Did Native Americans Name Good Plants after Good People?
My friend Andrea once told me that early Americans, like the Navajo and the Apache, named plants with beneficial properties after people they liked. It was sort of a way to compliment the good people in their lives. She added that snakes, flies, and mosquitoes might be named after people they disliked.
Now, I have never tried to fact check Andrea’s statement, nor have I ever heard anyone else assert that naming good plants after good people was ever a widespread custom among American cultures, so all I can really attest to is that the concept she shared captured my imagination, and allowed me to choose a more positive image of my ancestor, Alonso Garcia. Since all written history is biased, and I cannot go back in time to verify his nature for myself, I can only hope that the image I’ve chosen is the correct one.
Yerba De Alonso Garcia was Named after a Lt. Governor of New Spain
You see, prior to my discussion with Andrea, all that I knew about Alonso Garcia was that he was among the Spanish survivors of the first documented revolution to force big government out of what is now the United States. As the Lt. Governor of what is now New Mexico, Alonso Garcia led Spanish survivors of the Pueblo Revolt in 1680 from Isleta Pueblo, near what is now Albuquerque, south, to El Paso del Norte, in what is now Texas. While written historical accounts are both limited in number and biased in perspective, contemporary historians recognize that the Pueblo people revolted because they had been treated quite harshly at the hands of the Spanish. Like Custer’s Last Stand, the Pueblo Revolt is best viewed as a case of justice being served. So when I first learned from oral history that my ancestor had escaped Iselta Pueblo and ran south, I saw him as one who had escaped justice.
Oddly enough, a new interest in Alonso Garcia arose during the early days of my research career, when I worked as a chemist for USDA. I was part of a team that was studying influences of plant chemistry on diet selection. The long term goal was to select livestock that made better use of desert shrublands. Shrub utilization by livestock was deemed important because worldwide, shrublands are expanding, and grasslands are disappearing. It was thought that if we knew which chemicals were driving diet selection, we could select for cattle and sheep that tolerated those chemicals and gained weight while eating shrubs. My role was to analyze the chemicals on the leaf surfaces of shrubs that cattle and sheep avoided.
While the position allowed me some great opportunities to collect shrub samples on remote grazing lands, in the company of pronghorn and oryx, most of my time was spent in the laboratory optimizing separation protocols, equilibrating HPLC columns, and interpreting mass spectra. I never really developed a strong talent for the latter, perhaps because I preferred to be out on the range collecting plant samples. Fortunately, during the time that I was working there, digital mass spectral libraries had come of age. The computer could identify spectral patterns much more quickly than I could, and since my supervisors mantra was that papers are the currency we work with, it seemed wise to let the computer do its job, and leave me free to collect and prepare samples and write the manuscripts.
My predecessor had left me with a list of shrubs that were not readily eaten by livestock, so my early studies involved sampling these plants, extracting their essential oils, and analyzing their composition to identify compounds that might influence herbivory. Our first publications were generally simple essential oil profiles. One of the shrubs I examined from the list, a beautiful purple flowered legume with an aroma so relaxing that it puts lavender to shame, bore the common name of “Yerba De Alonso Garcia.” The scientific name, Dalea formosa, and the English common name, Feather Dalea, were the names my colleagues recognized, but when I encountered the name, Yerba de Alonso Garcia (Alonso Garcia’s Herb), in a medicinal herb publication by Michael Moore, I could not help but be intrigued. Further research suggested the herb had indeed been named after my ancestor, the former Lt. Governor of what is now New Mexico. The finding helped me recognize that my professional position had an intangible personal benefit. By studying ecosystems in the Jornada Basin, I was actually looking into my own history, and walking in the footsteps of ancestors who colonized this land long before it was called New Mexico.
But why was such an exquisitly beautiful, pleasant smelling native plant named for Alonso Garcia? Was he perhaps less oppressive than others of his time? Did he use his position to serve justice rather than to serve himself? Was he pleasant to others? If so, was he allowed to leave Isleta, when other Spanish officials and their families were being slaughtered? Stories of Alonso Garcia’s exit during the revolt are vague. They do not answer these questions. But if indeed the Yerba de Alonso Garcia was named for my ancestor, then this man, who went on to found what is now Ysleta, Texas, could not have been all bad.
Essential Oils of Yerba de Alonso Garcia (Dalea formosa)
Now my readers who are engaged in phytochemistry may enjoy reviewing the technical publication that came from this effort. Because it was published with taxpayer dollars, you can actually access it free of charge by clicking on the button below.Dalea formosa Essential Oil
For the rest of you, I will simply share that the oil ranks among the most pleasant and relaxing aromas I’ve ever experienced. Distilling this oil was an absolute pleasure. In fact, it smelled so good that an accounting student who migrated into my lab that summer because my boss did not want her to spend the summer unemployed, never returned to accounting. After helping me purify Dalea formosa oil, she changed her degree to horticulture.
The oil was difficult to extract, largely because, like so many desert plants, Dalea formosa has lots of woody stems, and very tiny leaves. Separating enough leaf material to extract a good yield of steam distilled oil took lots of patience on the part of said intern. The final extract proved to be high in alpha-pinene, camphene, and limonene. In total, we positively identified 58 compounds and documented observing at least 40 additional compounds in the oil.
According to Michael Moore’s Medicinal Plants of the Desert and Canyon West, the plant was traditionally used by the Apache to treat growing pains and aching bones, and the Hopi used it for viral infections. He considered it to produce one of the best tasting herb teas, but did not make strong claims of its medicinal value. I can only imagine that the plant has been ignored because its tiny leaves make it too difficult to harvest. Ecologically, this is no doubt the key to this plant’s success.
Utility of Dalea formosa
As I consider plants that may add value to dry landscapes, including my own, I am grateful for the Dalea formosa shrubs I preserved, which were growing on my property before I built my home. As a low growing, prostate, leguminous shrub, Dalea formosa protects the soil from wind and water erosion, adds nitrogen, and provides shelter for a slew of soil critters that promote fertility. The blanket of purple flowers that covers the plant each summer attracts diverse pollinators, and the smell, which explodes following a good rain, always motivates me to prepare a good cup of tea, and sit in the garden thinking about what it might have been like to live in Southern New Mexico in the days of my ancestors, when grass still grew, and the river still ran free. The shrub is deciduous, so landscape designers should be aware that it will drop leaves and expose a dark, nearly black-grey wood in the winter.