On the Road with Filmmakers Meredith Driess and David O. Brown


Crew Filming Agave is Life

Crew Filming Agave is Life in White Shaman Shelter

Today my guests are Meredith Driess and David O. Brown, archaeologists and co-producers of the 50-minute documentary, Agave is Life.   The film is currently playing festivals and has won several awards, including Best Feature Documentary and Audience Favorite Award at the Moon Dance International Film Festival, Boulder, CO; Best Cultural Heritage Film at the Arkhaios Cultural Heritage and Archaeology Film Festival, Hilton Head, SC; and  Best Feature Documentary Film at the Eugene International Film Festival, Eugene, OR. You can learn more at http://www.archeoproductions.com.

Welcome, David and Meredith, I’m pleased to have you here.  Tell us a little about this new film.

Film maker Meredith Driess

Meredith Driess

AGAVE IS LIFE, narrated by Edward James Olmos, is the story of mankind’s symbiotic alliance with the marvelous agave plant, from which tequila, Mexico’s iconic distilled spirit, is derived. Told through the lens of archaeological and historical investigations, this colorful film with traditional folk music of the region and original music by Alcvin Ryzen Ramos, relies upon ethnographic materials, archival footage and interviews to explore ten thousand years of the human-agave relationship.

David O. Brown

David O. Brown

Once a critical resource for hunter-gatherers living in arid regions of the American Southwest and Latin America, and later playing a role in the rise of ancient civilizations, this buffalo of plants was a source of food, drink, textiles, fuel, and medicines. We learn that, over time, this unique desert plant became embedded in cultural identity, mythology, art, and rituals, but now it faces an uncertain future. Today, ancient folkways—from fiber craftmanship to traditional pulque and mescal production—are rapidly disappearing. While entrepreneurs and scientists work to turn the tide, a loss of diversity of both cultivated and wild species may be the ultimate arbitrator.



You are both trained archaeologists. How does that influence your film making?

Our mission was to make a film for a general audience, but to have the data scientific enough to intrigue our colleagues. That was a hard balance to maintain and I’m not sure we completely succeeded. In the end we pleased ourselves.

You shot on location. What was the hardest part of that?

The hardest part for me was juggling my crew, travel logistics, and interview subjects. We had a skeleton crew so it was up

Agave Flute

Agave Flute

to me to do almost all of the planning. I had help from David, Eric Bieri, our production assistant, and Sharon Edgar Greenhill, our co-producer. At the same time we had to be prepared to ask the right questions of our interview subjects, which included knowing our script and reading up on their scholarly work. We interviewed 23 people knowing we would not use everyone, but could learn from their knowledge. The expertise of our interviewees was invaluable. We learned a lot from them.
Also, in some cases we had to carry heavy equipment up steep slopes or along wooded trails and canyon rims. We filmed at night with lights, in the scorching sun, in the rain and in snow. Our crew was enthusiastic and seemed willing to do almost anything as long as I fed them. We had to be prepared to change plans on the fly if bad weather or other factors arose unexpectedly. With a documentary, nothing is set in stone.

How long did the whole film process take from conception to final product? What were some of the obstacles you had to overcome?

Mescalero Apache Agave Pit

Baking Agave Bulbs

The whole process took 6 years. That seems like forever and it felt like forever but I had another full-time job during 4 or those years, and David had other projects going simultaneously. Roughly a third of that was spent on research and script writing, a third on film shoots and a third on edit and post production tasks. Our biggest obstacle was that we had to condense 60 hours of footage and tons of data into a one-hour documentary. And because we are archaeologists too, we were each invested in having, for example, a particular scene a certain way, but not always the same way. We dug our heels in and argued a lot. That was tough. Thank god our editors, a husband and wife team were not archaeologists. They helped break our disagreements by sometimes wiping out the entire scene in question, or changing everything around, which at times was shocking. But they helped shape the story and made the film better.

What motivated you to make this film?

When I was working on my film about the ancient use of chocolate in Mesoamerica, Chocolate: Pathway to the Gods, I ran across a lot of interesting information about the cultural significance of the agave plant, including codex images and fascinating iconography. I knew if I ever did a second film it would be about the agave plant. So I started saving data then.
Also, I liked the idea of presenting archaeology to the general public by using subjects like chocolate and tequila to entice them. This was my concept from the very beginning, and since my focus in earlier years had been Mesoamerica, it was natural to consider topics like chocolate, tequila, popcorn, chewing gum, and the ball game—all of which have interesting histories and imagery. Even the lowly potato has a fascinating cultural history in both South America and Europe.

