Curator’s Corner: Annual Sunflowers

by Amanda Mather, Curator of Collections

Even long after agriculture had taken a firm grip amongst Pueblo people here in northern New Mexico, wild plant resources continued to be eaten, used medicinally, and, of course, used to make all manner of stuff. We can still see New Mexicans enjoying wild plant foods — I saw quelites (wild greens) on a menu in Pecos last week! So this month I wanted to talk about a wild food that is near and dear to my heart, especially this time of year.

The Helianthus annuus, or Annual Sunflower, loves to grow in disturbed soil, so you often see it in newly dug up land or on the side of the road. If you drive around New Mexico in August or September you are bound to see lots and lots of these happy, peppy flowers! It has very little need for water, making it an ideal candidate for the high desert. It seems that sunflowers were one of the few wild plants to be domesticated north of Mexico.

It is likely that as people spread around the region, sunflowers did as well, occupying the disturbed soil humans left behind. They spread through the Rio Grande Valley and eventually up to the plains by way of trade, making these blooms ubiquitous in much of the west.

The Helianthus annuus, are a valuable and loved source of food. The seeds can be eaten in their natural state, baked, or ground into flower to add to other foods. High in both calories and nutrients, sunflowers turned out to be a very important source of nutrition for folks. Not to mention that they also taste great — have you tried dill flavored sunflower seeds? They are definitely next level!

In Pueblo cultures sunflowers were used as decoration for dances and feast days as well as for medicinal and practical uses. In San Ildefonso, the flowers are woven into women’s clothing for corn dances. Ohkay Owingeh men weave the flowers into head dresses that they wear for harvest dances.

Medicinally, the sap from the sunflower stalk was used to clean small wounds, and in Zuni the sap was used to treat rattlesnake bites. Puebloans used the strong light stalks as bird snares and for arrow shafts; and hollowed out the centers to make flutes.<

Like all plants here in the desert, the Annual Sunflower has lots of uses. Of course, the sunflower also happens to have another advantage — it’s so unbelievably pretty!

Object of the Month

Buffalo Gourd

Buffalo Gourd

by Amanda Mather

Since we are about to (finally!) start into the hot long days of summer I thought I would talk about something that always makes me think of those fun spicy days!

Buffalo Gourd, or Curbita foetidissima if you want to get fancy science talk about it, is an indigenous species from the squash family that grows in Northern Mexico and throughout the Western and Southwestern United States. If you are lucky enough to live in the west, you have surely seen this plant. It grows like crazy on the side of the road all summer long, sending out long green tendrils dotted with big yellow squash blossoms and small green gourds.

The Buffalo Gourd has been found within archaeological contexts here in New Mexico dating back to about 5,000 years ago. We and the Buffalo Gourd go way back.

When young, the squash can be and is eaten by both animal and human. As it ages however the squash takes on a bitter taste and strange smell, which is why it is sometimes referred to as “stinking gourd.” I distinctly remember this trait of the gourd from childhood when after playing with those gourds for far too long I would come home smelling…less then good, to put it mildly.

Other than being eaten young, this plant has many other helpful and delicious traits. The root of the Buffalo Gourd as well as the fruit contain saponin, which means that when introduced to water it creates soapy foam. The Buffalo Gourd was used by Native cultures as a soap and shampoo along with yucca root, which also contains the magical chemical saponin.

The seeds are tasty when roasted and also contain a high amount of oil, making them a great source of fat, which is a rare and precious thing in the desert.

Many Native American cultures of the southwest and plains used Buffalo Gourd medicinally. Most of the references I found regarding medicinal use was for skin disorders in both humans and animals. It seems the gourds were ground and used as a poultice for all kinds of unpleasant skin things.

So this humble little squash gives us so many things! Things we need here in the less than forgiving desert. And at least for right now this sweet squash is giving me some major summer nostalgia!