ALBUQUERQUE -- The plant has been described by local residents as magical, its qualities almost mythical.
The native herb yerba mansa, translated from Spanish as the "calming herb," has been used for centuries throughout the Southwest by American Indians and Hispanics for ailments ranging from toothaches to sinus infections.
Though the herb is relatively unknown outside the region, those in the folk herb industry say yerba mansa could become as popular as goldenseal and echinacea.
But before the ancient herb can get its day in the sun, researchers must find a way to protect the ecologically threatened plant from depletion by habitat loss and urban development.
Charles Martin, a researcher at New Mexico State University's Sustainable Agriculture Science Center, has found a solution. He has made yerba mansa a viable agricultural crop for New Mexico's small farmers.
"As far as I know, our center is the only place in the U.S. conducting production research (on yerba mansa)," Martin said. "We targeted native herbs in an effort to find alternative crops for small farmers that are drought-tolerant and have a built-in pest resistance, and yerba mansa is an ideal plant that meets that criteria."
Also called yerba del manso, lizard tail or swamp root, the small plant with large white flower spikes is a perennial native to riverbanks and wetlands in the Southwest and northern Mexico.
The effort to grow yerba mansa for commercial cultivation benefits farmers, but it is also an attempt to protect the plant's future.
The herb is on the "to-watch" list by United Plant Savers, a Vermont-based organization dedicated to protecting native plants used as folk remedies.
Many herbal products that have been scientifically studied have not lived up to their claims. And many, like yerba mansa, have not been rigorously studied at all. Herbal supplements do not require government proof of safety and effectiveness to be sold.
Martin said it's hard to quantify how much yerba mansa, or Anemopsis californica, remains in the wild. Researchers look to the plant's shrinking habitat as an indicator of its well-being.
In New Mexico, riverside acreage along the Rio Grande continues to be swallowed by homes and development. Irrigated agricultural land once dominated, but now it has been reduced to less than 1% of the state's entire land base.
Martin and his staff established a small demonstration plot that has grown because of the plant's prolific spreading abilities. This feature could help farmers in keeping an established stand growing indefinitely, he said.
The only limiting factor in growing yerba mansa is water, Martin said.
"It will grow in a wide variety of conditions and soils, including alkaline-encrusted soil and in all degrees of sunlight," he said. "Once established, it doesn't need any more water than a typical crop, than say alfalfa."
As commercial demand for so-called herbal treatments increases, some plants run the risk of being over-harvested.
In 2007, U.S. sales of herb and botanical dietary supplements totaled $4.8 billion, a 4.3% increase over 2006 sales, according to the Nutrition Business Journal.
Yerba mansa is gaining attention as a goldenseal substitute, said Michael Moore, director of the Southwest School of Botanical Medicine in Bisbee, Ariz. If yerba mansa becomes widely used, cultivation is the only way to ensure a steady supply.
"There are a lot of plants that have almost been picked to extinction," including goldenseal and American ginseng, Moore said. "A hundred years ago, American ginseng could be found in 22 states and now it's only found in a few."
Martin's research in New Mexico could expand into other regions that already grow yerba mansa on a large scale. Several nurseries in California grow yerba mansa for ecological restoration projects.
"We could easily go into cropping. It could be a branch of what we're doing already," said Jeff Nighman, vice president of Santa Barbara Natives Inc. in Gaviota, Calif.
Bill Quiroga, president of Native American Botanics and Yaquis tribe member in Tucson, has tested different growing techniques for yerba mansa using aeroponics. Aeroponics is a form of hydroponics that uses a water-and-fertilizer solution to grow root crops instead of soil.
Though the research has been halted because of lack of funding, Quiroga said his goal is to get American Indian farmers to grow the herb using aeroponic technology to supply his wholesale company.
But as his state's population swells and creeks dry up, Quiroga worries some native plants like yerba mansa could be lost.
"We have to find ways to grow it so that we keep the herb for later generations," he said.