Herb of the month: Chamiso



Chamiso (Spanish) - Also Chamiso pardo or Chamiso hediondo

Sagebrush, Desert sage, Big Sagebrush

Family: Asteracea

Genus and species: Artemisia tridentata

Chamiso is abundant in northern New Mexico as well as Colorado, Utah and many other western states. Equally abundant is the confusion about this noble plant.

The confusion concerns both the plant's name and its botanical plant family. First the name. Is it chamiso or chamisa? The proper name in Spanish in New Mexico is chamiso, chamiso pardo (gray chamiso) or chamiso hediondo (stinky chamiso). Chamisa, with the feminine "a" is of the same plant family but a completely different genus and species and known locally in English as rabbitbrush (Chysothamnus viscidiflorus and C. nauseosus).

The other big confusion with this common shrub is that it is called "sage." This plant is not sage in the botanical sense and has very different properties as a medicine than that of true sage.

True sages, such as those we would use in gravy, sausage or turkey stuffing, come from the plant family of Laminaceae, this is the family people frequently call the "mint" family. True sages are in the genus of Salvia. We have a local species of true sage called chan in Spanish (Salvia reflexa).

So, having cleared that up, what's it good for? This is a plant with many properties as medicine. First, it is very bitter, and bitter herbs stimulate the digestive system by improving appetite, increasing the production of digestive enzymes and bile, and strengthening the muscular response of the intestine called peristalsis.

Next, chamiso is rich in aromatic volatile compounds that increase the secretion of moisture in the lungs to effectively address thick mucus in lung infections, which make coughing difficult and increase the risk of bacterial infections. The volatile oils in chamiso also alleviate menstrual cramping and stimulate a tardy menstrual period. Chamiso contains artemisin and santonin, which irritate and cause small intestinal parasitic worms, such as pinworms and other roundworms, to be expelled.

Chamiso also contains a substance called artemisinin, Discovered by a Chinese woman, Dr. Tu Youyou, for which she won a Nobel prize in biochemistry, it's used as a treatment for malaria. We cannot use chamiso for malaria as the quantities of artemisinin in the plant are tiny and require extraction and concentration to be effective.

Collect chamiso with a scissors by sniping the top six-to-eight-inch leafy parts and bundling them with a rubber band. Allow them to hang and dry in a cool, shady place with good airflow. When dry, use 1 teaspoon of the leaves per cup of water and steep for 15 minutes.

For digestion, slowly sip one to three ounces of the tea, 15 minutes before meals.

For a cough, drink three to five cups a day.

For menstrual cramps or a tardy period, drink two cups a day.

Do not use chamiso during pregnancy.

Consult your health care practitioner about the use of herbs or supplements, especially if you are taking prescription medication.

Rob Hawley is an herbalist and owner of Taos Herb Company. Information at (575) 758-1991 or www.taosherb.com.