically to alleviate skin irritations and wounds. Tinctures and solutions from various plant parts have been used to address respiratory discomfort and eye irritation.
Yarrow, scientifically known as Achillea millefolium, is a flowering plant that belongs to the Asteraceae family.
Appearance: Yarrow is a perennial herb with finely divided, fern-like leaves that are aromatic when crushed. The plant produces clusters of small, white, or pink flowers that form flat-topped flowerheads.
Where to Find it: Yarrow is a versatile and hardy plant that can be found growing across the continent, from Canada to Mexico. It is especially prevalent in grasslands, meadows, open woods, and along roadsides but it can also grow in rocky or sandy soils, making it well-suited for a variety of landscapes.
Medicinal Uses: Yarrow has been traditionally used in herbal medicine for its potential health benefits. It is believed to have anti-inflammatory, analgesic (pain-relieving), and antiseptic properties. Yarrow preparations, such as teas, tinctures, and poultices, have been used to address various conditions, including digestive issues, menstrual discomfort, and wounds. However, yarrow is most commonly known for its use in promoting wound healing. The plant contains compounds that may help stop bleeding and support the clotting process when applied topically.
St. Johns Wort
St. John’s wort, scientifically known as Hypericum perforatum, is a flowering plant that has been used historically for its potential medicinal properties.
Appearance: This plant can be identified by its opposite elliptical leaves covered in small translucent dots that resemble perforations when held up to the light. The plant produces bright yellow flowers with five petals and numerous dark reddish-brown stamens, typically blooming around the summer solstice while growing to a height of about 1 to 3 feet. One way to differentiate St. John’s wort from other plants is by checking for the presence of red or purple pigments and a distinct aroma when the plant is crushed.
Where to Find it: St John’s Wort can be found in open areas, meadows, and along roadsides in full sun.
Medicinal Uses: This plant is traditionally used to address mood-related conditions such as depression and anxiety. It is believed to possess antidepressant properties due to compounds like hypericin and hyperforin, which may impact neurotransmitter activity. Additionally, its oil, derived from the plant’s flowers, has been applied topically to minor wounds, burns, and skin irritations due to its anti-inflammatory and wound-healing properties. However, caution is advised as St. John’s wort can interact with certain medications, and consult a healthcare professional before use is recommended.
Arnica refers to a group of flowering plants in the genus Arnica, particularly Arnica montana, which is the most commonly recognized species and is known for its traditional medicinal uses.
Appearance: Arnica plants typically have bright yellow or orange-yellow flowers that resemble daisies. The flowers are often daisy-like with petals surrounding a central disk. The plant’s leaves are usually basal, meaning they grow in a rosette at the base of the stem.
Where to Find it: This plant is native to Europe and parts of North America and is found in various habitats with cool and temperate climates such as meadows, grasslands, and mountainous regions with well-draining soil and moderate sunlight.
Medicinal Uses: Usually applied to the skin as a cream, salve, gel oil, or tincture, arnica is often used to soothe muscle aches and sprains, reduce bruising and inflammation, and heal wounds.
It’s incredibly beneficial to carry a plant guide with you while foraging to help with identification. If you’d like to learn more about medicinal plants and their uses, consider taking a Wilderness Herbal First Aid course. It’s important to always consult with a medical professional before consuming any medicinal plants as they can interact with certain medications and conditions.