Sunday, June 05, 2011

Wild Licorice

What’s blooming in the area: Catalpa, purple-flowered locust, wild pink, hybrid tea and miniature roses, Japanese honeysuckle, silver lace vine, sweet pea, wide-leaved yucca, onion, daylily, Jupiter’s beard, purple salvia; buds on lilies; datura up.

Beyond the walls and fences: Russian olive, tamarix, Apache plume, four-wing salt bush, common and showy milkweeds, fernleaf globemallow, cheese mallow, tumble mustard, alfilerillo, scarlet bee blossom, white evening primrose, velvetweed, bindweed, gypsum phacelia, woolly plantain, escaped alfalfa, wild licorice, loco, western goat’s beard, native and common dandelions, June, needle, rice, and three awn grasses; buds on Virginia creeper. Winds have dislodged salt bushes from crevices high in the arroyo walls.

In my yard: Black locust, beauty bush, privet, Dr. Huey and rugosa roses, raspberry, chives, red hot poker, oriental poppy, winecup, vinca, golden spur columbine, coral bells, oxalis, baptisia, small-leaved soapwort, Bath pinks, snow-in-summer, sea pink, Maltese cross, blue flax, Hartweig and pink evening primroses, pink salvia, catmints, Rumanian sage, chocolate flower, coreopsis; buds on hollyhock, butterfly weed, bouncing Bess, Mexican hat, fernleaf yarrow, blanket flower and anthemis; morning glory seeds breaking through; daffodil leaves turning brown.

Bedding plants: Sweet alyssum, pansy, snapdragon, moss rose; buds on nicotiana; tomatoes and peppers still wilting every afternoon.

Inside: Zonal geranium, aptenia, asparagus fern.

Animal sightings: Rabbit, hummingbird, bumble bee on baptisia and catmint, small bee on catmint, small butterfly on blue salvia, hornet on pink evening primrose, cricket, harvester and small black ants.

Weather: Winds early in week, followed by smoke from the west; everything lay in suspension as the sun turned red and futile storms foregathered; last rain 5/19/11; 15:49 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: Is the wild licorice blooming along the ditches near the village a native plant or a weed?

In the early twentieth century, Elmer Wooten and Paul Standley described the legume with its prominent white spikes and prickly pods as a “common weed in cultivated ground and along ditch banks.” Among the places it grew were Zuni, San Juan, Ojo Caliente, Chama and Raton.

More recently, a group in Colorado wanted to know which plants were part of the natural under story for cottonwoods, willows and salt cedars, so the land could be properly restored along the Rio Dolores when tamarix was removed. They found Glycyrrhiza lepidota was an indicator for a willow canopy.

It was the same kind of quest for the remnants of the real rather than the ruderal that sent Lenora Curtin down a wagon track near La Ciruela in the late 1940' where she found a woman with ten children near a “willow-sheltered streamlet” who told her that she drank a strained extract of crushed licorice roots three times a day from the third day after giving birth to her first menses. She especially recommended it “in cases of retention of the afterbirth.”

Curtin doesn’t reveal anything more about the woman.

Angelico Chavez, however, tells us his great-great-grandfather, José Encarnación Chaves, helped found the village in former Comanche territory after the United States established Fort Union in what is now Mora County in 1851. The mountain community, originally settled by people from places like Belen, boomed in the early 1880's when it supplied ties for construction crews of the Santa Fe railroad, then withered away. Chavez’s grandfather Eugenio moved to Wagon Mound around 1885.

More interestingly, Chavez tells us José Encarnación’s grandfather, Christóbal Chaves, married a woman whose family was from Mexico City, María Josefa Núñez. His mother was appalled when he married outsiders, but his grandchildren began to call themselves los Chaves Mexicanos. Eugenio came to believe his own grandfather had come from México.

When he died, his cousin Bernardo Chaves wanted to marry the widow. His first wife had been a plains Indian servant. She refused.

It’s traditions associated with María Josefa which are important for wild licorice. Many of the plains tribes had discovered the same thing the Europeans knew, that a saponin in the root of many members of the genus was good for treating coughs and the throat in general. Only the Europeans used it as a gynecological aid.

