Sunday, October 25, 2015

Oshá: Popular Image

Weather: Our fall monsoon finally arrived with heavy rain Wednesday and smaller amounts Tuesday and Friday. Whatever the forces that direct the paths of winds have sent most of the moisture that developed off México this season to the west; water from Patricia went northeast through Texas and Oklahoma. Morning temperatures were so cold Friday there was frost on my neighbor’s roof, but the ground was covered with a descending fog that must have insulated plants.

What’s blooming: Hybrid roses, morning glories, calamintha, winecup mallow, pink evening primrose, sweet pea, Mexican hat, chocolate flower, blanket flower, coreopsis, Sensation cosmos, African marigolds, zinnias, áñil del muerto.

What’s blooming inside: Zonal geraniums.

Animal sightings: Rabbit, goldfinches, evidence of the ground squirrel.

Weekly update: I saw three people selling piñon yesterday in drives facing Riverside between the lights for Fairview and the road to Chimayó. In one place, they shared the parking lot with pickups filled with firewood.

It won’t be long before men show up with oshá. They only put out cardboard signs with the single word written with a thick magic marker. Everyone one who cares doesn’t need to know more.

When I talked to a vendor this summer at the local farmers market who had a similar sign, he gave the tersest answer to my question, what is it. A root used for coughs. All he would add was that it grew in the mountains and resembled celery. He had green peppers to sell and many of his customers knew him.

The first man to sell the root commercially was Jacob Krummeck in Santa Fé in the 1860s. He’d been born in Darmstadt in 1835, and must have migrated as soon as he was of age. Lansing Bloom said, he joined the Masons sometime between 1857 and 1864.

He must have been trained as a druggist in Hesse, because he was described as a confectioner when he married Adelaida Barron in 1863. Pharmacists in those years usually bought their raw materials locally and compounded themselves. They knew enough chemistry to test what they were offered for purity.

Krummeck had two challenges when he arrived in the territory of New Mexico: learn Spanish and English, and discover what drugs were wanted by his potential customers. Then, he had to find sources and learn how to test them. He probably got little from outside the area. The railroad didn’t arrive until 1880.

In 1866 he sent samples of oshá to the editor of the American Journal of Pharmacy for identification. William Proctor couldn’t help because "the essential portions, the fruit, flowers, and leaves were missing." In 1867, he sent another sample, this time "with the leaves attached."

The fact Krummeck only sent the root and could only describe the leaves closest to it suggests he was buying it from someone. William Bowen was told Krummeck "first learned of this remedy from the noble red man." The German said, in an accompanying letter to Proctor, that "this root is extensively used in Indian medicine."

One would guess his source was someone from Pecos, because that was the nearest pueblo to Santa Fé at the time. In addition, family genealogists have found his wife’s brother, Bonifacio, was living in Pecos county in 1870. He was baptized in Aldama, Chihuahua, in 1822. Adelaida also was born in Chihuahua.

Krummeck claimed "he was the first to introduce it to the white man." That probably was true in New Mexico. He had a physical store by 1869 when he was advertising a "selected assortment of fresh drugs, medicines," and "pure liquors for medical purpose, and a large assortment of all the leading patent medicines" in the Santa Fé Weekly Gazette.

The United States army commissioned George Wheeler to survey lands west of the 100th meridian between 1869 and 1871. No doubt when they got to Santa Fé his team spent time with members of the English speaking community.

Joseph Rothrock published the section on plants in 1878. He said oshá was a "root, so well known in and around Santa Fe, is derived from an unknown plant, probably a Peucedanum." He thought it was probably the same plant described by Oscar Loew in 1875. The latter had said it had "a strongly aromatic root, used for weakness of the system. Mr. Krummeck considers this root more effectual than that of our eastern Angelica species."

Ligusticum porteri wasn’t officially recognized until 1888, and then the description was based on a specimen collected at the "head waters of the Platte near Denver" in 1873. By then, it was much better known from the mining towns on Colorado where it had been collected. When Bowen was capitulating the history of the Apiaceae, he said it was known in Kansas where it was sold as Colorado Cough and Catarrah Root.

Most of the elements of standardized public image were in place by then: it was called oshá, it was used by native Americans, and was used for coughs. He repeated another, that the name was "said to be Indian for bear, and it was applied to this plant owing to the fact that bears are very fond of the fresh root, digging it and eating it with great gusto."

The final element of the popular lore, that it looked like celery came from outsiders. I doubt many in the Española valley have ever seen celery growing. It has very special requirements. The governor in 1903 said it was a new crop around Roswell where it flourished on saline soils watered by large springs.

However, it’s much smarter to say the plant resembles something safe and familiar than to admit it actually may be mistaken for poison hemlock.

Bloom, Lansing B. Notes to the reprint of the minutes of seventeenth regular meeting of the historical society, 24 June 1862, in New Mexico Historical Review 18:418:1943.

Bowen, William F. "A Study of the Osha Root and Its Volatile Oil," Kansas Pharmaceutical Association, Proceedings 16:72-76:1895; source for all quotes not otherwise attributed.

Coulter, John M. and J. N. Rose. Monograph on the North American Umbelliferae, 1900.

Krummeck, Jacob. Advertisement, Santa Fé Weekly Gazette, 20 March 1869.

Loew, O. "List of Plants of Medical and Technical Use" in Wheeler, v 3, Geology, 1875.

Otero, Miguel A. Report of the Governor of New Mexico to the Secretary of the Interior, 1903.

Rothrock, J. T. Wheeler, v6, Botany, 1878.

Schmal, John, and others. Notes posted on under "Barron family > MX > New Mexico 1860 to 1870s."

Wheeler, George M. Report upon Geographical and Geological Explorations and Surveys West of the One Hundred Meridian.

Photographs: Oshá vendors in a local store parking lot, between trucks selling firewood. The first is from Tuesday, 9 December 2014, the other from Sunday, 23 November 2014.

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