Our earliest ancestors relied on native plants for their existence: for food, medicine, shelter and other daily uses. Many healers from different indigenous groups investigated local herbal plants and passed along their increasingly sophisticated knowledge on the native plants that were most beneficial for their people.

On Wednesday (Sept.18), Morgaine Witriol will speak to the Taos Chapter of the Native Plant Society of New Mexico on the subject of "Medicinal Plants of Taos." Witriol will discuss herbs for all the major organs and energetics for the emotional and spiritual body. Join us at 6 p.m. in the Kit Carson Electric Co-op boardroom, 118 Cruz Alta Road. The talk is free and open to the public.

Witriol is the founder of Native Roots School of Ancestral Folk and Herbal Medicine, a wild crafter and gardener. In her 20s, Witriol apprenticed with a Mayan medicine man in Belize, Don Heriberto Cocom, whose expertise was using herbal medicines to heal people. Later, Witriol studied two years to become a clinical herbalist then spent another 11 years engaged with informal traditional teachings from several elders.

The "fourth sister" of native agriculture

For centuries Native American communities depended on the "Three Sisters": corn, beans and squash as their most important agricultural crops. The three plants help each other survive and thrive, providing a complete and balanced nutrition when eaten together. But there is a forgotten fourth sister that apparently was just as important: Navajo spinach, commonly called Rocky Mountain bee plant ( Cleome serrulata -- synonym Peritoma serrulata).

Herbal healing traditions that Witriol will be speaking about next week relied on knowledge passed along from generation to generation by indigenous elders. So, too, did elders pass along the traditional use of many native plants for food.

Regan Wytsalucy, a Diné raised in Gallup, became interested in ancestral agriculture practices after realizing that many young people were leaving reservations and abandoning the traditional foods of formerly cultivated native plants.

In her talks with elders, Wytsalucy heard stories of this "fourth sister," Navajo spinach, being an important part of Navajo, Hopi, Zuni and Canadian tribes' agricultural fields for both food and to attract pollinators to the fields. There is also evidence that the Tewa pueblos similarly cultivated Rocky Mountain bee plant prior to European contact in 1492, according to "Native Gardening in Northern New Mexico," a publication of the Native Plant Society of New Mexico.

Navajo elders say that Navajo spinach was considered as important to the diet of Four Corners people as corn, beans squash, melon and peaches. The young leaves were boiled three times in fresh water, molded into patties, and left to dry on the rocks. In its dry stage, the Navajo spinach patties can be used for food year-round. Seeds were ground for bread or eaten raw.

The plant has multiple common names in English: Rocky Mountain bee plant, stinkweed, stinking clover, skunkweed and Navajo spinach. It is called naá by the Navajo, túmi by the Hopi and a'pilalu or ado:we by the Zuni. It commonly grows on open rangelands, around cultivated fields, along roadsides where moisture accumulates and in sandy washes along streambeds.

In addition to a being a cultivated food crop, this large, showy wildflower was an essential pigment, used for dyeing cotton and for painting early Pueblo pottery. One Diné medicine man who was interviewed mentioned that the plant also helps ease itching and inflammation from mosquito bites by direct application of the leaves on a bite.

Following the defense of her master's dissertation at Utah State University, Wytsalucy continues to do field testing on Navajo spinach, looking at germination, seed treatments and row cropping to determine if the plant can be grown commercially to continue its use as a local food crop, to grow for value-added dyes or paints or to maintain wild populations of the plant across the Four Corners region.

Whether you want to try bee plant as an early spring vegetable, make paint for clay pots or just enjoy the spectacular "spidery" flowers covered with clouds of nectar-hunting bees, buy or harvest some seeds of this versatile plant. Scatter the brown seeds (white ones are still immature) during the fall. Cover lightly with soil or not at all, since the seeds need maximum sunlight as well as good, early spring moisture to germinate. The plant is an annual that lives only one year, but once you successfully grow bee plant, it will happily self-sow around your property. Seeds can be purchased from Plants of the Southwest and other sources.

Regan Wytsalucy shared this information on Navajo spinach at the annual conference of the Native Plant Society of New Mexico, hosted last month by the Santa Fe chapter. The Alamogordo chapter will host the next annual meeting Aug. 28-30, 2020. A tour of the acequia system (one of the longest in New Mexico) will be featured in addition to many field trips throughout the Tularosa Basin. It is open to nonmembers as well as NPSNM members,

Pollen in our lives

You hear a lot about insects and pollination or about high pollen counts causing your allergies. But how much do you really know about pollen? How can something so small be so important to life on this planet? The Oct. 16 meeting of the Taos Chapter of the Native Plant Society of New Mexico will feature Dr. Ken Bower to discuss "Pollen: What is it? How does it affect our lives?" Join us at 6 p.m. in the Kit Carson Electric Co-op to learn about the structure and function of pollen, how pollen grains differ from one another, what makes up a pollen grain and why pollen is so important to plants and animals.

As part of his talk, Bower will also discuss the records he has kept on pollen and flowering schedules in his garden as well as flowering schedules for two public gardens in the Santa Fe area. More information is on his website: eldoradowindyfarm.com

Mary Adams is a member of the Taos Chapter of Native Plant Society of New Mexico who shares a dryland native garden with many insects and wildlife in the middle of fragrant sage scrub terrain.

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