Sunday, November 08, 2015
Oshá: Old Ways
Weather: Light snow Thursday may have wet the soil that plants were insulated against temperatures in the low 20s Friday and Saturday mornings. Leaves dropping, but cottonwoods still have most of theirs.
What’s blooming: Hybrid roses, calamintha, blanket flower; can see red in the remaining pepper plants.
What’s turning yellow: Leaves on peaches, cottonwoods, catalpas, Siberian elms, grapes, globe and sandbar willows.
What’s turning red or orange: Leaves on apricots, cherries, sandcherries, Virginia creeper.
What’s blooming inside: Zonal geraniums.
Animal sightings: Rabbit, goldfinches, chickadees.
Weekly update: Oshá is popularly believed to be a Native American medicinal plant. However, there are few specific historic references to it from bands living in areas where it grew. Leonora Curtin was told in the 1940s that people in Cochití chewed pieces the "size of a bean night and morning," then washed them down with warm water and pinches of salt "to shake a cough."
Matilda Coxe Stevenson did not mention Ligusticum porteri when she described the Ethnobotany of the Zuñi Indians in 1915, but Scott Camazine and Robert Bye did learn about it in the late 1970s. The root of kwimi dechi was crushed in cool water and drunk for a sore throat or applied to the skin to alleviate aches. The root also was chewed by a medicine man and his patient in "curing ceremonies for various illnesses."
The reason for the discrepancy between reported and perceived native uses may arise from the fact it is a high-altitude species. Anthropologists only may have asked about plants growing in their immediate areas, and not asked about ones brought from a distance or obtained in trade. They also may have overlooked a root that was harder to identify than a plant with leaves and flowers.
Between the time Jacob Krummeck began promoting oshá in Santa Fé in the 1860s and the time anthropologists visited native bands, the mountains changed. Miners moved in. Lumberman clear cut hillsides. As a side effect, environments where plants grew were destroyed.
Michael Moore talked to someone on the Navajo reservation who said, they used to get it at Lukachukai until they took down all the trees. That happened when they began mining uranium in that part of Arizona bordering western New Mexico in 1950.
It may not have grown back because more was required than a subalpine environment. Richo Cech has successfully cultivated it on volcanic soils at 1,600' around Williams, Oregon. He said he planted seeds in 2008. Although he didn’t add any nutrients, he did grow it with buckwheat to provide shade and covered the soil with coconut fibers. Since Michael Moore had said he had found the roots in rotten logs, Cech added carbon regularly to emulate its original woodland environment.
After six years, he dug up some roots with the characteristic smell and was "struck by the massive proliferation of fungal hyphae in the soil--a white netting that seemed to be coexisting with the feeder roots from the oshá." He didn’t notice any nodulation but was convinced there was some association with a mycorrhizal fungus.
Botanists have been trying to grow the plant with little success. Bennett Sondeno and Karen Panter tested commercially available inoculants and found none were effective. Neither did their three growing media have an obvious influence. Rachel Mata’s team also tried three different media and found none had any influence on germination.
The underlying geology may not matter. In New Mexico, it’s been found in the uplifted Sangre de Cristo around Taos, Las Vegas, Pecos and Santa Fé. The plant’s been reported to the west in the Tunitchas near the uplifted Chuska mountains and to the south in the uplifted Sandías. Much farther south, oshá has grown around Hillsboro and Sawyers peaks in the igneous Mimbres and in the Sacramento mountains.
The member of the Apia family also has been found on the volcanic White mountains and in the Mogollons. Sierra Grande, where it was reported before 1915, is an extinct shield volcano in the Raton-Clayton volcanic field.
Temperature does matter. It grows between 7,000' at the northern end of its range and at 10,000' at the south. The altitude by latitude gradient usually indicates climatic differences, so a lower altitude at a higher latitude may be colder in winter than a higher altitude farther south.
Bernadette Terrell and Anne Fennell tried growing seeds purchased from suppliers in New Mexico, Colorado and Utah. The ones from the north required longer exposures to cold than those from the south. Mata’s team found the only ones that survived germination were those held at 1 degree C for 45 to 90 days. Half of those held at temperatures 10 degrees higher or lower germinated, but died after 12 weeks.
