Even though anthropological studies are often undertaken there are no truly accurate records of the native use of wild plants. The daily foods of indigenous peoples are usually considered a food of low social status and are often overlooked by peoples of a “developing” society, in particular those people of the society doing the developing. This was the case in Mexico where some plants were actively suppressed because their usage conflicted with the religious beliefs of the invaders. The majority of information we have on hand regarding Mesoamerican herbs and plants was written by the very people who destroyed the culture they were that they were now lamenting the loss of. Fray Bernardino de Sahagún (1499–1590), a Franciscan missionary who arrived in Mexico in 1529, eight years after the destruction wreaked by Cortés is largely responsible for much of the information that we do have. Sahagún wrote the “Historia general de las cosas de nueva España” (General history of the things of New Spain) which was an encyclopaedic work about the people and culture of central Mexico. He began conducting research primarily for religious reasons as he believed the Americans to be barbarians and to convert them into Christianity he first needed to understand the culture before he could undermine it. He did believe the culture to be of little worth and so the information that he passed down was tainted with his own prejudices and cultural blindness. There is some worth to be found in his work however as a primary source of information for him were the indigenous students from the College of Santa Cruz in Tlatelolco.
The first herbal and medicinal text known to have been written in the New World was the Libellus de Medicinibalis Indorum Herbis. This text, also known as the Codex de la Cruz-Badiano or more commonly the Badianus manuscript, was written in Nahuatl at the college of Santa Cruz in Tlatelolco in 1552 by Martin de la Cruz and later translated into Latin by Juan Badiano. The College of Santa Cruz was the first institution of higher learning that was devoted to the teaching of the native peoples of México and was surrounded by much controversy at the time. This book contained detailed information on the medical practices and the use of herbs as outlined by the customs of the Aztecan peoples. Most of these herbs were unknown in Europe though the book itself contained European concepts of medical theory as they existed in the 16th century including the “Doctrine of Signatures” and the “Theory of Humours”. The concept of “hot” and “cold” diseases was believed to have existed in Aztecan medical practices before the arrival of the Spanish and was a part of the spiritual beliefs of the nature of opposing forces and how they were balanced within the universe.
Fray Bernardino de Sahagun was the author of many important studies of the Mexican peoples, most notably the Florentine Codex, and included sections on herbs and the uses of both wild and cultivated herbs in dietary and medicinal practices.
In 1939 William Gates, who was responsible for the reviving of the Maya Society, introduced the Libellus de Medicinibalis Indorum Herbis into modern society by the publication of the original tome (in Latin) and his English translation of it.
The Wild Herbs of Mexico
Herbs played a large role in Mexican society and one group of plants known as quelites is intertwined with Mexican agricultural practices from the earliest times.
Quelites (1), generally speaking, are edible herbs that have been wildcrafted or collected from cultivated fields. These plants may be harvested for their leaves, stems, roots, flowers or flower buds. According to one author, indigenous Mexican farmers differentiated between two types of wild herbs; mal monte (bad wild) and buen monte (good wild) (Latorre, 1977). Mal monte herbs are removed from the fields and buen monte are plants that are considered useful and can be used as food, medicine, soil enhancers, insect repellents and for ritual or ceremonial purposes. Casas (etal 2016) notes that the Mixtec of La Montaña de Guerrero (2) differentiate two varieties of quelite. A masculine “macho” and a feminine “hembra”. Macho herbs (generally speaking) had thinner, harder and in some cases pubescent (3) leaves. These plants are more bitter and fibrous in texture. They are weeded from active fields but are allowed to grow in fallow fields. Hembra herbs have wider, tender, glabrous (4) leaves that are more palatable as a foodstuff. They are the preferred variety of the plant and will be allowed to grow in the milpa. It was also noted that other quelites were classified, used and managed according to their colour. For instance, Porophyllum ruderale was classified as either “white” or “purple”. The white variety has light green stems and leaves and is the preferred variety. It is cultivated and available year round. The purple variety has leaves and stems with purple areas. This variety is “tolerated” and is available only during the dry season (Casa etal 2016). Another classification is that the word quelite does not refer to a specific plant but to its age. i.e. the quelite is any flower, leaf or herb that is tender (or immature).