Woman Spinning Agave Fiber

Woman Spinning Agave Fiber

I started out by wanting to do a book about the cultural history of chocolate for a general audience but my brother, Grant Mitchell, a filmmaker, said forget the book, let’s do a film! That was in the mid 1990s when he was working on another project, but by 2000 we were well on our way. Everything I learned about documentary filmmaking I learned from him. He was a great tutor and we produced a pretty nice little film. I don’t really consider myself a filmmaker but ironically at this point I’m not sure I’m an archaeologist either. Except for some technical post-production work, Grant and I were a 2-person team in the field and a 2-person team in the edit studio. However, Grant took the lead and did the lions share of filming and editing since I knew nothing about any of it at that point. My memory of that project was that it was exhilarating, probably because the burden was on Grant and not me. The film came out in 2005 and then I co-authored a book with Sharon Edgar Greenhill with the same title, Chocolate: Pathway to the Gods, published in 2008 by the University of Arizona Press. The DVD is packaged with the book and can be ordered on Amazon.

Where can the general public see your films? How do you distribute them?

Right now we are in the process of entering our film into some film festivals, both nationally and internationally. Once that phase is over (we have a 2 year window) we will sign with a distributor. With the chocolate film we found there was a better market for archaeology-based films in countries other than USA. We’ve started negotiations with an international distributor right now but nothing is certain. As film festival responses come in, we will update this blog on specific details. So far we’ve been accepted to festivals in Italy, Colorado and New Mexico.

It’s been a pleasure learning about your work. Thanks for visiting my blog.

Taste of the Past with Leslie Bush



When from a long distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered . . . the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls . . . [They] bear unfaltering, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection. – Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past

Dr. Leslie Bush, owner of Macrobotanical Analysis  (www.macrobotanicalanalysis.com), joins us today for Part 2 of her conversation about cooking with native plants. See the Archives for June, 2014, for Part 1.

Dr. Leslie Bush analyzing ancient plant remains.

Dr. Leslie Bush analyzing ancient plant remains.

Leslie: Sure. The important thing to know here is that I don’t have a garden in my yard – I was cooking with native Texas plants that grow uncultivated* in many parts of the state. Lots of people are eating uncultivated plants these days, whether at the “World’s Best Restaurant”, sticking to an allegedly Paleo diet, or eating the weeds. I won’t say “wild” because human influence is so pervasive on the landscape, even in remote areas, that all of the planet is effectively under human management. (See the work of ethnobiologist Eugene N. Anderson.)  Here are some things I’ve tried:

Kunuch Cake

Kunuch Cake

Kunuche Pecan Balls  for Cherokee Nut Soup Traditional Cherokee nut soup is made from hickory nuts, usually black hickory (Carya texana). The most common hickory in the Austin area is pecan (Carya illinoinensis), so I made the soup balls from pecan nuts.

Step 1: Pecan Balls. To make the balls, I cracked each pecan nut on my concrete porch with a grinding stone, then picked out and swept away the larger pieces of pecan shell. I put the nutmeats and the remaining bits of inner shell into a basalt molcajete and ground it into a coarse paste. I formed the paste into balls about 2 inches in diameter. The balls can be frozen for a few months or put in a ziplock in the refrigerator for a few days until you’re ready to use them.

Step 2: Pecan Soup. To reconstitute the balls into soup, just add boiling water and stir. Use one ball for a large coffee mug. Let the soup settle for a few moments so that the pecan shells drop to the bottom. Be sure not to drink the last drops, or you’ll end up with shells in your mouth! You can flavor the soup with dried cranberries (my favorite), dried corn, or even bits of turkey jerky.

Sumac-ade This recipe for sumac-ade comes from my friend Neal Stilley, whose many talents include primitive arts such as fire-

Simmering Sumac-ade

Simmering Sumac-ade

making and cooking uncultivated plants. The batch of sumac-ade I made this spring was from flameleaf sumac (Rhus lanceolata) harvested in February. Harvesting when the fruits have been on the plant for such a long time doesn’t make the best-tasting tea. I’m eager to try another batch in a few of weeks when the fruits will be fresh.

  • Wash sumac fruits under cold water.
  • Bring 1 part sumac fruits and 5 parts water to a simmer, being careful not to boil.
  • Simmer for 2-5 minutes, then turn off heat and let stand for 10-15 minutes.