The group found it wasn’t simply cold that mattered. The plant hormone gibberellic acid commonly is used as a substitute. It failed to hatch any seeds.
Light matters. Kelly Kindscher’s teams surveyed north-facing stands near Cumbres Pass in the Colorado Rockies in July of 2012. They found the plants growing in open meadows had more flowering stalks and double the root masses of those in understories
Emily Mooney’s team surveyed stands a bit farther north at Crested Butte, Colorado, in the West Elk Mountains. In the same year, in the same kind of mineral bearing ranges they also found many more flowering stems in open areas than shaded ones, but no differences in their root sizes.
The second group was able to test root extracts against standard laboratory bacteria, Micrococcus luteus and Bacillus cereus. They found plants from the low-light environments were more detrimental against the second than the other. There was no difference in their effects on the other.
Water matters. Oshá likes damp, but not saturated sites. 2012 was a drought year. Kindscher’s colleagues "did not find one single seedling growing in the Forested site, while the Meadow site had many." The drought broke with heavy rains in the fall of 2013. Mooney said, they didn’t see any seedlings in either the high light or the low light areas until 2014. Then "the numbers of seedlings did not vary with light environment."
One suspects the development of medicinal stands begins with seedlings in open areas. Many, no doubt, are browsed by black tailed deer and other animals. In dry years, few seeds may be dispersed because its flowering season doesn’t overlap with the active period of the flies that pollinate it.
Over time, those seedlings that do survive create the kind of soil observed by Cech. With more time, trees invade, and the plants react by producing the valued chemicals. It’s a recovery marked in decades, not years.
Notes: Jacob Krummeck was discussed in the post for 25 October 2015.
Camazine, Scott and Robert Arthur Bye. "A Study of the Medical Ethnobotany of the Zuñi Indians of New Mexico," Journal of Ethnopharmacology 2:365-388:1980.
Chech, Richo. Entry for 12 July 2014 on Horizon Herbs’ Facebook site. He posted photographs of the roots as they came out of the ground.
Chenoweth, William L. "The Uranium Deposits of the Lukachukai Mountains, Arizona," in F. D. Trauger, Defiance, Zuni, Mt. Taylor Region (Arizona and New Mexico), 1967.
Curtin, Leonora Scott Muse. Healing Herbs of the Upper Rio Grande, 1947, republished 1997, with revisions by Michael Moore.
Kindscher, Kelly, Julia Yang, Quinn Long, Rachel Craft, and Hillary Loring. "Harvest Sustainability Study of Wild Populations of Osha, Ligusticum porteri," University of Kansas, 1 April 2013.
Mata, Rachel, Dalia Goldhaber-Pasillas, Robert Bye, and Víctor Manuel Chávez-Ávila. "In Vitro Morphogenetic Responses and Comparative Analysis of Phthalides in the Highly Valued Medicinal Plant Ligusticum porteri Coulter & Rose," Plant Growth Regulation 67:107-119:2012.
Mooney, Emily H., Andrew A. Martin, and Robert P. Blessin. "Effects of Light Environment on Recovery from Harvest and Antibacterial Properties of Oshá Ligusticum porteri (Apiaceae)," Economic Botany 69:72-82:2015. Neither test bacterium causes the sorts of problems treated by oshá.
Moore, Michael. Medicinal Plants: in the Field with Michael Moore, Volume 2: Southern Colorado, filmed by Wren Cottingham, 1994; section uploaded to You Tube as "A Talk on Oshá - Part 1."
Sondeno, Bennett J. and Karen L. Panter. "Effects of Media and Mycorrhizal Inoculants on Oshá (Ligusticum porteri) Rooting," HortScience, July 2004.
Terrell, Bernadette and Anne Fennell. "Oshá (Bear Root) Ligusticum porteri J.M. Coult. & Rose var. porteri," Native Plants 10:110-118:2009.
Tilford, Gregory L. Edible and Medicinal Plants of the West, 1997; on altitude and range
Wooton, Elmer O. and Paul C. Standley. Flora of New Mexico, 1915; included the list of areas where it had been reported in New Mexico.
Photographs: Oshá, purchased at local farmers market on 24 August 2015; photographed 1 November 2015. Side and end of one root fragment.