Studying medicinal plants in the Anza-Borrego Desert



The sky has turned a gorgeous shade of blue, and there’s a blooming Ocotillo in front of me, flowers bright orange red against that deep blue sky. A light breeze blows; I am sitting wedged into a small “wind cave” of sandstone, high on a hill, several miles back through a canyon in the Anza-Borrego Desert. The cave provides some shade as the sun begins to go down on the other side of the sandstone outcropping. As I sit quietly, hummingbirds come to drink from the flowers of the Ocotillo.

An Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens), if you haven’t seen one (which I hadn’t until a couple weeks ago), is a very tall cactus, probably 10-12 feet high, with many several inch thick branches curving gently up from the base. At this time of year, most of them have long arrays of these orange-red flowers at the top of each branch, wings of six inches in length, but each made up of a cluster of small flowers full of nectar. There are many here in this desert, and it is one of the 60 or more plants we learned about on my trip here, a trip to study the medicinal and edible uses of local plants.

Monkey Flower

Barrel Cactus

Barrel Cactus

Really, people, this was amazing. I’m so happy I had the opportunity to develop a closer relationship with local plants and learn about them in depth from an expert, Tellur Fenner of the Blue Wind Botanical Medicine Clinic in Oakland. While in acupuncture school, I memorized and had clinical experience in the medicinal properties and uses of over 300 Chinese species of plants, and had to be able to recognize them in dried form, but aside from a few live specimens we had growing in pots around the school, I rarely got to know the whole living plant. This is something I’ve always wanted to experience more fully.

That Ocotillo I was enjoying can be used medicinally for many ailments, according to Tellur, a student of the late, great herbalist, Michael Moore (no, not the film documentarian). Its primary use is in helping to clear lymph and fluid congestion in the pelvic region. I would translate this in Chinese Medicine terms to clearing dampness from the lower jiao. To most of us, that means it can help fat absorption in the intestines, and reduce hemorrhoids, urinary irritations, enlarged prostates, and more. Generally these days, a tea or tincture (herb extracted into alcohol) is made from the bark, although the roots have uses as well, and you can even make tea from the flowers!

Red Peony

Red Peony

All of the plants we met were fascinating and beautiful. It was especially exciting for me to get to see an herb I use frequently in Traditional Chinese Medicine, Red Peony, flourishing readily in the transverse hills adjacent to the desert. Here, we see the lovely leaves and flowers, but it is the root that is used for medicinal purposes. A white tuber with reddish skin, it can relax muscle spasms, like those of menstrual cramping, promote circulation, and from Chinese Medicine point of view, the most inner white root nourishes the blood and smoothes Liver Qi. Interestingly, Tellur was able to tell us that Peony has the same medicinal uses all over the world, which helps to validate it really does what we say it does!

Each day was jam packed with this kind of information (and even more details, including botany lessons). And at the same time, we got to just enjoy being outdoors, with night skies full of stars, surrounded by blooming cacti during the day, enjoying canyon streams with fan palms and campfires with good company in the evening. I’m always looking to expand my knowledge to better help my patients, and what a wonderful way to do it! Thanks to this opportunity that sprang up in my email inbox (Thanks, Isabelle!), I’m now able to learn firsthand about local medicinal plants. Tellur Fenner is a local ethnobotanist, with extensive experience and a great teaching style, who teaches all level of students, so if you’re interested, you could learn, too!

wind cave

wind cave


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