Mesquite Cake

Mesquite Cake

Mesquite Cake Grinding mesquite pods into flour is a tedious undertaking. It’s probably best done with a big group of girls and women, sitting in the shade, singing songs, sipping cool beverages, and speculating on the activities of your neighbors. In ancient times, Native women used a gyratory crusher, a sort of funnel-shaped metate, to crush mesquite pods with a heavy wooden pestle. The crushed pods fell through the hole into a basket. The beans and the brittle, outer pod were winnowed out, and the inner pod parts were re-ground into fine flour. Since I live in central Texas and not the Sonoran Desert, I had to make my pods “desert-dry” by roasting them in the oven at low heat before I tried to grind them. I used a flat-bottomed cobble to grind pods on my concrete porch, but it was a very slow process without the walls of a metate to keep the pods under my grinding stone. I decided pretty quickly that

Mesquite Cake

Mesquite Cake

producing and tasting a couple of teaspoons of flour would be enough old-school experience to satisfy me. Most modern mesquite eaters use a high-powered blender or a hammermill to process mesquite – and now I know why! Mesquite flour is very sweet, even before you add sugar to the recipe. The high sugar content makes baking with it difficult –the centers of baked goods tend to stay soft and mushy. I recommend baking very thin things such as these thin yellow cakes I made with mesquite flour from The Mesquitery.

Yucca Petals (raw) The flowers of all the yucca species I’ve tried have been edible and delicious. They

Yucca Blossoms

Yucca Blossoms

have a texture like green onions but with more substance. Most plants I’ve tried taste like radishes. A few lack that spicy kick and taste more like carrots. Some people eat the pistils and all the inner flower parts, but I stick to the petals. You can even eat them straight from landscaping in the mall.  (See blog articles from the Archives for June and July, 2012, for my own yucca experimentation–MSB.)

Woodsorrel Greens (raw) Woodsorrels have cute little heart-shaped leaves in a clover-like configuration. Here in central Texas, we have two woodsorrels: yellow woodsorrell (Oxalis dillenii), a branched plant with small yellow flowers, and Drummond’s oxalis

Wood Sorrell

Wood Sorrell

(Oxalis drummondii), a single-stemmed plant with larger, pink flowers and a bulb below ground. The wonderfully sour, refreshing leaves can be sprinkled on salads or tossed in cream sauce over pasta. Be careful not to eat too many of the raw leaves at a time, though: oxalic acid interferes with iron absorption, and too much of it can be very serious for people with impaired kidneys.

Commercially Available Sources For the May meeting of the Native Plant Society, I rounded out the table of native plant snacks with purchases from the local grocery store: agave syrup, prickly pear soda, nopalitos, and pecans. I’ll have to see what’s growing in my yard for the Caldwell County Genealogical and Historical Society next month . . . .

Grocery Store Snacks from Native Foods

Grocery Store Snacks from Native Foods

Cooking Wild Plants with Leslie Bush


Hot Acorn Bread Fresh From the Oven

Hot acorn bread fresh from the oven

My guest blogger today is Dr. Leslie Bush, (https://Macrobotanicalanalysis.com), an expert in edible wild plants. In her day job, she identifies plant remains from archaeological sites. But at home she like to cook with wild plants that she gathers or even finds online.

Dr. Leslie Bush analyzing ancient plant remains.

Dr. Leslie Bush analyzing ancient plant remains.

Leslie: My interest in wild cooking comes from history and archaeology, from wanting to understand what common foods of the distant past tasted like. I also wanted to share the dishes with archaeologists and native plant enthusiasts here in central Texas.  Acorn-producing oak tress are common in many parts of  Texas, and acorns were used extensively as food by ancient people.

Boiling acorns

Boiling acorns

Friends and the Internet both told me I should make recipes that mix acorn flour or mesquite flour with wheat flour and leavening, to give people a chance to taste the unique ingredients in a form they’d enjoy. Despite their advice, I decided to be a purist in my first attempt. I harvested acorns from the red oak tree in my front yard.  I discarded acorns with obvious worm holes and those that floated in water. After an hour’s soaking, I shelled the acorns by cracking them with a river cobble on my concrete porch. I wasn’t  particularly careful about removing all the thin film of inner husk that clings to the acorns. I also used fresh acorns, not ones that had aged for at least a year, as she recommends. Once the acorns were shelled, I boiled them to remove the tannins. I was careful to make sure they never cooled down, transferring them from pot of simmering water to another. I used ten(!) changes of water, and the nuts were still fairly bitter.

