Yerbas y Remedios: A New Look

Introduction | The Task | The Process | Resources | Learning Advice | Conclusion | Spanish version | Teachers Version


In the early days of the desert Southwest, plants were used in place of modern day medicine. Later, synthetic replacements for many of the medicines were developed. Now some scientists believe that we have used the same drugs over and over again until they don't work as well. Scientists call this "drug resistance." Some people who take synthetic replacements for herbs again and again have reactions that have nothing to do with the illness they want to cure.  For example, getting itchy red spots on your arms when you take medicine to cure a sore throat. These reactions are called "side effects." Today's scientists are also finding that new diseases are cropping up where no medicines are available. This has made us realize how important it is to study the wisdom of the native peoples and their uses of medicinal plants.

The Task

Congratulations! You and your partners have been selected as Ethnobotanists, Ethnographers, Botanists, and Curators for the National Museum of Natural History. The first task for this WebQuest will be to look up the title you found under your name on your lab door to find out exactly what kind of an expert you are! Your focus in this WebQuest will be yerbas y remedios (herbs and remedies). You want to learn how the cultures of the Southwest have used these medicinal plants.

Divide into groups consisting of the following: one ethnographer, one botanist, one ethnobotanist, and one curator. You have the following tasks to do :


  • In order to interview older relatives about useful, interesting herbs, create a questionnaire (this could be done as a group activity);
  • Collect recipes, stories, history and folklore about the plants;
  • Invite an older person familiar with herbs to come speak to the class;
  • How did the early cultures (Native American and Hispanic) of the Southwest use plants for medicinal purposes?
  • Which people in the cultures were responsible for the medicines?


  • Research traditional plants and gardening techniques;
  • Collect and exchange unusual seeds and grow them and conduct an experiment;
  • Collect plants and make herbarium specimens;
  • Do a botanical survey of plant life of a nearby site;
  • When people move from place to place, how do they take their plants?
  • How are plants kept over time?


  • Describe the work of an ethnobotanist;
  • Research medicinal plants of the Southwest;
  • What medicines do we use today that have the same basic chemistry as those used in the olden days?
  • What impact did the use of medicinal plants have on survival in the Southwest?


  • Explore different works of art, music, and writing to look for plant images and references;
  • Coordinate the findings from each group;
  • Find out how to build displays;
  • Organize the overall presentations;
  • Have you used a format that presents the plants attractively?
  • Have you labeled the plants correctly?

Create a presentation of your findings for your own community branch of the National Museum of Natural History.

The Process

  1. Divide into groups of: one curator, one botanist, one ethnographer, one ethnobotanist in each group.
  2. You can work together on the tasks or divide them up among the group.
  3. Go to the resources and explore.
  4. Bookmark your findings for the presentation.
  5. Meet as a team, analyze your findings, and develop your presentation.


Web sites

General Reference Books

  • Native American Gardening by Michael J. Caduto and Joseph Bruchac
  • Medicinal Plants of the Rocky Mountain West by Michael Moore
  • Desert Survival: Gathering the Desert by Gary Nabham
  • Deserts: A Comprehensive Field Guide to Wildflowers of North America's Deserts by National Audubon Society Nature Guides
  • It Grows in my Grandmas Backyard from Tucson Awareness House

Native American Children's Literature

  • People of Corn by Mary-Joan Gerson
  • Forbidden Talent by Redwing T Nez
  • How The Sun Was Born by Third Graders at Drexel Elementary School, Tucson Arizona

Hispanic Children's Literature

  • The Very First Thanksgiving by Bea Bragg
  • New Mexico Folklore of the Rio Abajo by Tibo Chavez
  • The Legend of the Indian Paintbrush by Tomie dePaola
  • The Legend of the Bluebonnet by Tomie dePaola
  • Family Pictures by Carmen Lomas Garza
  • Woman Who Outshone The Sun by Alejandro Cruz Martinez
  • The Desert Is My Mother - El desierto es mi madre by Pat Mora
  • Pablo's Tree by Pat Mora
  • Three Stalks of Corn by Leo Politi
  • Yerbas y Remedios by Charlie Sanchez Jr.
  • Carlos and the Squash Plant - Carlos y la planta de Calabaza by Jan Romero Stevens
  • A Desert Scrapbook: Dawn to Dusk in the Sonoran Desert by Virginia Wright-Frierson

Learning Advice

Be sure to keep track of all of your findings. Open up a word processing document and copy the URLs that are of interest to your group. Then save them on a disk. You can also bookmark the URLs, but if you want to access them from school or home, it would be better to have them on a disk. Also, save the graphics you want to use in your presentation.


After completing this WebQuest you now have a better idea of how people in the past used plants for medicinal purposes. You also know what Ethnobotanists, Ethnographers, Botanists, and Curators do. Now, when you see plants on your way home from school each day, you will think of them in a totally new way!

This page written by Carmen L.Gonzales and Cissy Lujan-Pincomb.