- pronounced (roughly) kay-lee-tays
- one of seven regions of the State of Guerrero in Mexico. Guerrero lies west of Oaxaca and south of Puebla
- “hairy”. When you see the word pubescens in a plants name it means there will be some kind of hairs (or prickles) on the plants leaves,stems, fruits etc
In Nahuatl the word quilitl encompassed all green vegetables including the tendrils of squash vines, the leaves of larger shrubs such as Chaya and other plants now commonly referred to as weeds. A Mexican friend tells me that everytime she would order a taco de quelites at the local tianguis that she was always served the same plant and was confused by my explanation of the word quelites being used to describe more than one plant. The word itself is something like the english equivalent “potherb” which refers to any leafy green plant (which can be wild or cultivated) that is cooked as a green.
These plants are seasonal and are most common at the end of the dry season. They come with the rains and are a valuable addition to the diet at a time when fresh food is scarce. Some quelites can only be found during the rainy season. Others are lucky enough to grow in a fertile location such as the valley of Oaxaca and are available all year round, although these herbs will still be less common during the dry season. Many quelites are only known locally, knowledge of them being passed down by farmers and gardeners; because many of these herbs are so delicate they may not travel far from their point of origin and may only have a small sphere of influence.
Some quelites grow in ditches and on riverbanks while some sprout spontaneously in the milpa and others (ie: papaloquelite, romeritos, verdolagas, quintonil) are so popular that they are produced commercially to meet the demand of urbanites missing the tastes of home (Linares Mazari etal).
In 2018, a little over 380 hectares of papalo was sown producing more than 6000 tons of fresh herb (1), in 2021 this figure rose to 6815 tons (2).
These plants have a long history of use and when found in cultivated fields they are generally cared for and they can be tended as carefully as the corn itself. It is recorded that the mother of the Emperor Itzcoatl had sold quilitl in the marketplace at Atzcapotzalco.(Evans,2008,p465)
Itzcoatl was the son of the first tlatoani (1) Acamapichtli and a comely slave woman from Azcapotzalco to whom Acamapichtli “took a fancy” (Gingerich 1988). Itzcoatl was a notable historic figure who was responsible for throwing off the yoke of Tepanec rule and laying the foundations of the Triple Alliance which eventually created what we now know as the Aztec empire. During his reign (1427-1440) occurred the Tepanec war which confirmed Mexica ambitions in the Valley of México. After the defeat of Azcapotzalco in 1428 and the fall of Xochimilco in 1430 Itzcoatl commissioned the construction of causeways south across the lake to Coyoacan and southwest to Culhuacan on the Itzapalapa peninsula. This created a land route from Tenochtitlan to Xochimilco via Coyoacan. Xochimilco then became a major agricultural supplier for the glowing jewel that was Tenochtitlan.
- Tlatoani “great speaker”. The leader of the people, in essence a king or emperor (although neither word adequately conveys the true meaning). A tlatoani could be “deposed” by the people as was the case with Moctezuma Xocoyotzin (c. 1466 – 29 June 1520) who was reportedly stoned to death by his own people due to his actions in attempting to pacify his people and accept the Spanish. There are several versions of this story and this one, the one in which he is killed by his own people, is contested as Spanish propaganda.
The foreign herb that the Mexicans have most commonly accepted is without a doubt coriander (Coriandrum sativum). Also known as cilantro it is used in its fresh leafy form in nearly every savoury Mexican dish. Coriander is native to southern Europe (but is believed to have originated in the area now known as Iran) and has a long history. It is mentioned in the Bible, was used by the Egyptians and was spread to every corner of the then known world by the Romans. The Spanish introduced it (along with goats, sheep, chickens, horses, cattle, pigs, rice, almonds, wine, olive oil, barley, parsley, oregano, black pepper and many other things) to Mexico during the Colonial period (1500 onwards), although I have read that it was the Chinese who were responsible for importing coriander seeds at around the same time and coriander can be commonly known as Chinese (or Mexican) Parsley.
One intellectual stated,
“The grocer, not the conquistador, is the real Spanish father of Mexican society” (Pilcher, 1998, p27)
The traffic of herbs has in no way been one way. Mexico is responsible for a large portion of all the food stuffs in the world and the foundations of many of the world’s great cuisines are constructed from the bounty of México’s Flora. Where would Italy be without the tomato?
The export of herbs from the New World to the Old World has had mixed results. There is no doubt Cristobal Colon failed in his search to find a source of black pepper. In its stead, a new plant arose on the scene, the chile, an important culinary plant in every culture that has sampled it.