In first century Dioscorides included licorice in his section on herbs used as abortifacients, without explicitly saying it would serve that purpose. John Riddle found it used thereafter in formulas for treating delayed periods or removing the remains of the placenta. He believed its efficacy in the first instance arose from the fact it contains estrogenic chemicals.

Recently, Finnish researchers may have discovered why it works to clear the body after labor. They found children of women who ate licorice flavored candy when they were pregnant were more likely to have impaired cognitive functions that led to behavioral problems. The group hypothesized that the active agent, glycyrrhiza, weakens the embryonic sac and thus inhibits its ability to act as a protective barrier from harmful chemicals that pass from the mother into the fetal brain.

The knowledge of wild licorice in northern New Mexico may have developed in several phases. Since lepidota is the only species growing in North America and its range doesn’t extend into México, people raised in places like Durango may well have forgotten the plant. The trait local settlers noticed was that the root foamed in water like the amole or yucca, and so it was called amollilo.

The folk knowledge derived from the Spanish Glycyrrhiza glabra could have arrived separately, and then spread. Curtin found a woman in Chimayó who mixed it with rice in water as an emmenagogue and another who used the unstrained pulp in water to produce “a good cleanser of the uterus.”

While it’s easy to think there was one group of settlers who came with Juan de Oñate and who returned after the Pueblo revolt, the histories of Angelico Chavez’s family and of Chimayó suggest that, under that seeming uniformity, there were a great many opportunities for new ideas to be introduced and enough internal migration to diffuse medicinal lore and plants.

The woman, or women, who first used the plant didn’t have to have seen the Spanish plant, only an imported root. The preparation Curtin heard described, mashing the roots in water, is much simpler than the European technique of crushing them under millstones, then boiling them and evaporating the liquid to produce sticks.

What’s not widespread is wild licorice. Its deep, fleshy taproots demand a moist environment. While the long pea-shaped flowers are fertile, the reddish-brown seeds have relatively low germination rates. To compensate, a single plant expands into a colony from creeping rhizomes which can be transplanted.

The area where the Santa Cruz flows down from Chimayó to enter the Rio Grande was once a wetland where wild licorice could easily have grown. However, after the Santa Cruz was damned and the area drained to eradicate malaria, much of the original riparian vegetation disappeared. The plants growing along the local ditches could be survivors from that past or something introduced, a potential weed in an increasingly suburbanized community.

The transition from one status to the other, from valued native to unwanted weed, may be as slow, as subtle and undeliberate as the family legends that transformed the reality of María Josefa into the romantic grandfather of Eugenio.

Chavez, Angelico. Chavez, 2009.

Curtin, Leonora Scott Muse. Healing Herbs of the Upper Rio Grande, 1947, republished 1997, with revisions by Michael Moore.

Julyan, Robert Hixson. The Place Names of New Mexico, 1996, on La Ciruela.

Korb, Julie E., Cynthia Dott and Sara Bombaci. “Understory Plant Community Variability among Tamarisk, Cottonwood, and Willow Canopy Types along a Regulated Reach of the Dolores River, Colorado - Implications for Ecological Restoration ,” Tamarix Coalition website.

Moerman, Dan. Native American Ethnobotany, 1998; summarizes ethnographies of plains and other tribes.

Räikkönen, Katri, Anu-Katriina Pesonen, Kati Heinonen, Jari Lahti, Niina Komsi, Johan G. Eriksson, Jonathan R. Seckl, Anna-Liisa Järvenpää and Timo E. Strandberg. “Maternal Licorice Consumption and Detrimental Cognitive and Psychiatric Outcomes in Children,” American Journal of Epidemiology 170: 1137-1146:2009; most candy sold in this country as licorice in fact is flavored with anise, not licorice.

Riddle, John M. Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to the Renaissance, 1992, discusses Dioscorides’ De Materia Medica.

_____. Eve’s Herbs: A History of Contraception and Abortion in the West, 1997.

Wooten, Elmer Otis and Paul Carpenter Standley. Flora of New Mexico, 1915.

Photograph: Wild licorice growing on a ditch bank near the village, 20 May 2011.

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