Finding Healing In New Mexico’s Wild Harvests
By Emily Hill · Photos by Stephanie Cameron
Standing in an abandoned lot in Albuquerque’s Sawmill District, Cebastien Rose leans over a scraggly plant growing out of a crack in the pavement. “Purslane,” she announces, picking off a stem. Rose and her partner Robin Moore are the owners and herbalists behind Dryland Wilds, a perfumery out of Vallecitos that specializes in foraged plants. They lead regular foraging walks like this one. “Purslane is delicious in a salad. It tastes similar to watercress or spinach.” In one city block, Rose has shown us desert willow, great for treating dry skin and eczema; honey locust pods, which make delicious syrup; and rabbitbrush, used for centuries by Rio Grande Puebloans to soothe the stomach. She passes a waxy purslane leaf to us and points left, “And there! Oh, you’re going to love this next one.”
Rose and Moore are a part of a growing constituency of DIYers who are finding all the raw materials they need in nature. These wildcrafters repurpose the plants we usually discard to create teas, tinctures, essential oils, and even Michelin-star menus.
Dryland Wilds creates handmade perfumes, beauty oils, and botanical soaps using native species like copper mallow and piñon, as well as invasives like Russian olive, tamarisk, and snakeweed. “It’s important for us to find productive ways to use invasives,” says Rose. Partnering with local farmers and landowners, Dryland Wilds helps the property owner control invasive populations, and Dryland Wilds goes home with a fresh harvest of Russian olive or whitetop blossoms.
Education is key. Gaining an intimate understanding of a place through foraging takes more than just plucking neighborhood dandelions for your wildcrafted tea, says Dr. Tomas Enos, ethnobotanist and president of Santa Fe’s Milagro Herbs. “It starts with knowing that plant’s relationship to the entire ecosystem.” To be a wildcrafter or forager is to ascribe to a certain moral obligation, beginning with taking no more than you need. “It’s important to consider how to harvest a plant to enhance its ability to regrow,” says Enos. As an herbalist who works only with small-batch, hand-picked plants harvested at the height of their nutritional and medicinal capacity, Enos is committed to a sustainable business model. “You can’t damage Mother Earth and then try to use those plants for healing,” he says. “Your work needs to both heal the land and heal the people.”
New Mexico is especially fertile ground for this work. “Because of its Native American and Hispanic history and traditions, this is a special state with magical powers,” says Dr. Eliseo Torres, author and professor of UNM’s curanderismo traditional medicine courses. “The popularity of homeopathy and herbal medicine is a multi-million dollar business. I am pleased that these traditions are being kept alive. Sharing the knowledge is good so that it is not lost.”
Despite being arguably the oldest human skill in the book, Torres points to a fresh interest in foraging and food-as-medicine. In addition to their increasing prominence on the plate (many Michelin-starred restaurants now tout foraged foods for field-to-table menus), foraged products now feature prominently in perfumes, wedding bouquets, and beer (Albuquerque’s Bow and Arrow brewery recently released a Grisette sour, made with locally foraged Navajo tea).
Rising interest in wild herbs and foraging could threaten wild plant populations, but so far that’s not the case. With so many foragers emphasizing ecosystems and growth cycles, foraging has environmentalism folded in. Rose says, “You have to harvest with respect and restraint. Choose prolific patches, prune weak branches, harvest only twenty-five percent or less.” She adds, “Sometimes, you’ve got to be okay with taking nothing home.”
Left: Robin Moore and Cebastien Rose. Top right: Distiller used for creating Dryland Wilds products. Bottom right: Foraged rose hips.
Foragers take care of their land, says Norma Navarro, because sustaining the plants means sustaining their craft. Navarro is an herbalist, doula, and weaver. “What’s so sweet about this return to foraging is that it’s reintroducing people to their own wild spaces,” she says. “When plants take us out into the landscape, they act as a medium to get to know a place in time.” Some of her first memories are of her grandmother picking and preparing nopales over a fire. Today, she works with midwife Jessica Gutfreund at Breath of My Heart Birthplace in Española to prepare wild and local herbs for new mothers in postpartum recovery. “It’s as psychological as it is clinical. Plants are medicine that, through your senses , bring you back in touch with the world you’re in,” she says. “What naturally comes out of that is being more accountable and taking on stewardship of the wild spaces around us.”
And that’s what all of these forager-entrepreneurs have in common: They love the land first, the craft second. To hear them speak about foraging is to remember why you first fell in love with New Mexico. Rose talks about petrichor, the earthy scent after the rain: “All the little oils from the plants and minerals trapped in the soil, they’re released all at once. It’s the desert exhaling.” Enos talks of tasting the soil underneath the plants: “A high-mountain environment will have more humus, more of a sweet flavor. In the low, open desert, the soil tastes salty, more metallic.” Navarro loves the riparian areas lush with yerba mansa: “Under the cottonwoods you’ll find fields of it. As you walk through them, they’re so fragrant, you can just feel the aromatic oils being released.”
This romance with the land invites a new business model altogether, one based on landscape and community rather than volume. “Traditionally when a person goes to an herbalist or healer, they forge a personal relationship, they both become a part of the healing cycle,” says Enos. “There’s an intimate relationship of human to plant world. Mass production loses that intimacy.”
Above left: Oshá root. Above, right: Rose displays her wares.
For their part, Rose and Moore admit that their business model is impossibly hard to scale. Dryland Wilds uses old-school perfumery techniques to extract their fragrances. For example, one batch of effleurage involves pressing hundreds of tiny buds into coconut oil, then painstakingly removing each flower with tweezers. “The process is incredible for capturing the exact scent of the desert,” Rose says. “It’s really fun, but no possible way to scale up,” she laughs. But mass production was never the goal, Rose and Enos agree. “This work is not just about extraction, it’s based on a much larger picture of our world, our place on earth,” says Enos. “The business side has to follow that philosophy.”
While Milagro Herbs uses their foraging skills to heal, Rose and Moore are careful to point out that they sell botanical perfumes and beauty products, not medicine. “We leave the herbs as medicine to the amazing herbalists and their tradition; we focus on the smells,” Rose says. But that doesn’t mean their wildcrafting work doesn’t also heal. Foraging, as a practice, might be medicine in itself.
“We’re taught to be afraid of wilderness, mountain lions, coyotes, bears, but when you go out there amongst the plants you’re harvesting and you sleep among them, you lose the fear of the wild,” says Rose. “You find the health that’s inherent.”
What is an Herbalist’s Favorite Herb ?
Dr. Tomas Enos
“It grows in wetter areas along streams and rivers, the flowers are very beautiful, and it has powerful anti-inflammatory healing qualities. It’s very tonic, with a strong flavor. I use the leaves in topical remedies for softening and moistening, or chop and boil the roots to soothe and calm inflammation from sore throat or sore stomach.”
Escoba de la vibora
“It soothes the damaged nerves, and it is super helpful in sitz baths for the perineum for postpartum mothers. After a stressful day I also like to prepare a pot of tea; I drink a cup and put the rest into a warm bath to relax.”
“It’s got a sharp, musky smell. To me it smells like when the land is hungry for rain, then the sky goes dark, the sky flashes with lightning, and the whole desert just cracks open with this scent.”
Dr. Eliseo Torres
“Also called ‘bear medicine,’ ‘Indian parsley,’ or chuchupate in Spanish. This is probably one of the most loved plants in New Mexico, especially in the north. It has antibiotic, antimicrobial effects and strengthens the immune system. Some chew the root to prevent colds and the flu. Others use it for the respiratory system, to clear the lungs and for allergies.”