Many people recommend grinding the acorns into flour before leaching out the tannins, so working with whole acorns is

Roasted acorns

Roasted acorns

probably another reason my acorns were bitter. (Apparently, you can wrap the ground acorn flour in cheesecloth and leach out the tannins by placing it in running water. I’ve heard putting the flour in the back tank of a toilet is great because the water isn’t wasted and gets changed frequently, but I couldn’t bring myself to try it.) For the final step, I rubbed the acorns in oil to replace what they’d lost in boiling, then roasted them in the oven. They had the taste and texture of bitter corn nuts.

Mary: I learned that acorns are high in carbohydrates and fat, which is good if you are living entirely on native plants and animals, as native peoples did. One hundred grams of acorns has about 387 calories, 41 g carbs, 24 g fat, and 6.2 g of protein.

Acorn Bread

Acorn bread

Leslie: After that first round of acorn adventures, I knew I should order acorn flour to make acorn bread this spring. Even processed by a pro, the flour still has a slight tannic bite, but it bakes up wonderfully. I can see how people crave the taste of acorns! This is the recipe I used:http://www.food.com/recipe/acorn-bread-267655.

I also want to share my recipe for yaupon tea. Our native Texas yaupon is a species of evergreen holly with the ominous botanical name Ilex vomitoria. It’s a close cousin to the plant that makes yerba mate, Ilex paraguariensis. Both plants have caffeine in their leaves and make excellent tea. In its strongest form, yaupon tea is the Black

Leslie Bush explains edible wild plants

Leslie Bush explains edible wild plants

Drink that Native ancestors used in ceremonies across much of what is now the eastern United States. I like to make yaupon as a gentle green tea. The taste is very similar to yerba mate, but the homemade yaupon is much fresher – and it’s free!  Yaupon may be harvested at any time of year. Cultivated dwarf yaupon and pencil yaupon varieties are also acceptable. Any fruits should be removed prior to toasting. Here’s my recipe:

Yaupon Tea

Toast yaupon leaves and small branches in shallow pan or baking sheet for 30 minutes at 350 degrees F. Higher temperatures will result in a darker tea with more caffeine. Leaves should fall from most branches during the toasting process. Remove any remaining leaves from all but the smallest branches and discard bare branches.

Toasted leaves may be cooled and placed in a sealed container for up to three months.

Boiling ilex, or yaupon

Boiling ilex, or yaupon

Measure 1 part tea to 4 or 5 parts water. Boil water and pour over tea leaves. Steep until tea reaches desired concentration. Tea leaves may also be brought to a boil in the water, although this produces a harsher tea.


Recommended Resources

Parker, Julia F. It will live forever: Traditional Yosemite indian acorn preparation. 

Buy acorn flour http://buyacornflour.com


Ow! Aching Teeth in the Lower Pecos Archaic

Tooth loss is no laughing matter

Tooth loss is no laughing matter

How are your teeth? Probably better than the people living in the Lower Pecos region of Texas 4000 years ago (plus or minus).  We should count our lucky stars that we have toothbrushes and dentists.  Archaic people’s dental problems must have caused them great pain, with very little to ameliorate the situation, and affected many areas of their lives.

Many, if not most, of the adult Archaic skeletons discovered by archeologists in the area of Texas where the Pecos river meets the Rio Grande, show that the population was relatively free of disease except for extreme tooth decay (Rose, et al., 1988; Turpin, 1994).  Mailloux (2003) analyzed teeth from 38 Archaic skeletons and found that the majority of the tooth crowns had been “obliterated.”   This high incidence of tooth decay and tooth loss has been attributed to the sugar content of the diet, which partially consisted of large quantities of prickly pear and agave (Turpin, Henneberg and Riskind, 1986; Danielson, 1998).

Watch this 2 minute video to understand what happens when a tooth becomes decayed. If it does not load automatically, just hit “watch it on YouTube.”

You can easily see how tooth decay and abscess would be painful.  There are other consequences if many teeth are affected or missing (as is the case with the above mentioned skeletons). First, there is the problem of eating. Food would need to be mashed and carefully swished around the mouth to get the benefit of saliva, which breaks down certain chemicals in food, then carefully swallowed so as not to choke.  This type of food preparation would be time consuming in the stone age kitchen, and impose an extra burden on the chef. So that big hunk of charcoaled venison you wanted for dinner is definitely out.  You get raw mashed venison liver instead. Probably healthy, but not so good in a taco.

