By John Campbell
WARNING!! This article is composed of some very dangerous plants. DO NOT use them under any circumstances unless being guided by someone that is highly trained in their uses.
Ever get a severe headache or seriously sore muscles or joints while in the field. Throughout my time in the desert I have learned some plants that will aid in relieving pain. Some of these plants are very dangerous and can only be used topically; however they will aid in relieving even the pain of a broken arm or leg. Let’s start out with the simplest and most recognizable pain killer in the wilderness, this is the willow or in this case the Salix goddingii (pictured above). Most of us know that the willow tree contains a compound called salicin. This is a derivative of aspirin and is found and more concentrated in the bark of the tree and can also be found in the cambium layer. A common complaint while in the desert is a headache usually caused from either heat or dehydration. A large handful of the bark steeped in hot water is enough to alleviate this pain. This also works on body, muscle, and joint pain. Since this contains a form of aspirin do not use this if you have been bleeding or have a serious cut. This can result in the wound bleeding again, you do not want to have to stop the bleeding once again should this happen.
Another plant is called Prickly Poppy or Bluestem Pricklepoppy, Latin name Argemone pleiacantha (photo above). Yes it is in the poppy family; no it is not a good party drug. I have met people that have tried to get a buzz off of this plant and all they got was a serious headache that could not be relieved. This plant can be utilized in two ways, the first is to take 4 to 6 fresh leaves and steep them in hot water and drink. This will relieve pain from overexertion, arthritis, sore muscles, and more. This particular plant is known to the USDA as being toxic. Personally I have used this plant on numerous occasions with only one ill effect; this was the lowering of my core body temperature. For the most part this plant is found in early to late summer; however toward the end of summer the nights will begin to cool down and get a little cold and can case some issues when used. The second way this plant can be utilized is topically. The sap of this plant is a thick yellow substance that will quickly turn black upon contact with the air. This sap while still wet can be applied to bites, stings, stickers, bumps, and bruises. It will have a slight numbing effect depending on how bad the affected area is can require more sap. The prickly poppy does have a mild narcotic effect that will also aid in relaxing the body and aiding in sleep.
The next two plants I will talk about are extremely dangerous and are in the same family. These can and will kill if used improperly. The Tree Tobacco (Nicotiana glauca) is highly toxic if taken internally, however it can be dried and smoked as tobacco. This must be done right or you will get a severe throbbing headache with auditory hallucinations of explosions with each and every throb. To use this plant safely you can boil several handfuls of leaves in water and add this to a bath. What this does is relieves serious pain from sprains. It can provide a little relief from breaks but not much. I have used this plant in the past when I injured my back; it worked very well for this.
In addition there are other uses that this plant can provide. It will work very well for an insecticide or a repellant for arthropods. For this a strong tea must be made and misted on your clothing or gear. This can also be bruised up and placed inside your shelter under the bedding to aid in keeping scorpions at bay. I have had this also work with spiders and other crawling bugs. When mixed in with a tinder bundle (not for use in primitive fire) this can actually smoke out a debris shelter to kill any unwanted surprises that may be mixed in with the thatching material. Be careful not to breathe the smoke of the green leaves. A smaller member of the Nicotiana family (Nicotiana trigonophylla) can be used in much the same way.
Next we have the Sacred Datura or Datura meteloides. This is a member of the nightshade or potato family and has other common names like Southwestern Thornapple, Jimsonweed, and Moon Lily. I have to give you a stern warning with this plant. There have been many that have so called “tripped out” using this plant as a tea. Most of them have died……not just died they suffered greatly. According to a local Dr. I have spoken with what this plant does if improperly used is causes sudden onset schizophrenia that will NEVER go away. To make things worse there are some people that never ate food again. This means they had to IV fed in the hospital. In some cases they got both issues all wrapped up into one gift; for this reason I will not talk about the part of the plant that is most used for this. If used in the proper context it can be beneficial, like that of a shaman. This plant is still in use during certain ceremonies by the Navajo, Hopi, Havasupai, and some northern Apache. Leave this experience to them! This is one plant that even sends chills down my spine.
Now that I am done scaring you, here are the safe benefits of use on the sacred datura. The stems and leaves can be harvested and boiled to make a strong infusion. This is then added to bath water much like the Tree Tobacco to make a soak. This plant has an almost instant effect on arthritis pain. It will also work exactly the same with severe sore muscles and feet. This plant should be reserved for more severe pain and should not be used if you have an open wound. These toxins can enter the body through the open wound and have some severe effects. Another way to use this plant is if you have a severe sprain or break, the leaves can be harvested and bruised, this can then be applied directly to the area. I have heard that this is highly effective and works very well. This method was used by several tribes to help set broken bones. However the same rule applies; do not get this stuff in an open wound. Additionally I have heard that this plant is so potent that a person can hold a bloom in their hand and start hallucinating. I have not had this effect and I have picked many of the flowers, leaves, and stems. I have had friends that have made a poultice out of the leaves to treat sprains and even severe carpal tunnel. When applied they wrapped the plant around the affected area and they became very dizzy and began vomiting. This can be very dangerous and I do not recommend using this plant for anything.
One story I was told by a Navajo friend that the bloom of the plant is healed in high regard by our Mother (referring to Mother Earth), so much in fact that it can sense beauty. If a woman holds a bloom that has been picked just before full bloom, if the flower continues to bloom in her hand she is truly beautiful. This is also believed by a few other tribes as well. The nectar of the plant is also useful for hunters. A Lipan Apache I know was telling me of night hunts they did. The more experienced hunters would take the nectar and drop it on their tongues. This was believed to give them night vision (no not night visions). Testing the theory, I find that it didn’t make me able to see better at night but it did allow my eyes to adjust more quickly from light to dark. This plant is so potentially dangerous I highly suggest that if you do not have any experience with it; to leave it alone.
This article was written for information purposes only and I do not assume any responsibility for misuse, injury, or death may occur from the use of any of this information. Some of these plants will kill if you do not properly understand how use them safely. A lot of plants are extremely dangerous. This does not mean that all plants have a safe use nor are all plants considered to be medicinal.