HerbalEGram: Volume 13, Issue 8, August 2016
The American Botanical Council (ABC) recently hosted its first ethnobotany-oriented internship. Chlöe Fackler, an undergraduate student at McGill University in Montréal, Québec, Canada, completed an eight-day rotation that focused on the cultural and ecological importance of ethnobotany (i.e., the study of people’s historical uses of plants), as well as its importance as a pharmacological research tool.
Typically, ABC’s internship rotations are designed for future health care providers, such as dietitians and pharmacists. “In addition to the principles and practices of botanical medicine and fundamentals of phytochemistry, their curriculum has an emphasis on clinical research summaries, herb indications and contraindications, as well as herbal product regulation and quality assessment,” ABC Education Coordinator Jenny Perez said. Most of these students are from the University of Texas (UT) at Austin or Texas State University in San Marcos.
But Fackler’s internship looked at plants from an ethnobotanical, rather than a clinical, perspective. Specifically, Fackler, a native of Austin, Texas, who is studying environmental biology (plant biology) and anthropology at McGill, wrote a comprehensive, extensively referenced article about the historical uses by Native Americans of three plant species native to Texas: jimson weed (Datura wrightii, Solanaceae), ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens, Fouquieriaceae), and Southern prickly ash (Zanthoxylum clava-herculis, Rutaceae). These species grow in ABC’s Sacred Seeds garden, which is part of an international botanical research and conservation project that merged with United Plant Savers in 2014.1
Fackler’s article explains that other common names for jimson weed include angel’s trumpet, sacred thorn-apple, and toloache, and that it has a broad range across a large part of the United States and Mexico, as well as southern Canada. All parts of the plant are highly poisonous, largely because of the presence of the alkaloid atropine (and related tropane alkaloids). Jimson weed, she explains, has had many historical uses among various Native American tribes, including as an analgesic, an external anti-rheumatic, a toothache remedy, an antidote for venomous bites, a respiratory aid, a hallucinogen, a narcotic, an anesthetic, an antiseptic, an anti-inflammatory, a purgative, a tobacco substitute, a sedative, and an aphrodisiac.
Also according to the article, other common names for ocotillo include candlewood, Jacob’s staff, coachwhip, and vine cactus. The plant has a range from West Texas to California and into Mexico, and it thrives in the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts, as well as the Mojave Desert to some extent. A tall, spiny shrub, ocotillo is often mistaken for a cactus because of its thorns, succulent nature, and shared habitat, but belongs to a different family. The plant has been used as a natural alternative to barbed wire fencing. It is also used as a thatching material and for other building and landscaping purposes. Medicinally, various Native American tribes have used the plant for different purposes, which include bathing in a decoction of the roots to alleviate fatigue; applying a dry root powder to alleviate wounds and swellings; and using a tincture from the stems to treat pelvic congestion, bladder infections, and tonsillitis, and to promote lymph circulation.
Fackler’s article lists a number of other common names for Southern prickly ash, including toothache tree, Texas prickly ash, pepperwood, and Hercules’ club. Southern prickly ash has a range from Texas north through Oklahoma and Arkansas, along the Gulf Coast to Florida, and along the East Coast to Virginia. It is a small tree, usually no taller than 25 to 30 feet, with a diameter of about six inches. Southern prickly ash has had several historical uses among different tribes. For example, an infusion of the inner bark was applied to itchy areas, the pounded inner bark was placed into a cavity for toothache, an infusion acted as an external anti-rheumatic wash for swollen joints, a topical burn medicine was made from the pulverized and powdered roots, an infusion of the bark or pulverized roots was taken for fever, and a sore throat soother was made from the inner bark. There is also potential for an extract of the plant to be effective against multidrug-resistant, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).
An abridged version of Fackler’s article will be added to ABC’s Sacred Seeds Foundational Gardens information page.
Perez said she hopes there will be more internships like this one at ABC in the future. “With continued member support and grant funding, ABC hopes to diversify and potentially expand the internship opportunities available to include future ethnobotanists, therapeutic chefs, and a variety of integrated practitioners, including budding herbalists and holistic nurses, among others,” she said.
For more information on ABC’s internship program, please contact the Education Department using this survey or fill out this application.
1. United Plant Savers and Sacred Seeds join forces to expand mission of medicinal plant conservation [press release]. Front Royal, VA: United Plant Savers; October 29, 2014. Available at: www.unitedplantsavers.org/2015-02-11-00-43-43/251-551-united-plant-savers-and-sacred-seeds-join-forces-expand-mission-medicinal-plant-conservation. Accessed August 12, 2016.