In addition, a lack of teeth causes a loss of support for the lips and cheeks, giving a “sunken in” look to the

This lady with missing teeth may have trouble being understood

This lady with missing teeth may have trouble being understood

lower third of the face. This causes the tongue to broaden out and affects pronunciation of many words.  We have many consonants in English which require the tongue to strike the teeth for proper pronunciation. For instance, think of the sound of the letter “t”.  Feel how the tongue curls to strike the upper teeth when you repeat the sound.   Not being able to do this would make it difficult to communicate clearly and undoubtedly cause frustration to all parties.

Eventually, the loss of many teeth can reduce the flow of saliva in the mouth. Saliva washes away bits of food on the teeth and neutralizes acids produced by bacteria in the mouth.  Without this A) you get dry mouth, which is not very comfortable in the desert), and B) the body becomes more prone to heart disease, which tooth-painmeans you probably die young (as most of the skeletons discussed above did).

Having fewer teeth in the mouth causes progressive bone loss in the jaw, which in turn causes the lower third of the face to collapse even more. Recent studies have demonstrated a link between periodontal bone loss and osteoporosis, which causes brittle bones that easily break. Again, not good if you must climb in and out of the rugged canyons of the region to find dinner.  The poor condition of their teeth undoubtedly caused shorter lives and many problems for the people affected.

People of the Archaic Lower Pecos had few remedies for all this tooth ache. They did have willow bark  however  ( See my blog entry of April 8, 2013)  for the pain-killing

Lechugilla quids found in rock shelters

Lechuguilla quids found in rock shelters

properties of willow bark.)  Willow bark contains the same active ingredients as aspirin and would have been an effective medicine. You could drink it as a tea, or in another possibility I hearby propose, soak a quid (or wad) of lechuguilla fiber in strong willow tea and hold that against the spot in pain. Lechuguilla quids have been discovered in many rock shelters in the area, but archeologists have proposed few suggestions about their use. Quids might have been soaked in other teas with pain killing substances, such as datura or peyote tea. (See blogs of March 3 and February 4, 2013  for discussion of these plants.)

Another plant commonly known today as leatherstem (Jatropha dioica) was probably used by ancient people. Leatherstem is also known as Sangra de Drago and various other Spanish names, and is found wild all over the Lower Pecos region. This plant has the wonderful ability to go dormant during drought times, and

Leatherstem, or Jatropha dioica, in drought

Leatherstem, or Jatropha dioica, in drought

Leatherstem,or Jaropha dioica, leafed out.

Leatherstem,or Jatropha dioica, leafed out

burst into leaf a day or two after even a sprinkle of rain. It also has the ability to numb pain, particularly in the gums.  Just break off a twig and rub it over sore gums for instant, albeit minor, relief.Perhaps people smashed these twigs and used the paste on their gums as well.

Other antibacterial agents were available to the people as well, such as wild oregano, sage, possibly hot peppers, and charcoal.  People could make a poultice using any, or all, of these ingredients to sooth mouth pain.

If my teeth were hurting as much as indicated for the Archaic peoples along these rivers, I would have used everything available, plus a good dose of ritual from the shaman, to make the pain go away.

Wounds and Bleeding: Medicine Kit of the Lower Pecos, Part III

Archaic peoples had many ways to stop bleeding and heal wounds

Archaic peoples had to stop bleeding and heal wounds, just as we do today

Stopping unwanted bleeding and healing wounds without infection were serious issues for Archaic peoples of the Lower Pecos and others around the world. Fortunately, an efficacious ointment was often at hand, not only along the Rio Grande but almost world-wide. That precious ointment was honey.

Egyptian Healer

Egyptian Healer

Honey was an important ingredient in the Three Gestures of Healing used in ancient Egypt. The protocol went like this: First, wash the wound. Second, apply a plaster of honey, animal fat, and plant fiber. And last, bandage the wound.  Sounds reasonable even today. In fact using honey to treat wounds was also used by the Greeks and , and even up to World War II.

When penicillin and other antibiotics came in after WWII, honey was often forgotten.

But new research has recently shown the antibacterial properties of honey itself.  Professor Peter Molan at the University of Waikato lin New Zealand says “in honeys, there is–to

Honey and comb

Honey and comb

different levels–hydrogen peroxide produced from an enzyme that bees add to the nectar.”

