Sunday, July 29, 2018

Pointleaf Manzanita (Arctostaphylos pungens): Health Benefits from Desert Plants ???

Image by Imelda Marcias

First time I ever heard of the use of Manzanita berries down in Mexico was from a family (Benjamin Larios family) I use to visit who lived on an old Adobe walled farm house in Anza California back in the early 1980s. The husband (Ben Sr) worked for the giant potato grower from San Jacinto up there, Agri-Empire, and his wife was known by the hispanic workers as the lady who made and sold both corn and flour tortillas (two dozen for a buck). So I also purchase my tortillas from her, since in those early days there were not a lot of stores which sold anything Mexican, unless you drove over an hour to Hemet & San Jacinto in the valleys below. She once showed me jar of Manzanita berries from which she crush and made a type of vinegar to get the goat milk to curdle and make cheese. They looked exactly like the picture above right. The Larios family was one of the nicest most humble families you could ever meet. But here below is the story that triggered my memory of my early times in Anza. Nice story from a couple days ago from NBC San Diego you can read here:
Woman Who Reached 118 Years Old Says the Secret is 'Good Food' from Desert Plants
Photograph by Telemundo Local/efe (NBC San Diego)

Image - Marie Bornman
The older woman above is, María Félix, who is from Mexico and she just turned 118. She attributes her health and long life to eating "good food" specifically foods from the desert. Along with the usual better known native foods like the Tunas from Prickly Pear cactus (Nopales), Purslane (commonly cursed by gardeners) and something referred to as quelite. Much like the Southern folk's usage of word/term “greens”, which can refer to collards, kale, mustard, spinach or who knows what, but in Mexico the word quelites is used to reference pretty much any green leafy vegetable. Prickly Pear tunas are a given for Mexican foods. My flavourite are not the store bought, but rather wild collected Nopal which are native to Southern California where I come from. In the Spring time, the tender new grow of the beavertail looking pads are collected, know as Nopales, where the flavour reminds me of green pole beans, but a bit stickier and slimy like Okra. The store bought tunas and pads just do not have the same rich flavour as wild collected.

Imafe by 
I've eaten Purslane in the past which is a well known little weed. The flavour and texture is very reminiscent of Broccoli. It is freely available as you all know and very commonly known by most Mexican descended people as a vegetable. Gringos however have problems with many things commonly viewed as weeds. Yet their ancestors who came out of the great depression often ate such things. Beans were common to eat when I was a kid, but this is viewed as poor peoples food now and I dare say, unless Gringos go to a Mexican restaurant where they serve beans, very few eat them anymore. But the use of Pointleaf Manzanita is what most interested me. From what I said at the top here, it was used by Berta Larios to curdle goat's milk for cheese. Indeed, almost anything with acid content will curdle milk for cheese. This Manzanita can reach between 1 and 3 meters in height. The stems are the typical red bark and a smooth texture, their branches are short and from them are born leathery textured leaves with a bright green color. They have spherical flowering clusters with each individual flower always reminding me of Chinese lanterns and their fruits are a drupe that measures about 5 to 8 millimeters whose pulp is very fleshy and edible. Sweet n Sour like Granny Smith. The fruits to me are sweet and sour which are used in the production of alcoholic beverages, smoothies, syrups, jams and even to flavor soups. But what stands out among the properties of pingüica is its powerful diuretic action. Caution should be used like everything else in the herbal field, but many will always over do it. Humans always have this idea in the back of their minds, "If a little works, more must be even better."

Image from

The fruit tastes like the sour green apple of a Granny Smith or Rhode Island Greening. But dried and the powery interior of the seed is tart and sweet like the old Pixie Dust candy sticks. Among the supposedly beneficial properties of pingüica, the site stresses that in countries like Mexico its fruits and leaves contain very useful compounds which are used in their traditional medicine such as the tannins, gallic acid and arbutin (see link below in references). The later chemical property stands out for being the one that gives it its diuretic and anti-inflammatory properties. It's also these acid-like properties which cause the milk for curdle for cheese making. But I've provided further reading below. Some sites you'll need to turn on your translation feature from Spanish to English.

Image - Mi Herbolaria
Anyway, aside from it's uses in traditional medicines, foods, etc, it's also an excellent landscaping shrub for hotter areas for which I'm providing a link below from Las Pilitas Nursery and Bert Wilson's description and uses for this native shrub in your garden.
Further Reference Reading: (Spanish - translate)

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