It was a sunny autumn morning, just a few hours after the second freeze of the season. The leaves had started to change color but hadn’t yet fallen, and the ABQ Botanic Garden was especially quiet — the summer tourists had subsided for the season, and the mid-morning hour catered mostly to retirees and parents with small children.
Some days, the docents explained, they have to go out into the park to cajole people into listening to their talk but, on this day, that wasn’t the case. Nine people, including a couple of cooing toddlers with their parents, a collection of retirees and a UNM graduate student listened to the docents as they made their way around the looped curandera garden path.
The Spanish word curandera refers to a traditional healer that practices a combination of traditional Indigenous and Catholic remedies. Curanderas are called on to provide treatments for physical, mental, emotional and spiritual illnesses.
The ABQ BioPark Botanic Garden's 'El Jardin de la Curandera' exhibit focuses on the native and non-native plants that local curanderas have been using for centuries.
Antonia Montoya, one of the University of New Mexico Curanderismo class coordinators, spoke with the Daily Lobo about the guided tours that UNM students take at the Biopark’s Curandera Garden.
"One thing that is really important, and that is always shared in the class, is that maintaining respect for and a way of working with the plants is really important," Montoya said.
In the class, students are broken up into small groups and led by a traditional herbalist through the gardens. Students are not allowed to take cuttings from the garden plants. Rather, within the classroom sessions, the herbalist facilitators will use cuttings that the Biopark provides to perform rituals such as limpias and to demonstrate some of the other medicinal properties of the plants. Montoya explained that this remains true to the traditional practices regarding not taking more than you need and ensuring the plants will be able to continue to thrive.
"What I have been told by the curanderas that I learned from, is that plant medicine is something that everyone can connect to on some level… You don't have to be a certain race or ethnicity to have that connection — you don’t even necessarily have to have been taught by a family member or anything like that. Everyone can learn from the plants," Montoya said.
She cautioned that just learning about the medicinal value of a plant does not qualify someone to be able to administer treatments. Furthermore, she explained potency can vary depending on seasonal factors — when the cuttings are harvested and what part of the plant is harvested.
According to Montoya, those interested in the medicinal properties of plants should have some guidance to help their understanding of how to use and prepare the medicine.
Back at the tour, garden docent Sarah Keeney went from plant-to-plant telling their stories and shouting back to her partner for input when she would get stuck.
"Here we have 'Canutillo del Campo', (which is scientifically named) Ephedra nevadensis," Keeney said. "This is a native. It’s also known as Mormon Tea, and it does have a stimulant effect."
A few people whispered to each other and gasped a little in response.
"It’s the Asian one that is much stronger... That’s the one that they use to manufacture methamphetamines, but this one is the western U.S. version… Again, a very beloved plant," Keeney said.
As the group walked forward to the next noteworthy plant, they whispered among themselves, commenting on connections to previous knowledge they had and their understandings of other uses for the plant.
UNM doctoral student Anne Turner lingered after the tour was done to talk with the docents.
"I took a class on Chicana/Chicano literature, and I just presented at a conference on (the book) "Bless Me Ultima" and the use of herbs as a text," Turner said. "So, for example, it isn’t just a plant, it’s a plant that has history, that has associations with it, that has meaning."
Turner explained the tour provided the kind of academic, kid-friendly activity that many college students who are also parents seek out. She was there with her partner and two small children.
"We walk through here as much as we can just so we can get to know the plants better," Turner’s partner said.
Turner said one of the things she learned during the tour was how to identify yerba mansa.
"I have heard a lot about yerba mansa," she said. "What she showed us today was that it turns red in the fall… which makes it easier to identify."
The Biopark will host tours as long the weather allows.
Lissa Knudsen is a beat reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @lissaknudsen