By Rob Hawley
For The Taos News
In Northern New Mexico, this plant has bright little orange flowers that look like hollyhock flowers and is sometimes mistaken for a small poppy. Yerba de la negrita and its larger upright cousin, yerba del negro, are members of the Malvaceae plant family. Like most members of that family, it has slippery protein in the leaves and stems we call a demulcent. Demulcents soothe dry, irritated skin both inside and outside the body by coating the surface with a slippery protein coat that helps hold the moisture and has a cooling effect on the tissue.
Yerba de la negrita is most known in New Mexico for its use on the hair and scalp. The slippery protein is an effective hair conditioner and, if not rinsed out completely, will add some curl and body to the hair. This is due to the property of the protein shrinking as it dries, causing the hair to warp slightly, creating a bit of curl and coating the hair and making it appear somewhat larger. Once the tea is combined with yucca root and applied to the scalp, it cleanses the accumulated sebum (thickened scalp oils that plug hair follicles) and is a traditional New Mexican remedy to prevent baldness. Yerba de la negrita shampoo was originally created by Adalaido Lopez – of Chamisal, New Mexico – and is now manufactured by Taos Herb Company and called “Yerba Hair Care.”
What about the name? The name translated is “herb of the little black,” but this plant has green leaves and orange flowers. So where did the black come from? The legend goes that around the time of the Civil War, an African-American man was in the Southwest and he found that this little plant would protect blisters on his feet when his shoes rubbed them. It became known as “herb of the black,” translating to “yerba del negro.” Yerba de la negrita is the smaller species of the plant, Sphaeralcea coccinea.
Hawley is the co-founder of Taos Herb Co. He can be reached at (575) 758-1991 or at taosherb.com.