Nature Notes; Desert-Mountain Harvest: Native Plants and the Mescalero Apache

Rising a mile above desert plains, the Guadalupe Mountains are an icon in the West Texas landscape. They draw geologists, biologists, artists – and Texans eager to climb the state’s highest peak.

The forests and springs of the Guadalupes were an oasis for Native peoples. Fifteen tribes have historic ties to the range.

But for one people, the mountains were a year-round home. Until they were expelled by the U.S. military in the 19th century, the Mescalero Apache flourished here. And native plants were the basis of Mescalero life.

“Mescalero” – applied by the Spanish, the name itself refers to a plant – the mescal, or agave. For the Mescalero, the agave was indeed a foundation for life.

To prepare it, the Mescalero used ancient “earth-oven” technology. They heated stones in pits. They placed the agave hearts in the pits, and buried them.

Cooking agave slowly breaks down its complex sugars. When the earth oven was opened days later, the bulbs had been converted into a sweet, meaty pulp. The roasted agave could be sun-dried and stored for months.

Edna Flores is a ranger at Guadalupe Mountains National Park. She’s studied ethnobotany – the use of plants by Native peoples. Timing was important, she said – agaves had to be harvested before they sent up their towering stalks.

“The Mescaleros prefer the immature plants,” Flores said, “because they’re a lot easier to cook and they tend to be sweeter. Because once that stalk goes up, all that sugar goes up that stalk to produce the flowers to produce the nectar.”

But the mescal was only one of five crucial plants for the Mescalero, Flores said.

Forming barbed thickets, mesquite is not the most beloved plant today. But for the Mescalero, one type of mesquite provided an invaluable food source.

Each summer the honey mesquite puts out long beanstalks. The seeds inside are high in protein. They can be ground into a nutritious flour. Men carried pouches of it to eat while hunting.

“The women would also gather the flour, add water into it and make kind of a mush,” Flores said. “They would eat it as is – think of oatmeal. Sometimes they would form pancakes out of it – they would cook them in the heat and store those. Apparently they were really sweet – hence the name honey mesquite.”

The American Southwest is home to 49 species of yucca. In the Guadalupes, two were important for the Mescalero.

Soaptree yucca are easily recognizable by their tall trunks. Their roots produce suds when soaked in water. The Apache used this yucca soap to wash clothes and utensils.

The soaptree’s leaves are durable, and the Mescalero wove them into baskets, mats and sandals. Yucca-fiber sandals have been found near caves in the Guadalupes.

Then there’s the banana yucca, which grows close the ground.

“It can be a little bit tricky, especially because the bees will always be circling the flowers, but if you dig around the clusters of the flowers, you’ll find little fruit,” Flores said. “It’s usually about 3 to 4 inches long, and it’s a banana. Those are also pretty abundant. But you have to beat the birds to the fruit. So I think it was kind of a race between the Mescalero and the birds and everything else.”

Prickly pear cactus was another valued plant. Cacti pads were applied to the skin to treat burns, with an effect like aloe vera, Flores said. And the pads – and especially the fruit or “tuna” – were good food. Tunas could be sun-dried and stored.

Sotol, like yucca, was an important material for weaving.

In addition to providing food and clothing, plants could also serve a ritual function. Datura – Jimsonweed or trumpet flower – it ubiquitous in the Guadalupes. It has striking bell-shaped flowers, in white, pink or violet. Every part of the plant is highly toxic.

It can be deadly – but it also has powerful mind-altering effects. Prepared as a tea or smoked, Jimsonweed was used to seek visions and in shamanic training.

By adopting ancient desert traditions, and learning desert plants, the Mescalero had made a homeland of the isolated Guadalupe range. But in an 1869 campaign in the Guadalupes, U.S. soldiers destroyed a cache of 20,000 pounds of roasted mescal – a winter’s store. They were striking Mescalero life at its root.

Nature Notes is underwritten by the Dixon Water Foundation and is produced by Marfa Public Radio in cooperation with the Sibley Nature Center in Midland, Texas. This episode was written by Andrew Stuart.

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