Home-Grown Remedies

Margarita Artschwager Kay, Author of 'Healing with Plants in the American and Mexican West,' Turns Over A New Leaf.
By Rebecca Cook

WHEN YOUR grandmother recommended chamomile tea to calm your stomach, she was actually working from the accumulated knowledge of generations.

Without ever having stepped into a laboratory, Grandma knew that chamomile has spasmolytic, anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial properties.

And you thought she'd just read The Adventures of Peter Rabbit one too many times.

Where this kind of folk medicine wisdom comes from is the subject of Margarita Artschwager Kay's new book, Healing with Plants in the American and Mexican West. Kay, an anthropologist, nurse and scholar of ethnomedicine, has compiled an impressive catalog of information about various plants found in this part of the country and what their cultural uses have been.

At this point, many people interested in more natural remedies for health problems will probably prick up their ears, thinking Kay's book a great resource to help determine their own treatment.

"The purpose of this work is definitely not to be some kind of how-to book," says Kay. "I want to make that very clear. The book was actually written to help anyone who works with people using traditional medicine, especially healthcare workers, to understand just what therapies are being used and whether these are ultimately helpful or harmful to the person."

In fact, although personal fascination with the subject of medicinal plant use and its history appealed to Kay, it was the potential for disaster in using traditional medicines that propelled her to publish her book.

"There were just too many incidents where somebody was taking an herb in addition to what the medical doctor had ordered and getting into trouble," Kay says.

By way of example, she tells the story of a nurse practitioner who was mystified at a diabetic patient's dangerously extreme spikes in blood sugar levels, even though she was taking oral medication that should have been correcting and consistently maintaining these levels.

After attending one of Kay's workshops on traditional plant uses, the nurse practitioner did some investigating and found this particular patient was also taking matarique root, a potent hypoglycemic. In effect, the patient was getting a double dose of virtually the same medicine, a potentially life-threatening situation that might have ended tragically without the willingness of both practitioner and patient to talk across the chasm that often exists between traditional and Western medicine.

Now a billion-dollar industry in this country, the use of alternative and complementary medical treatments poses some special health risks people need to be aware of, Kay says.

"People use alternative treatments for many reasons," she says. "There's the person with a chronic illness who's no longer being helped by Western medicine. There are many people who simply cannot afford to run to the doctor every time they have a minor illness. And, of course, there's the '60s-kind of person who thinks, 'If it's synthetic, it's bad. And if it's natural, it's good.' Unfortunately that just isn't always the case."

Far from completely discouraging the use of less-traditional modalities to treat illness and disease, Kay instead encourages greater awareness of the actions and interactions of specific plants, and an ongoing dialogue between health care providers and clients.

"The key word here is respect," she says. "Too often if a person is using alternative medicine they're made to feel embarrassed and they really shouldn't be. People generally don't mean to do themselves harm and certainly grandmothers never intend to do something that harms the children in their care. We just need to keep that in mind."

In addition to a detailed listing of various plants, their uses and pharmacological actions, Kay also includes an absorbing ethnohistory on each plant. Who would have guessed that plants could be such interesting and reliable storytellers; yet according to Kay, practically the entire course of human events can be traced by noting the location and uses of specific flora.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the Mexican West, where it's estimated roughly 65 percent of the plant life is not indigenous, but, imported to the area from Europe by the conquering Spaniards. In addition to more coercive methods, this new herbage helped introduce Spain's medical culture to Mexico, which eventually incorporated the foreign plants into many of the healing practices of the native population.

In his foreword to Healing with Plants in the American and Mexican West, Dr. Andrew Weil commends his colleague on an impressive contribution to the field of ethnobotany.

"Margarita Kay has tackled an immense amount of historical, cultural, and botanical information and has arranged it into a readable and usable format," he writes. "I look forward to consulting this book whenever I have questions about the rich ethnobotanical traditions of this distinctive part of the country."

Meet the author at the following signings for Healing With Plants in the American and Mexican West (UAPress, paper $19.95): the Arizona Historical Society's annual book fair, from 5 to 7 p.m. Friday, December 6; at 7 p.m. Tuesday, December 10, at Borders Books & Music; at 2 p.m. Saturday, December 14, at Tohono Chul Park; and at 7 p.m. Thursday, December 12, at the Tucson Botanical Gardens. TW

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