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New Mexico State University

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Native Southwest medicinal herb could become a New Mexico cash crop

A feasibility study conducted by the NMSU College of Agriculture and Home Economics indicates that some herbs, depending on market demand, could provide an above average per acre gross income for small-scale farmers.

"First we tried growing European herbs, then David Archuleta, a co-worker, introduced me to yerba del manso," said Charles Martin, assistant professor at the Sustainable Agriculture Science Center in Alcalde. "He said, 'If you're interested in growing medicinal herbs, let me show you one we traditionally use here in New Mexico.'"

Native Americans first introduced the native herb to Spanish settlers. The Europeans learned that the plant's antiseptic and antibiotic properties had many uses. One explorer wrote in his dairy, "Of all the plants we gathered none was endowed with so much magic as the yerba del manso."

Yerba del manso's benefits have been passed down from generation to generation. The plant with the large white flower spikes found in riparian habitats of northern Mexico and the Southwest in the United States can be used as a remedy for colds, sinus infections, gum diseases, toothaches, ulcers and upset stomachs.

"Traditionally, people dig up the roots or harvest the crown of the plant from wild stands in high water table areas, such as river bosques. But with the riparian areas in New Mexico shrinking because of urbanization, the habitat for this useful plant is rapidly disappearing," Martin said.

Since it has been plentiful and easily available to the traditional medicinal herb community, it's never been commercialized or thought of as a commercial crop. But Martin said times are changing. "Because it is so useful as a medicinal herb and with the growing medicinal herb market, New Mexico growers have a real advantage at turning it into a cash crop. It has potential commercial sales outside of the Southwest. So just imagine the potential market when herbalists on either coast or in large Midwestern cities discover its benefits."

Since 1998, Martin has worked with the plant to determine how to transplant the native species into a cultivated environment. His findings have been published in NMSU's Research Report 758, "Cultivation of Anemopsis californica under small-scale grower conditions in northern New Mexico." A copy of the report may be obtained at http://www.cahe.nmsu.edu/pubs/research/agronomy/RR-758.pdf

"We first tried to grow the plants from seed but we had a low germination rate because it has a microscopic seed. But because it is very prolific vegetatively, we discovered we could establish a nursery by transplanting the stolons, above ground runners such as those on strawberry plants, and rhizomes, underground stems such as those of the mint plant, that will send out shoots all along the stem," he said.

Martin originally established a demonstration plot with eight plants in a one-foot wide row. It has since expanded into a four-foot wide row. "Because of the stolons and rhizomes, we have to keep it under control so it won't spread into unwanted areas," he said. "This feature of yerba del manso is advantageous to a commercial grower because once established, they could dig up most of the roots to sell and leave some to fill the vacant harvested area back in. They could keep an established stand going indefinitely this way."

The key to growing yerba del manso is water. "We found through our studies that water is the only real limiting factor for its production. It will grow in a wide variety of conditions and soils, including alkaline-encrusted soil, and in all degrees of sunlight. It's not particular," he said.

Martin's study shows that if too much fertilizer is applied, it actually decreases the medicinal compounds.

"Because we are dealing with medicinal herbs, it's not the quantity that is important, but the quality," he said. "This plant has thrived in environments that cause stress on its system and under stress the plant produces secondary compounds that give it its medicinal qualities. The plant produces these compounds as a protective mechanism, just as a human must be introduced to situations where the immune system will produce antibodies in response to mild infections which in turn strengthen the immune system."

But too much stress will reduce the plant's growth and yield below the economic threshold for a successful business. Martin has learned that a grower should give the plant moderate stress to have a quality herbal product.

"Sometimes withholding just a single irrigation is enough to induce the plant to build up medicinal compounds and increase its quality," he said. "We learned from this study that moderate levels of water were able to achieve adequate yields and still maintain high compound concentration."

With its need for moderate watering levels, Martin has concluded that cultivating this plant would be advantageous on land that is of poor quality with low fertility or soil where nothing else will grow.

Martin anticipates a need for commercial cultivation of this plant in the future as yerba del manso becomes popular to herbalists. "With the knowledge we have from this research we hope to avoid what happened to other popular herbs, such as echinacea, where there was so much over-harvesting from native stands that the stands were depleted and became threatened or even endangered."