Poaceae grasses of New Mexico traditionally used for medicine, food

By Charlene Johnson
For The Taos News
Posted 9/13/17

Every semester, John Ubelaker, a professor, guides a group of students from the main Dallas campus of Southern Methodist University through a botany project at SMU-in Taos at Fort Burgwin.

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Poaceae grasses of New Mexico traditionally used for medicine, food


Every semester, John Ubelaker, a professor, guides a group of students from the main Dallas campus of Southern Methodist University through a botany project at SMU-in Taos at Fort Burgwin. During the spring semester, five students worked on the expansion of an herbarium at the campus. One of the students, Jaqueline P. Lara, loved the spring class so much she came back to participate in the summer semester. She and Connor Cole, Harleen Kaur, Jordan J. Fox and William Mosely spent three intense weeks researching the grass family, Poaceae, as it pertains specifically to Taos and surrounding counties. The end result would be a monograph covering many species and subspecies within the family.

All five flatlanders were astounded at the variety and quantity of grass species to be found at this elevation. "It really makes you appreciate diversity," one said. Each student chose between 17 and 20 species as their personal project. They then did extensive research on habitat, the difference in the leaves, flowers or fruits and whether Native Americans used them as food, medicine, clothing or toys. They included common and scientific names and compiled several pages of illustrations showing how to identify grasses, explain botanical terms and show the various components of a grass. A field trip to Santa Fe nurseries to determine species of grass sold that find their way to the Taos area was part of the class.

The students most loved learning the uses of the plants. "Once we learned the components of grasses and how they grow, that part was pretty redundant between the species," said Fox. "But it was fascinating to learn how many different uses mere grasses can be put to!"

The group enjoyed learning how to make brooms, hairbrushes and baskets and weave mats and roof thatching. One of the students particularly liked learning about decoctions that could be created from grasses for medicinal purposes. For instance, they explained, Navajos would chew the root of Bouteloua gracilis, or blue grama (Colorado and New Mexico state grass), and blow it on open wounds. The breath itself did the healing; they included their animals in their treatments.

While everyone expected that grasses would be used as fodder for livestock, they were surprised that people ate them, too. "I didn't know you could eat grass," Kaur said. For example, the White Mountain Apache and West Apache would grind up the seeds of Bouteloua gracilis and make a kind of porridge or bread. But what was equally fascinating is it was referred to as a "cash crop," a term that surprised the students.

They all loved learning about the ceremonial uses of grasses. Mosely explained, "If a warrior killed an enemy with a lance, he would wear side oats grama, Bouteloua curtipendula, because its shape was symbolic of a lance." He also enjoyed learning how the Apache would fashion toys for the children out of Andropogon gerardi grasses, also known as Vitman or big blue stem. Someone else pointed out that the Omaha used the same plant to treat fevers.

Although each student had their own species to work with, in the end, it was all pulled together into a single, large manuscript, complete with bibliography, titled: "Poaceae - Grass Family in North Central New Mexico." They included the Santa Fe grasses, too, since they are sold in the area. Like the herbarium, this monograph is available for public perusal.

Ubelaker noted that when the Native Plant Society annual conference meets at SMU, this unique reference will be available. "It's the first time the grasses have been done for this area. It will be a nice contribution to the botanical sciences of New Mexico," Ubelaker said.

The students all agreed that Taos was a wonderful place to visit and work. All wanted to come back. Fox was inspired by the class so much that she is now considering a career in botany since the idea of natural medicines appeals to her.


Dr. Olivia Carril, of Santa Fe, recently presented a lecture and a "bee walk." Some 20 people learned the difference between a fly, a bee and a wasp. In less than two hours, the group captured many bees, representing four of the six bee families in the area, including sweat bee, digger bee, carpenter bee, mining bee, bumblebee and cuckoo bee. They also learned that native bees do not form hives, but nest in the ground or in hollow twigs. They do not sting. One participant said enthusiastically, "Olivia's talk was the best I've heard on the subject - amazing information about native bee life cycles and distribution globally."

Upcoming events

The next monthly meeting will be Oct. 18, 6 p.m., in the boardroom at Kit Carson Electric Cooperative, 118 Cruz Alta Road.

Toby Gass, Santa Fe, retired from the U.S. Forest Service, will present, "Spruce-fir: Another Kind of Forest." Gass will discuss the forests of Engelmann spruce and subalpine fir that cover the higher elevations of the Sangre de Cristos. The ecology of these forests differs greatly from that of the ponderosa. People are invited to hear how and why these two types of forests differ so much and learn to distinguish a spruce, a fir and a Douglas fir at the same time.

Contact information

This column is printed every second Thursday of the month. For suggestions or questions, email TaosNPS@gmail.com or call (575) 751-0511. Chapter webpage: npsnm.org/about/chapters/taos. Facebook page: "Native Plant Society New Mexico Taos Chapter."

Johnson is an active member of the national Outdoor Writers' Association. She writes this column on behalf of the Native Plant Society of New Mexico, Taos Chapter.


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