The particular type of New Zealand honey he studies has been found to work in a very broad spectrum. “It works on bacteria, fungi, protozoa.  We haven’t found anything it doesn’t work on among infectious organisms,” concludes Professor Molan.

So it seems likely that at least some kinds of honey, particularly those from wild organic flowers, could be quite effective for preventing infection in open wounds.

Black brush, a bee favorite, in bloom in a canyon

Black brush, a bee favorite, in bloom in a canyon

Fortunately the Lower Pecos has both wild organic flowers and bees, in abundance.  Flowers bloom across the Lower Pecos region after every rain, even a tiny amount. They grow hanging from stone canyon walls or sprouting from stone pavements on the floor. They attract many wild bees that build nests in rock crannies, even ceilings of rock shelters with painted walls.

Wild honeycomb in a rock shelter in the Lower Pecos

Wild honeycomb in a rock shelter in the Lower Pecos

Ancient people had intimate knowledge of their landscapes and would have undoubtedly made use of all their resources, including robbing bees for their honey. Honey was likely kept at hand by the ancient people who lived in the region to apply to cuts and wounds to promote healing and prevent infection. Poultices of various kinds were likely made and bound to the wound with strips of hide or cordage.

I am unclear about the existence of bees 4000 years ago in North America, however. The beautiful booklet “Bee Basics” by Drs. Beatriz Moisset and Stephen Buchmann of the USDA Forest Service (http://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb5306468.pdf) seems to make a distinction between honey bees and other types of bees considered native to this continent. In fact they state that honey bees did not appear here until some escaped from European imports. Hmm. Bee people, can you help me out?

The plot thickens with the discovery of honey bee fossils in Nevada from  millions of years ago in 2009 (see          http://ucanr.org/blogs/blogcore/postdetail.cfm?postnum=1544). Just makes me wonder about how much we don’t know about even the simplest things.

For the Archaic people of the Lower Pecos, however, other issues concerning blood were likely treated with wild plants. Blue Skullcap (Scutellaria lateriflora) is native to Texas and grows near streams or marshes. Yes, there are such places even in the desert of the Lower Pecos. An infusion of the plant can be used to promote menstruation, and large doses can induce miscarriage. Overdoses can cause giddiness, confusion and twitching.  In cases like this, the patient should seek immediate medical attention.

There are over 350 varieties of skullcap

There are over 350 varieties of skullcap

Letha Hadaday, adjunct faculty for the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens and Beth Israel Medical Center in New York, is an expert in the use of Chinese medicinal herbs (www.asianheathsecrets.com). According to her, skullcap may also help prevent strokes by increasing bloodflow to the brain, and has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. While little Western research validates these statements, they are well accepted in Chinese medicine.

Another plant that can induce labor or alter menstrual cycles is stinging nettle

Stinging Nettle Rash

Stinging Nettle Rash

(Urtica dioica). Yes, the one I remember so well from childhood for the painful red welts on my arm.  If you get into them, the rash can itch horribly for at least a week, so watch which weeds you are pulling, especially in flood plains or shady spots near creeks. Stinging nettle affects blood flow, and can contribute to miscarriage as well as stop hemorrhaging during childbirth.

Moon Flower: Plant Helpers of the Lower Pecos, Part II


Moon flower, one of  the triumvirate of powerful helping plants in the ancient Lower Pecos, is known by many names: Jimson weed, loco weed, datura, stink weed, thorne apple and devil’s weed, to mention the most common.  These plants are members of the Solanaceae or nightshade family, which claims over 2,500 species such as potatoes, eggplants, and tomatoes. Datura stramonium, or moon flower, is a fragrant night-blooming plant that grows wild all over the world, including the Lower Pecos, and can cause delirium, anxiety, hallucinations, stupor, coma and death.

The plants contain the tropane alkaloids– atropine, scopolamine, and hyoscyamine. These alkaloids have many uses in modern medicine, but also serious side effects. Atropine interferes with activity in the brain stem, ranging from motor impairment to rapid heart beat, to overheating of the body. Internal bleeding and stroke can occur. Scopolamine and hyoscyamine are also sometime known as  “zombie drugs” because of the delirium and unpleasant hallucinations they can cause.

Spiny seed pods

Spiny seed pods

The seeds and leaves are the most potent, but all parts of the plant are toxic.  Uncomfortable effects generally begin 20-30 minutes after ingestion. Effects can  last from eight hours to three days.

