Ethnobotany of the Southwest

From the very beginning, Native Americans (and all people, for that matter) used plants for many of their needs; food, shelter, clothing, oils, latex, and soaps are just the beginning. Plants are extremely versatile, with each of their parts producing a different resource. The method of preparation plays a key role as well, as boiling a flower will obviously yield something much different than grinding one.

This special knowledge is studied in ethnobotany. Ethnobotanists apply scientific study to the traditional knowledge of plants that are an integral part to the culture of Native Americans and others.The plants were used in many ways and are therefore analyzed from all perspectives; this ranges from medicinal to religious to dyeing purposes of the plant. Below is a quick introduction to the ethnobotany of some plants located here in New Mexico.

Plants Used for Food

Banana Yucca (Yucca Baccata) – This plant gets its name from its banana-like fruits. It has 30-100 cm leaves with a very short trunk, and is found in the Southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico.

File:Yucca baccata on Sandia Peak.jpg

Banana Yucca on Sandia Peak-

Saguaro Cactus (Carnegiea gigantea)- These giant cacti produce fleshy fruits, normally ranging from 6-9 cm. This fruit is especially connected to O’odham tribes, who celebrate the beginning of summer with a ceremony featuring a drink made from the Saguaro fruits.

Saguaro cactus-

Plants Used for Dyes

Chamisa (Ericameria nauseosa)- This plant, found in western North America, produces a bright yellow dye. It blooms in September and October, and produces awful-smelling flowers that only get worse when boil But the dye is wonderful!

File:Rabbitbrush dark gold flowers.jpg


Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica) – This is a 3-7 ft tall plant found in abundance throughout the United States. Their leaves have hairs which (as you guessed by the name) sting. This can be made into a green dye.

Brennnessel 1.JPG

Stinging Nettle-

Plants Used for Building

From weaving baskets to constructing homes, native plants are used for creating a variety of objects.

The flexible stalks of chamisa (Ericameria nauseosa) contain a natural rubber that allow them to bend without breaking, until they dry out and become rigid. For this reason, chamisa was used to create arrows, weave baskets, and build small shelters.

File:Chrysothamnus depressus.jpg

Arroyo Willow (Salix lasiolepis) can grow to the size of a small tree and are found, as the name suggests, alongside arroyos during the damp seasons. In the summer, the white, fluffy pollen of the arroyo willow is a large source of allergies. The arroyo willow is fairly flexible and was used to build shelters and weave baskets.

File:Arroyo Willow (2507331462).jpg


One thought on “Ethnobotany of the Southwest

  1. Please remove the (part 3) in the title – no one will know what that refers to. Good introduction. I like the way you organize the sections into plants used for food and shelter, but I would like to see plants used for medicine and for the other things you mentioned. All images MUST have a URL attached.

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