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Charles Martin, assistant professor at NMSU's Sustainable... (NMSU photo by Jane Moorman)
ALCALDE Ð Through the centuries, settlers in the Southwest have discovered the medicinal benefits of the native plant yerba del manso, commonly called swamp root or lizard-tail. With the renaissance of medicinal herbs in the United States, a New Mexico State University agronomist believes the plant could become a cash crop for New Mexican organic farmers.

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

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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

"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 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."

"Eye on Research" is provided by New Mexico State University. This week's feature was written by Jane Moorman of University Communications.