Arid Lands Newsletter--link to home pageNo. 35, Spring/Summer 1994
The Deserts in Literature

Sonora: A Description of the Province

by Ignaz Pfefferkorn (b. 1725)


In 1756, Father Pfefferkorn began eleven years as a Jesuit missionary in the old Mexican province of Sonora, an area of deserts, semiarid grasslands, and mountains comprising the southern portion of the modern Mexican state of Sonora and the northern portion of the American state of Arizona. As historian Bernard L. Fontana notes in his foreword to the 1989 edition of Pfefferkorn's classic Sonora: A Description of the Province, translated by Theodore F. Treutlein and published by The University of Arizona Press as the inaugural volume in The Southwest Center Series, "the book provides splendid insights into eighteenth-century European knowledge and beliefs concerning medicine, natural history, religion, and a wide variety of other topics." It is to Pfefferkorn's plainspoken observations of the healing properties of plants native to the region that we turn in this excerpt from "Chapter VI, Products of the Plant Kingdom of Sonora: Healing Herbs and Plants":

In Sonora there are a multitude of beneficial plants and herbs which serve in restoring health, often with wonderful efficacy, and thus happily compensate for the want of doctors, surgeons, and apothecaries. I wish only to mention those about which I have the greatest knowledge. Mezcal [mescal], which usually grows on hills, is related to the famous aloe, the leaves of which so resemble mescal leaves that one could not tell them apart were not mescal much smaller and so low growing that I did not see a single plant among thousands that was two ells in height.

The leaves of the mescal are an infallible antiscorbutic. For this purpose they are slowly roasted in hot ashes, then heavily pressed so that they yield their juice. The juice is cooked, assiduously skimmed, and after it has cooled a small glassful is drunk by the patient in the mornings, on an empty stomach. The drink is uncommonly bitter and bad tasting, to be sure, but it completely cures the evil in a few days.

The root of this plant is as thick as the head of a large man and has a skin covered with scales like those of a fish. One could hardly find a more efficacious remedy for the healing of all fresh wounds (and not infrequently also old ones) than the juice of this root when it is applied to the wound with a saturated cloth. Truly, the cure is somewhat painful, but it is accomplished quickly, as is proved by almost daily experience.

Pleasant spirits are also distilled from the root. These excel the best so-called Rossoli and, besides strengthening the stomach, stimulate the appetite and are very good for the digestion. Hence, in Sonora, where wine is hardly known and water is usually unhealthful, this drink can be considered a real healing remedy if it is used moderately and only according to the needs of health. Once, while in Sonora, I had these spirits to thank for the restoration of my health. I had so upset my stomach that during a period of six months I could retain no food and had been completely weakened by frequent and violent vomiting. An honest Spaniard advised me to take a small swallow of mescal spirits every day one hour before the noon and evening meals. I heeded him, and my health was completely restored in a short time.

To distill these spirits the root must be prepared in the following manner. A deep, round hole is dug into the earth and lined from top to bottom with stones laid one upon the other in the manner of a wall, so that a good space remains in the middle. This is filled with wood which is fired so that the stones are heated through until almost red hot. When the fire has consumed the wood, the pit is filled with clean, stripped roots and is well covered with twigs and earth to inclose and keep the heat for a long time. The roots must remain all night in this bakeoven, and the following day they are fully roasted and ready for the spirits to be distilled. Few have the equipment needed for the distilling, however, and those who have are usually Spaniards, who demand good payment for their trouble, since a pint [schoppen] is sold for two guilders.

The root is also used as an article of food. In fact, most people, especially the Indians, roast these roots for eating purposes only. They are pleasantly sweet, are nourishing, and have the added advantage of keeping for some weeks without spoiling. Hence, they are much liked by the inhabitants and practically constitute the daily fare of the Apaches, in whose country the mescal grows in larger quantities than in Sonora. . . .

In Sonora it often happens that in cases of inflammatory fevers a kind of nerve-twitching (pasmo, the Spaniards say) develops, especially when the sick are not carefully protected from the air. This condition is so familiar in Germany also that it is unnecessary to give a description of it. It is only a pity that the remedy which is used for it in Sonora is not known in this country. As soon as the pasmo begins to manifest itself, the herb, hierba [yerba] del pasmo, so named for its properties, is boiled in water, which is then given to the sick person to drink. The result is always happy, provided the remedy is taken in time. The leaves of this herb which are roundish and quite large are also laid on wounds, swellings, and ulcers either if erysipelas has set in or the swellings have hardened so that they cannot come to a head and burst. In either case, these leaves are a tried and speedy remedy.

In Sonora there are neither doctors nor surgeons; hence, there is no one who can open the veins of a sick person. Nevertheless, there is no reason for anyone to complain very much because of this want, for one can use an herb which the Spaniards call hierba [yerba] anis because of its similarity to the anise in shape and even greater similarity in taste. This herb, boiled and taken, cures dangerous inflammatory fevers without waste of blood, which doctors in Spain often draw off in streams in case of such illnesses. This I myself learned in Sonora when, from journeying in the hottest sunshine, I was overcome with a severe fever and stitches in the side and found myself in a few days in the greatest extremity. This herb, however, happily saved my life, and besides I had the consolation of not having had to purchase my health with the loss of my blood. . . .