Many researchers agree that ancient people of the Lower Pecos used moon flower, or datura, as a plant helper to converse with the ancestors and gods.  Their shaman were undoubtedly familiar with the plant and learned to dose themselves and others carefully to prevent dire reactions.  Some images in rock art have been interpreted as datura seed pods.

Spiny dots could be datura pods

Spiny dots could be datura pods

The Hopi used this plant for divination purposes, and Carlos Castaneda wrote about it in his famous book from 1968 The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge. In the European Middle Ages, the  deadly nightshade known as belladonna was often used in magical brews.

A large moon flower plant grew at the base of our back door steps when I was a child. I was fascinated by the aromatic flowers that bloomed as the summer twilight deepened ,  and I wanted to pluck them for my hair.  But my mother always cautioned me strongly not to even touch the plant, and especially never to eat it. (It was not unknown for us kids to eat a little grass with our mud pies, but then, those were simpler days, when kids made up their own games outdoors.)

There must have been a note of truth and urgency in my mother’s voice when she cautioned me, for I obeyed her on this. And I was not known for being obedient.

Once my grandfather and I were riding horseback through a field when we came upon a moon flower plant.  I still remember the sharp distaste my grandfather conveyed as he said, “Don’t let the horse get into that!  That’s loco weed.  Now I have to get out here and get rid of it.”

I asked why he didn’t want the horse to nibble it, and he said, “because it will make him loco, crazy.  Don’t let him get into it, and don’t you touch it!”  And we quickly turned the other way.P1040172

The Center for Disease Control reports a number of datura or moon flower intoxications over the past few years which resulted in trips to  emergency rooms and admission to intensive care units. In one case, a family accidentally ate datura leaves in a stew, thinking it was an edible wild herb. Six members of the family were taken to the hospital, two of them unconscious.

Moon flower is not regulated in any way in the United States, even though it can cause severe reactions. It carries no warning signs in gardens or in the wild. Archaic people knew the power of this plant, after generations of dangerous trial and error.  Modern people should be aware that even one seed is poisonous and can cause severe discomfort.

The ancient people of the Lower Pecos used all parts of their environemnt, including toxic hallucinogenic plants. A  post in January discussed mountain laurel in Part 1 of this series, and an article on peyote is coming in March.  Nature is beautiful and complicated, as we learn over and over again. Four thousand years ago in the canyon lands near the Pecos River and the Rio Grande, the people knew this well.

Mescal Beans: Plant Helpers of the Lower Pecos, Part I

mt. laurel flowers

These lovely flowers of the Mountain Laurels so familiar in many parts of Texas belie their past ritual usage for  archaic people of the Lower Pecos and many other historic Native American groups. These flowers produce the potent “mescal bean,” which causes nausea, convulsions and even death when ingested. Mountain Laurels are one of three powerful plants abundant in the Lower Pecos that were used ceremonially by ancient peoples to gain visions, talk to ancestors, cure sickness, or fill other important needs.  Articles about datura and peyote,  two other potent plant helpers of the Lower Pecos are planned in the coming months.

Sophora secundiflora grows wild in the dry limestone country of south Texas, and it is often used as an ornamental shrub in urban and suburban settings. The fragrant flowers are a favorite of bees. However the pretty red beans they produce are highly toxic.


 When eaten, even as little as half a bean can cause  nausea and vomiting, dilation of the pupils, tachycardia [excessive rapidity and irregularity of the heart-beat] followed by dizziness, mental confusion, muscular incoordination and weakness, and convulsions; in addition respiratory paralysis may occur leading to death by paralysis, according to  Martindales Extra Pharmacopoeia p 1746.

Parents and teachers should warn children of the dangers of these tempting beans, which often fall from their pods onto sidewalks and backyards.  If a young child ate even one bean, it could be fatal. Seeds contain the highly toxic narcotic alkaloid sophorine, or cystisine; don’t be fooled–they do not contain mescaline and have no relation whatsoever to the alcoholic drink called mescal.  If you suspect someone has ingested mescal beans or Mountain Laurel, take that person to the hospital emergency room immediately.

