Brittlebush is one of the most common and conspicuous wildflowers in the Sonoran Desert. It is lovely in spring, providing a glowing golden-yellow cloak for the desert. It is also very useful! And yes, the wood is brittle, hence the name.
Brittlebush (Encelia farinosa) has a long history of use. The resin collected from the base of the plant is often yellowish to brown in color. This resin can be heated and used as a glue. The O’odham and Seri use it for hafting – to hold points on arrows or, in the case of the Seri, harpoons. A different sort of resin is collected from the upper stems, is more gummy and generally a clear yellow. The Seri use this to seal pottery vessels. As a child, I learned from Sells area Tohono O’odham children that this upper stem resin makes a passable chewing gum.
Early on the Spanish priests learned that brittlebush resin made a highly fragrant incense, akin to frankincense in odor. In 1702, Father Kino wrote “. . . in this journey inland and on other occasions I have found various things – little trees, fruit, incense, etc. – all species which are peculiar to . . . [this area] . . . alone, and samples of which I bring, to celebrate with the incense, by the favor of heaven, this Easter and Holy Week, and to place five good grains of incense in the Paschal candle.” You can read more about Father Kino on Jacqueline Soules site – Gardening With Soule here.
How to Harvest
To harvest resin, use a sharp blade, like a single-edge razor blade, to make a shallow vertical slit about one inch long along a stem. The resin will ooze out of this cut and dry on the plant. Return in a day or two to collect the resin. A healthy, well-maintained plant can have numerous cuts made all over it, just have care to not girdle the stem.
Back in the 1960’s a longtime cowboy taught me that that a brittlebush stem makes a dandy toothbrush. Simply select a largish branch and peal off the bitter bark, no need for toothpaste. He had learned the trick years before from an old cowhand. Whether this trick was self-taught or learned from natives, it is impossible to say. Related though is the Seri use of brittlebush to treat toothache. For toothache the bark is removed, the branch heated in ashes, and placed in the mouth to “harden” a loose tooth. Modern dentistry advocates using mildly alkaline solutions to help maintain oral hygiene. This makes me wonder about the pH of brittlebush sap.
Some Southwestern folks will bundle the leaves and stems and use them to smudge with, much like smudging with white sage.
Brittlebush and Wildlife
Flowers are long-lasting in bouquets but do leave some flowers on the plant, because the seed eating birds need a meal. Speaking of meals, a number of native ground dwelling bees use brittlebush pollen to feed their young. Honey bees appreciate the blooms too.
If you live in Southeastern Arizona, come to one of Savorist Jacqueline Soule’s free lectures. We try to mention them on our Facebook page. After the presentation, I will sell and sign copies of “Father Kino’s Herbs: Growing and Using Them Today” (Tierra del Sol Press). This link is to Amazon and if you buy the book there the Horrticulture Therapy non-profit Tierra del Sol Institute might get a few pennies.
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