Chiltepin or chilipequin is an easy-to-grow, part-shade plant with attractive red peppers. Who would guess that it’s the “mother pepper” to most peppers we know? Chiltepin is actually the progenitor to the anaheim, bell, cayenne, jalapeno, pimiento, poblano, and serrano peppers. Archaeological remains dating back to 7200 BCE in Mexico make wild peppers one of the first documented spices used by humans anywhere in the world.
Among Texas plants with continously documented human connections, Texas mountain laurel (Sophora secundiflora), an ornamental shrub, is among the most venerable. Its bright red, hard beans have been found in Pleistocene hunting sites along the Pecos river dating to 8400 BCE. The beans are actually quite poisonous, but have been used apparently for millennia in religious contexts for visionary and shamanistic purposes. They were also a prized article of trade for beads (for necklaces and fringes), bartered as far as Montana and amongt more than 30 Native American tribes.
The roots and rootbark of sassafras (Sassafras albidum) make flavoring agents (as in root beer) and the famous sassafras tea, while the ground leaves are the spice known as file, as in file gumbo. On account of a possible connection between safrole (a major constituent of steam-distilled sassafras oil) and liver cancer in rats and mice, the FDA banned sassafras volatile oil as a food and flavoring additive in 1960, many feel prematurely and unnecessarily. Safrole-free sassafras extracts are still used in flavoring. The leaves, naturally safrole-free, are still used as file.
A bizarre and stiking shrub, ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens) is a characteristic species of the Chihuahuan desert of the Texas Trans-Pecos. Its stalks are usually leafless until rain, and then its amazing leaves appear within 24-48 hrs. The stalks make building material and “living fences” in a land devoid of trees.
Yaupon (Ilex vomitoria), a shrub in the holly family, is common in southeast Texas and throughout the southeastern U.S. The leaves contain caffeine, and were an important and popular source of tea for Native Americans, Spaniards, and Colonists alike. Ilex is the same genus that contains the famous yerba mate of South America.