Archeologists theorize that ancient people in the Lower Pecos used this drug in ceremonies to cleanse the bodies and souls of the participants (though severe vomiting) before undertaking other trials such as vision quests. Ancient mescal beans  have been found in a number of dry rock shelters that were occupied by people in that area 4000 or more years ago, and the plants are common in the area today. The beans were included in charms and amulets, made into necklaces or other adornments, or used as parts of other shamanistic regalia.P1040501

      In a 1957  issue of American Anthropologist, James Howard described mescal bean cults among the Apache, Comanche, Delaware, Iowa, Kansa, Omaha, Oto, Osage, Pawnee, Ponca, Tonkawa, and Wichita tribes. The bean was regarded as a powerful fetish and used in ceremonies similar to those for peyote. One Apache man said “Go ahead, eat that bean. You can do miracles, jump right up and out the top of the tipi.”  You probably will jump up if you try this–but you will run to the toilet instead of through the smoke hole of the tipi.

Alanson Skinner described the effects of the mescal bean on participants in 1926.  He said that “everything looks red to the drinker for a while, then he vomits, and evacuates the bowels.”   The toxic effect also causes a feeling of stupor, which some have confused with hallucination.  The majority of literature on mescal beans, however, does not indicate much in the way of hallucinations. Many of us have suffered a hangover at some time in our lives.  It is not the same thing as “tripping” back in the 1960s.

Among the Wichita, medicine men used to administer mescal beans to spiritual novices, causing them to throw up and become unconscious.  The sharp jaw of a gar fish was then raked across the novice’s naked body to test his ability to withstand pain. This ceremony also served to ritually remove evil influences and promote good health, long life and general prosperity (Dorsey, 1904).

Native plants were used in many ways by ancient peoples, but this is one plant better admired from afar.

Sotol Fire Drill

Sotol Fire Drill

Survivalists! Ready to start a fire?  This short slideshow explains how to make a make a successful fire using a fire drill made from a sotol stalk.  First, select a dry sotol stalk.  Sotol grows all over central and west Texas from about Waco to Mexico.  Cut two sections, each about two feet long, from below the flowering head of the stalk.  Whittle a little off two opposite sides of the larger piece to use as a hearth stick. Make the hearth stick flat on two sides.  Then smooth the remaining piece perfectly round, and gently round the small end.  Make a notch in the hearth stick as a guide for the first drill hole.

Place dry grass under the hearth stick to start the spark. Hold the hearth stick steady by placing a booted foot on it. Set the spindle stick in the notch on the hearth stick. Twist the spindle between your palms under a wisp of smoke appears.  With a gentle, steady breath, blow on the base of the spindle a little bit. Twist the spindle faster and faster between your palms as necessary.  Blow gently on the dry grass and smoke as necessary.  When you achieve ignition, carefully remove the hearth stick and spindle, and gently fold the dry grass over in your palms as you pick it up.  Carry it to the kindling and wood you have already stacked for your fire and place the spark gently amongst the kindling.  Blow gently again as necessary to ignite the kindling.

The process is demonstrated here by Texas State University students from San Marcos, Texas, at a recent archeological research site in the Lower Pecos.  I am grateful to Vickie Munoz, president of the Texas State Experimental Archeology Club, and Peter Shipman  for sharing their expertise with us.

Similar fire drills can be made using yucca stalk instead, and possibly lechugilla, although I haven’t seen one of those yet.  Let me know if you have experience with lechugilla in this way.  I suspect it would work just fine.

This is one way to use a sotol plant, to get you started on the challenge I issued several days ago.  I’m still look forward to your ideas for ways to use this versatile plant.  Please leave your suggestions in the comments section below.

Cooking with Yucca

Here are two ways to use black yucca seeds in your not-so-survivalist cooking.  First, I gently toasted the seeds in a dry frying pan on the stove. Then I sprinkled some on a salad, seen below.  The next day I got a wild hare (hair? ) and ground them up as a coffee substitute.  I confess I did add a little real coffee as well.  The result was great.  Tasted like toasty coffee! Ok, friends and neighbors, please send me more suggestions for cooking with yucca or other native plants and uses for sotol!

How Many Ways Can You Use a Sotol Plant?

Sotol Plant of the Lower Pecos region of South Texas

Following the “Survivor” theme, if you were left by yourself in the Chihuahuan Desert with only a knife, how would you find food? shelter? water? shade? home?

Send me your lists of the various ways you could use a sotol plant, and I will publish the one with the most uses.  All parts of the plant are in play: roots, base, leaves, stalk, flowers, pollen.

Ancient people who lived in this area 4000 years ago or more used this plant as a main resource for food, weaving material, ceremonial material, walking sticks, oh I’m giving it away!  Give me your list in the comments section directly below!