Not all New World herbs have received so great an acceptance outside of their homeland. Some, such as Epazote (Chenopodium ambrosiodes), a fresh herb as prolific to Mexican food as basil is to the Italians, is widely thought of as a noxious weed outside of Mexico. Some, such as amaranth, chia and quinoa, are now being seriously looked at as a foodstuff and are proving to be valuable sources of nutrition.
Many of the wild or semi wild plants that weren’t commonly eaten are no longer remembered.
At a Symposium on Wild and Cultivated Mexican Greens at UNAM (3) in July 2009 it was stated that in the Codex Florentino, Fray Bernardino Sahagún recorded nearly 2000 varieties of quelite (Potters). 500 (or so) of these plants are used in Mexican kitchens, although other sources state that as few as 30 are in common use.
Consumption of these plants has declined due to the prestige afforded other vegetables by consumer advertising. There is concern that the Mexican youth is no longer familiar with the richness of indigenous food plants. In many cases, quelites carry the stigma of being an emergency food for the poor in precarious conditions; this contributes to the disparagement and belittling of these plants (Diaz-Jose 2019). Similar parallels can be drawn with the Aborigines of Australia whose knowledge of local wild plants, known as “bush tucker” is in danger of being lost largely through the indifference of the current generation. Although this too is now changing.
It has been recognised within Mexico that this is a source of cultural loss and efforts are being made to preserve this knowledge. Excellent work is being done in this area by a diverse group including scholars, authors, chefs, various community groups and motivated individuals.
Women’s groups and Universities have produced identification guides and cookbooks for a range of native quelites. In Puebla (a Mexican state renowned for its food culture) there are cooking competitions that are based around quelites, and many indigenous groups have now recorded their knowledge of these herbs through this forum. The Pueblans (1) have catalogued 182 species of edible plants, of which 80 are considered quelites.
- Nahuas, Otomis, Tepehuas and Totonacs
There is even a competition in Oaxaca that encourages weight loss through the collection of these herbs from the wild via a quelite collecting marathon. Women attend botanical walks collecting and identifying quelites which are then used in recipes designed to promote good health.
Other varieties of wild herbs consumed by La Raza (1) include plants that have been introduced by colonising forces and are generally thought of as weeds. Some foreign plants that Mexico has accepted as quelites are,
- La Raza – the “Cosmic Race”, the people of Mexico.
The Plantago species is native to Europe and Asia. It is sometimes called “White mans footprint” as it had a tendency to pop up wherever the white man trod. It probably followed as an agricultural weed.
Sowthistle is known by the Maori peoples of New Zealand as Puha (poo-ha) and is a popular green vegetable. I first discovered this plant when I came across a young Maori girl wildcrafting it in an empty plot of land in an urban area. She recommended it be used in a soup like dish with pork bones. (see recipe below)
Most of these introduced herbs are used for their leafy greens and more than a few of them have medicinal uses. Many wild herbs were used to extend masa in times of famine when corn was in short supply. They are still considered foods of low standing and many have been supplanted by more popular vegetables from the West. After the Conquest, cucumbers, cabbages, spinach, lettuce, radishes and many other plants were added to the Mexican kitchen garden. The prestige attached to the Spanish imports led to the neglect of some native vegetables such as the quelites. In many cases identification and preparation methods of certain plants has nearly been lost.
Parsley was adopted early on as a culinary herb and herbs such as basil, rosemary, sage, fennel and lemongrass, which became popular after their introduction initially as medicinal teas, have now become frequent additions to the Mexican diet.
Spices such as cinnamon, cumin, black peppercorns, nutmeg and cloves were also readily adopted by the Mexicans for both medicinal and culinary purposes.
Currently it seems that the Mexican people are in the midst of a zeitgeist and in their quest for a distinct national identity they are delving into their culinary past.
Some basic recipes utilising quelites,
Quelites guisados (1) (Makes 3 portions)
- 3 cups (750ml) water
- Salt and pepper (to taste)
- 3 cups well-packed wild greens, stalks removed and rinsed
- 1 tablespoon lard (bacon fat or duck fat could be substituted)
- 1 tablespoon finely chopped white onion
- 3 tablespoons pureed tomato
Put the water and salt into a pan and bring to a boil. Add the greens and cook until tender, about 10 minutes. Strain, pressing down to extract all excess water, and chop roughly.
Heat the lard in a pan, add the onion, and fry for a few seconds. Add the greens and cook for 2 minutes more. Finally, stir in the tomato, mix well, and cook for a further 5-6 minutes,
Season to taste.
