Herbal Myth Busting

A recurring theme throughout this course seems to focus on dispelling the myths surrounding food and food production, especially the myth of the yeoman farmer. Farming should not be treated as a hobby, and those interested in becoming involved should expect it to be hard work and, at its core, a business venture. Far too often is the role of farmer romanticized, overshading the true intensive labor and business acumen required to succeed.This discussion is better covered in other colleague’s work, but I feel that this idea can also be applied to my research in herbal medication.

Reliance or use of herbal medicine has been fairly romanticized. It’s often described as “healthier” and more natural than pharmaceutically created medication by those who ardently believe in its use, and such remedies are usually paired alongside displays of other nontraditional medicine, often emphasizing meditation and spiritual healing. There is some truth to the benefits of herbal medication and its spiritual uses. Again, the Fabiola Cabeza de Baca papers housed at the Center for Southwest Research feature a discussion of these herbal remedies. Fabiola emphasizes the need for faith in their curative powers; a spiritual element is crucial. But, these herbs were not just for spiritual healing. Fabiola’s discussion of plants and their properties includes descriptions of these herbs and what ailments they can medically cure based on their vitamin and medical properties. While nontraditional, these herbal remedies do have a scientific base in their use.

The Maclovia B. Zamora papers illustrate a similar backing for earnest medical properties of herbs. These papers discuss the B. Ruppe Drug Store, a yerba store that sold herbs and standard medication in downtown Albuquerque. Like our assertions against the yeoman farmer, this store de-romanticizes the use of herbal medication. Many of its patrons do use these medications as a continuation of traditional and Spanish and Indigenous culture, but the fact that the B. Ruppe Drug store stocked herbs from around the globe is significant. Herbal medication is not restricted to what you can find in your backyard or on a hike (especially if you are unfamiliar with this practice, it’s highly not recommended).

Further, its use is not just something based on traditional practices and stuck in the past. Herbal medication is dynamic and changing; as users and scientists grow to understand what medical properties are contained in certain plants and how these herbs can be applied to illness, so do our uses of them. This is best demonstrated in a recipe-like box within the Maclovia collection. Herbs were written on individual index cards alphabetically, with their medical properties, preparation, and country of origin included. In addition to New Mexico local herbs, the collection featured herbs from around the country and around the globe. One plant, Blessed Thistle (Cardo Santo), originates from Europe, but can be used in New Mexico as a contraceptive or to cure fevers.

Importantly, another myth contained in the use of herbal medication is that the user is not aware or does have access to modern medicine. To some degree, this can be true, especially if the user does not have access to a doctor due monetary, insurance, or location issues. But, people who use herbal medication can also have access to standard medication and either opt to use these yerbas in lieu of or in conjunction with general medicine. Maclovia herself used herbal medication to reduce her high blood pressure. She did have access to standard medication, but its use affected her respiratory system, so she “went off it and took herbs, and [her] blood pressure is much lower.” (Tri-County Advertiser, July 1, 1992) The medical properties and makeup featured in standard medication mirrors that of herbal medication (if anything, it is a concentrated version). Using herbal medication is no different than switching the brand of a particular medication because the previous one gave you adverse side effects.

These arguments are important to illustrate the legitimate, scientific benefits herbal medication can have and further debunks misconceptions about herbal remedies. In New Mexico, I would argue that their use does connect to a cultural and traditional practice, and there is a spiritual element that is absent from standard medication. However, these facts do not discount the use of these herbs as medical and curative. Further, use of herbal medication is not a practice static in the past, nor is it something only practiced by new age hippies. The B. Ruppe Drug Store is testament to this. It was in operation from 1883 to 2011 and served as a community asset, catering to a wide range of people in the community, and only closed when the owner at the time was ready to retire. It perpetuated a nostalgic idea of the past, continued traditional uses of herbal medicine, but it also operated in the present as a successful business founded upon the medical (scientific) properties of herbs and how these properties could be used heal.

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Published by

Gianna May Sanchez

Currently a Master's student at the University of New Mexico studying History and earning my certification in Museum Studies. Interested in Southwest history, women's history, traditional medicine and its interaction with professional medicine, video games, and games as a way to facilitate learning.

2 thoughts on “Herbal Myth Busting”

  1. Herbal remedies can legitimately treat many conditions. Herbs can also be powerful. Too many people write off possible side effects because “after all, it’s a natural herb.” Foxglove (digitalis) is a “natural herb” that can kill you if misused. So can belladonna, the active ingredient in a witch’s flying ointment. In this case, the witch thought she flew—sure felt like it—but belladonna hallucinations are dangerous. There are many other plant compounds that can serve as useful medications but should not be taken lightly.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Exactly! Herbs can be extremely powerful and their use should be carried out with an understanding of their properties, just as you would with any other medication.

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