A Wild Mexican Herb: Yerba de Venado
by Victoria Challancin
Casual conversations can and do lead to remarkable discoveries, such as my first introduction to the elusive wild herb called Yerba (sometimes Hierba) de Venado, or Deer’s Herb. One day some years ago here in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, where I live, I was having a conversation about plants with my favorite parking-lot attendant. All of a sudden his eyes lit up, he told me to wait, and he disappeared across the street and into the campo. After about five minutes he returned with a tiny plant with bluish-purple, cone-shaped flowers which emanated the most amazing scent, reminiscent of a Spring rain, fresh and truly indescribable. “Yerba de Venado,” Alberto pronounced proudly. And thus began my fascination with this lovely, yet somewhat hard-to-find herb.
Information about the plant is almost as elusive as the plant itself. In trying to research this plant, I discovered contradictory information. In English, the term deerweed (Lotus scoparius) refers to a different plant, a small desert shrub with yellow or white flowers. Another reference was to Damiana (Turnera diffusa), which is sometimes called Yerba de Venado in Spanish. But when I turned to my favorite herbolaria in Spanish, Las Plantas Medicinales de Mexico by Maximino Martinez, I found not only a drawing, but a wee bit of information as well on just the plant I sought.
Martinez says that (and other species) is the Latin for Yerba de Venado. He further states that the cooked leaves are used against indigestion and colic. In some parts of Mexico it is taken for malaria. In the state of Hidalgo it is called pápalo quelite (not to be confused with Pápalo, also called Papaloquelite (Porophyllum ruderale or macrocephalum) and is enjoyed as a condiment.
For me though, the best repository for information about plants and how to find and use them is the people themselves. Mexicans in general are very connected to the flora that surrounds them and are generous with their knowledge as well. While not scientific, the information is invariably fascinating and useful. When I asked about this particular plant, I found only one reference to a medicinal use: an infusion for indigestion. As for culinary uses, I found that locals use it cooked with beans and chopped raw and added to fresh tomato salsa (pico de gallo) or guacamole.
Over time, I have learned how to find this tiny plant. After the rains, when the wildflowers are profuse in the campo, I can always discover it first through my dogs. One of them will accidentally crush it underfoot, release its unusual scent, and I then know that it has reappeared after a dormant season. It tends to grow amid other wild flowers and plants, such as daisies and arugula, but because of its size, can be hard to locate. I do it through smell.
If you are lucky enough to have this refreshing herb growing near you, try tossing a tablespoon of chopped leaves into your next raw salsa or guacamole. Spring rain, Mexico, elusive mystery. Very satisfying indeed.
I am sending this blog as an entry for Weekend Herb Blog, begun by Kalyn Denny of Kalyn's Kitchen and hosted this week by Haalo of Cook (almost) Anything At Least Once. Many thanks to them for their efforts.