- Guisado (guisados – plural) meat and/or vegetables cooked in a sauce or liquid like a stew
Fried Quelites (adapted from sabor a mexico)
• 1 kilo of quelites
• ½ kilo of tomatoes, washed and chopped
• 2 cloves garlic, minced
• 1 small onion, chopped
• 6 jalapeno peppers, chopped
• Salt to taste
• Oil (as needed)
- Steam the quelites and set aside.
- Add some oil to a large pan, add the onion, garlic, tomato, chili peppers and sauté over a medium/high heat
- Add the quelites and salt (to taste) and cook until the quelites are hot. Crumble over some queso fresco (substitute with feta cheese) and serve with warm tortillas.
- 1 kilo quintoniles
- 1/2 cup of broth
- 2 tablespoons oil
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 2 sliced onions
- salt (to taste)
- Remove the thick stems from the quintoniles and wash them very well.
- Lightly fry garlic and onions in the oil.
- Add the quintoniles, stirring from time to time to prevent them sticking to the bottom of the pan
- Add the broth and season to taste.
- Cook over low heat; when dry, serve in a taco or as an accompaniment to a guisado
Pork and Puha Soup
Ingredients (serves 4 – 6)
- 3 kg pork neck, pork hock or whatever you’ve got (cut into smaller pieces)
- 2 medium onions, roughly diced
- 4 cloves garlic
- 2 bay leaves
- 2 carrots sliced
- 1 leek, roughly chopped
- 4 celery sticks, roughly chopped
- 1 bunch parsley, leaves removed from stems – keep the stems tied together in a bunch with string
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- 2 bunches puha, roughly chopped
- Optional – 1 bunch watercress / handful nasturtium leaves
- Add the pork, leek, celery, garlic, onion and carrot to a stock pot and fill with cold water to cover all the ingredients. Add the bay leaves, bunch of parsley stalks and the salt and pepper. Bring it to the boil and allow it to simmer for about an hour.
- Remove the pork from the stock, remove the meat from the bones, chop roughly and keep aside.
- Remove the bunch of parsley stalks from the stock. Add the roughly chopped parsley leaves and the puha/watercress to the stock and simmer gently until wilted. Don’t cook too long or boil the soup too rapidly or your greens will lose their colour and vibrancy.
- Place some of the chopped pork into a bowl and ladle over some of the soupy greens.
- Casas, Alejandro & Vázquez, José & Lira, Rafael. (2016). Mexican Ethnobotany: Interactions of People and Plants in Mesoamerica. 10.1007/978-1-4614-6669-7_1.
- Julio Díaz-José, Francisco Guevara-Hernández, Verónica Morales- Ríos & José Luis López-Ayala (2019): Traditional Knowledge of Edible Wild Plants Used by Indigenous Communities in Zongolica, Mexico, Ecology of Food and Nutrition, DOI:10.1080/03670244.2019.1604340
- Evans, Susan Toby : Ancient Mexico and Central America : “Archaeology and Culture History” 2nd Ed : 2008, Thames and Hudson : ISBN 978-0-500-28740-8
- Gates, W : An Aztec Herbal, “The Classic Codex of 1552” : 2000 : ISBN 13:978-0-486-41130-9
- Gingerich, Willard (1988). Three Nahuatl Hymns on the Mother Archetype: An Interpretive Commentary. Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicanos, 4(2), 191–244. doi:10.2307/1051822
- Lara, Delia Castro, Flores, Roberto Alvarado and Oliva, Virginia Evangalista : Recetario de quelites de la Sierra Norte de Puebla : 2005 : UNAM/CONABIO : ISBN 9703224644
- Latorre , Dolores. L : Cooking and Curing with Mexican Herbs : 1977: Encino Press : ISBN-13: 978-0884260516
- Linares Mazari, E , Bye Boettler, R : Las especies subutilizadas de la milpa : Revista Digital Universitaria :1 de mayo de 2015 : Vol.16 : Num. 5 : ISSN 1607 – 6079 : http://www.revista.unam.mx/vol.16/num5/art35/ : pg 17
- Pilcher, Jeffrey M : Que vivan los tamales. “Food and the Making of Mexican Identity”: 1998: ISBN 0-8263-1873-8
- Potters, Cristina : Mexico Cooks! : http://mexicocooks.typepad.com/mexico_cooks/2009/07/simposio-de- quelites-en-la-unam-symposium-on-wild-and-cultivatedmexican-greens-at-the-unam.html : Date accessed : 25/02/2014