Nature Notes: Beyond Beautiful: For Native Peoples, Wildflower Were Food, Medicine and More

LaShara Nieland, a Big Spring native and 27-year veteran educator in West Texas public schools, is the author of two books on wildflowers. The books are user-friendly guides that tell a vivid “story” for each of the plants – including their history of use by Native Americans.

Our arid region trains us to accept austerity, starkness. But it also prepares us to greet with special wonder any exception to the desert rule: a spring-fed pool, a soaking rain, a wildflower in bloom. Easterners can take wildflowers for granted. Here, their beauty is well-won.

LeShara Nieland, a botanist and Big Spring native, has written two wildflower books. They’re user-friendly guides. They also tell rich stories about each plant – including their history of use by Native Americans. For Native societies, wildflowers are elements of survival – sources of food, fiber, dye and medicine.

It’s all too common to underestimate the sophistication of earlier peoples. But any study of the past ends that complacency.

Over millenia, the indigenous inhabitants of present-day Texas accumulated complex knowledge of wild plants. Plants were food, of course. But in specific doses, wildflowers – many of them toxic – were also prepared for medicinal ends.

LaShara Nieland is co-author of Lone Star Wildflowers and Land of Enchantment Wildflowers. In April, she spoke at the Sibley Nature Festival in Midland, on the Native use of wildflowers.

The puccoon was one of her topics. Found in grasslands and piñon-juniper woodlands, the yellow flower was used for dye. But puccoon tea was also used to treat colds and kidney problems – and in family planning.

“It was made as a contraceptive,” Nieland said, “and it worked. When it’s been analyzed in modern times, it comes out that this plant produces hormone-like compounds that affect both the ovaries and the thyroid, either of which could work to prevent pregnancy. Isn’t that interesting, to think that all these years ago, the Native Americans were already planning their family size?”

A single wildflower could meet countless needs. Take lechuguilla. Its roasted hearts are food. Its fibers were used in baskets, rope and clothing. Its saponin compounds are a mild detergent, and are used as soap. The toxic saponins were also used to stun fish and poison arrow points.

Nieland taught honors biology for 27 years, including 19 years in Odessa public schools. In the 90s, she and a longtime friend and fellow botanist, Dr. Willa Finley, teamed up to work on a wildflower guide.

Lone Star Wildflowers – the product of 10 years’ work – was published by Texas Tech Press in 2009. Land of Enchantment Wildflowers followed, in 2013. It was a New Mexico-Arizona Book Award winner. For Far West Texans, the New Mexico guide is the one to have.

The guides are scientifically rigorous – but accessible. Wildflowers are organized by color. The photographs are stunning. And each entry includes the “story” of the plant – the roots of its Latin and common names, its Native American lore.

New Mexico has vibrant indigenous communities. Working on the second book, Nieland said, the story of Native use moved from the past to the present tense.

Nieland and Finley connected with Arnold Clifford. Clifford is a field botanist, and a traditional Navajo healer.

“He took us around his own family’s tribal grazing grounds in the Navajo nation,” Nieland said. “As we would walk along, he would stop at almost every bush, almost every plant, and tell us all the medicinal uses and ceremonial uses. He gave us information we’d never have been able to find in any of our other sources. That was phenomenal.”

Prayers accompany plant gathering among the Navajo. Herbalists never harvest a plant if it’s the only one, and they leave the best plants unharvested – a form of selective breeding.

Trained healers prepare complex medicines. But there are also hundreds of “Life Medicines” – plants that many Navajo households keep on-hand to treat common ailments. Scarlet penstemon for coughs, burns and upset stomach. Globemallow for colds and headaches. Prairie coneflower for fever.

Native traditions remind us not to regard any plant as useless, purely noxious – or simply ornamental. Silverleaf nightshade can be fatal to livestock. But, Nieland noted, it’s now being studied as a cancer treatment.

“Wouldn’t it be something if something we hated turned out to be something that would save lives?” Nieland said. “That’s been one of the eye-opening things for me – I think that every single thing has got a purpose.”

Bluebonnets on a roadside, a gaudy claret cup in the chaparral – wildflowers color West Texas. But across time, they’ve also been touchstones of life.

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