On the mountains near the villages of Imuris and Santa Magdalena, growing to about two ells in height, are numerous shrubs which bear the jojoba fruit. In size, taste, and color, the fruit pretty nearly resembles the hazelnut. It is not inclosed in a hard shell, however, but is covered only with a tender little skin, and is thinly furrowed lengthwise. Since it is pleasant to eat, it is the more popular as a mild and good remedy for stomach aches, being especially helpful in cases where the stomach has been chilled. It must be taken rather sparingly, however, because it is hot and too much is constipating. This same fruit is very useful also in cases where a swelling becomes hardened, because of cold or other cause, and will not burst open or resolve itself. The jojoba is roasted and ground up to make it yield an oil, which would not be displeasing even on foods. The oil thus procured is spread on the swelling, which is relieved more quickly in this way than by application of the aforementioned pasmo herb.

The guareke tree is noteworthy in many respects. It is entirely bare and leafless. From its branches sprouts forth a plant which grows to the earth where it takes root. Several of these plants are found on one tree and at a distance look like hanging ropes, and, since they are very strong and pliable, serve the same purpose as do the best ropes. But what makes the guareke especially valuable is its wonderful efficacy in healing fresh wounds when it is sprinkled on them in pulverized form. Besides the speedy aid which this powder effects, it has the pleasant property of not causing any pains. If the flesh is putrid or if any other serious complication is present, it is not effective; then one must make use of the remedies described above.

The shrub-like hocotillo [ocotillo] consists of ten to twelve or more twigs, which grow to a height of six, seven or eight ells. These twigs thin out gradually from a three or four inch thickness at the base. They bear no fruit, but produce only very small, round, hard leaves, which lie flat against the plant. One can hardly touch the hocotillo plant without injuring himself, for the twigs are covered from top to bottom, as it were, with very pointed thorns about half an inch long.

In my first six years in Sonora I never heard anything praiseworthy spoken of the hocotillo. I considered it a plant for which there was no known use, being useless even for fuel as it has no firm wood and is immediately consumed in fire. However, while on a journey I was taught by chance that this contemptible hocotillo is an incomparable remedy in driving away with astonishing speed swellings caused by falls, bumps, or crushing. A Spaniard, who, together with some Indians, accompanied me on the journey, fell with his horse, so that his right leg lay under the animal. Because of the weight lying upon it, the leg was crushed and swollen to such a size in a few minutes that in order to lay it bare the boot and stocking had to be cut open. I was very much distressed because of this accident, but an Indian consoled me with the promise of devising a cure on the spot. He lighted a fire immediately, cut off some twigs from the hocotillo, and after peeling these, roasted the remainder for a short time in hot ashes. Then he pressed out the juice on a cloth and bound the swollen leg with it. This treatment he repeated several times, and in two hours' time the swelling was gone and the Spaniard was without the least pain.

Gomilla de Sonora is a transparent, reddish-yellow resin which is exuded from the twigs of a common bush. It dissolves during the usual rainy season, which begins in July, and hence must be gathered before that time. As far as is known, the plant is found only in Sonora. Therefore, it bears the name, Gomilla de Sonora, that is, Sonora gum. Indeed, it is not common even in Sonora being found only in the southwesterly parts. It was still unknown in Mexico City in 1764. I sent the first report of it there and sent at the same time some of the gum. The approval which it gained for itself in that city is evident from the fact that in the following year I was urgently requested to send as much as I could possibly get. When it is dissolved in water and swallowed, this gum is an excellent remedy for hemorrhages and bleeding. Even after the first swallow the patient is sometimes comforted, and his illness must be very stubborn if he finds it necessary to take this drink three or four times. Now I refer in part to trustworthy testimony of very credible people and in part to my own experience. After my return from America, while in Spain, I made the last test with it. A friend of mine, an officer of a Swiss regiment, had such a severe hemorrhage that the skilled doctor in the port of Santa Maria at Cadiz seven times prescribed opening a vein for him. But this terrible butchery could not stop the bleeding. I sent him a small piece of this gum which one of my traveling companions had brought along. The officer took it on my recommendation and was well on the same day. It is in truth to be regretted that this remedy, as well as many other very valuable ones with which Sonora is enriched by nature, are not made known more widely in the world. This is no work for a missionary, who, far from having the time to undertake such labor, is kept busy almost beyond his strength with the care of the bodies and souls of his Indians. Skilled men, well versed in this branch of learning, must be commissioned to write a detailed description of all such healing remedies after industrious investigation and exact observation. However, that is too much to ask of the Spaniards.

This gomilla is lauded in Sonora as a very powerful antidote and remedy for the fatal madness resulting from the bite of a rabid animal. I cannot vouch for this, because I do not know about it, but in such cases (not infrequent in Sonora because of the great heat and shortage of water in the dry months) I always made use of another remedy, nauseous, to be sure, but safe, the effectiveness of which never disappointed me. This remedy is monk's rhubarb. A faithful Indian, whom I always had with me in the house, alone knew the secret which I intrusted to him, and he would prepare the medicine. He dissolved a goodly portion of this rhubarb in cold water, mixed sugar with it to make the taste endurable, and gave it to the patients to drink. I could mention more than twenty whom I saved from such a terrible evil with this remedy. Among them was my Indian himself, although he well knew the ingredients of this draught.

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