With leathery hands, the shaman laid the creosote twigs across the corpse then positioned the male cadaver in the prone position, facing north in the shallow grave. Pottery jars of seeds and dried venison for the afterlife were sealed by creosote lac and tucked up next to the dark dead skin of the La Junta warrior.
The creosote plant covers over 120 million acres of land in Mexico and the southwestern USA. Native people of this region have used the plant medicinally from birth to death for centuries in the form of tea, smoked leaves or chewed raw. Perhaps as common as penicillin today, the creosote bush or greasewood, remedied pain at childbirth, rheumatism, menstrual cramps, coughing, poisonous bites and sore throats. Today the plant is used to combat fatigue in patients undergoing chemo-therapy. And, although the Food and Drug Administration considers it unfit for human consumption, it is used to stabilize Vitamin A and has also been administered for the treatment of lyme disease and the melting of kidney stones. Studies have shown its properties to be anti-septic, anti-viral and anti-inflammatory.
Scientists believe that a creosote plant seed was deposited in North America from South America by birds during the last ice age some 10,000 years ago. It crept into the Chihuahua Desert 4500 years ago and because of its unique concentric stem growth, some plants live to be a thousand years old. A descendant of one of these early bird droppings lives in Johnson Valley, California. At 9400 years old it is thought to be the oldest living organism in the world.
Like pine, greasewood is a bodega of resin, an amber syrup rich in flavinoids, oils and waxes which can make up to 20 percent of the weight of the bush. These resins shield the leaf from the strong UV light and heat of the desert allowing photosynthesis to go uninterrupted inside the leaf. Three hundred and sixty chemicals have been isolated in the oils of the creosote bush including forty-nine types of volatile oils.
Defense mechanisms include foul tasting oils that repel herbivores like deer, javalina and cattle. Some creosote leaf proteins are indigestible. But one grasshopper, the Astroma, has found a way to undo the creosote’s chemical defense and not only eats the leaves but lives within the plant’s canopy. The female resembles old stems and hide in the shade of the creosote while the male looks like the young leaf sprays. Another insect, the Tachardiella Larreae, lives on the creosote plant and secretes a gum-like substance called lac that was also used medicinally by Native Americans.
The chemicals in creosote roots also inhibit the growth of other plants, keeping them at distance and creating the image of a symmetrical mono-culture in many areas of the plant’s range.
After many days of drought, a fresh rain in the Trans-Pecos brings out the smells of vinyl, camphor, methyl ketones from the clean washed leaves of the creosote plant that many still call hediondilla or “little stinker.”