In the summer of 1997 I participated as a graduate-student researcher
on a binational research team which was documenting the medici-
nal plants of the Mixteca of Oaxaca. I never, however, made it to the
Mixteca. Instead I stumbled onto a project that would lead me in the
opposite geographic direction, in search of giant yams in southern
The team was funded in part by the National Institutes of Health,
the Instituto de Química at UNAM (Universidad Nacional Autónoma
de México), and the Museum of Man in San Diego. As the sole his-
torian on the team, my role in documenting medicinal plants was
not entirely clear to the American researchers and their Mexican
counterparts. This confusion proved fortuitous, since I was assigned
to spend a month in Mexico City’s National Herbarium while the
team’s chemists and biologists pondered why I had been hired.
Housed in the basement of the Siglo XXI hospital, Mexico’s high-
tech public health institution and symbol of medical progress, the
National Herbarium became for nearly a month a calming alternate
world hidden away beneath Mexico City’s chaotic traffic. It is there
that I learned to press and catalogue medicinal plants, marvel at their
uses, and tolerate the oppressive mothball stench which stays in your
clothing and skin but acts as an undisputed bug repellent. And there
was where I first heard of barbasco.
As part of my herbarium training, I was expected to participate
in a two-week seminar for medical doctors hailing from various
backgrounds and regions of Mexico. The goal of the program was
to educate physicians trained in Western institutions about alterna-
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