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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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Goathead gold mine: Noxious weed valued by some as useful medicinal herb

ALCALDE - What is seen as a noxious weed by many can now be turned into a cash crop.

Estevan Herrera, field technician at NMSU's Sustainable Agriculture Science Center in Alcalde, stirs ripened goathead seed pods while they are drying. Collecting and drying the pods is part of the NMSU herb research and development program at Alcalde. (NMSU photo by Charles Martin)

The seed pod of Tribulus terrestris, commonly known as goatheads, puncture vine or toritos, is readily available to the industrious soul to market to Chinese medicine practitioners.

"This plant, commonly considered a noxious weed, is a useful medicinal herb in Chinese and Western medicine," said Charles Martin, New Mexico State University researcher working at the Sustainable Agriculture Science Center in Alcalde. Martin is collecting the pods as part of an herb economic development program.

Martin is buying the pods from 4-H clubs and other youth groups across the state to be included in sample packs that are to be distributed by the Medicinal Herb Consortium, directed by medicinal herbalist Jean Giblette of High Falls Gardens in Philmont, N.Y. The consortium of herb grower associations in five states, including New Mexico, makes domestically grown or wild-harvested plants used in oriental medicine available to acupuncturists and practitioners through a sample pack of about 35 herbs. Ci ji li - the Chinese name for the plant known in New Mexico as goathead - is one of them.

"The packets are to let Chinese medicine practitioners know the quality of herbs that are available from American farmers," Giblette said. "Charles Martin has been supplying us Tribulus terrestris for a couple of years."

To stimulate an interest among New Mexicans in providing the herb, Martin is encouraging 4-H clubs and other youth groups to collect and dry the pods. Goathead season is at its peak now as the tiny yellow blossom turns into a greed pod, which is what herbalists like to use in various Chinese medicine formulas.

"This is a great opportunity for kids to earn some cash for school and to learn about underutilized plant species," Martin said. "Puncture vine or goathead is just one of many plants we consider to be weeds that have medicinal properties and therefore could be cash crops if more people just knew about them."

The right time to pick the goathead pods is when it is in its green, ripe stage, not brown, over-ripe or moldy. "Not when it is a woody sticker that attaches itself to anything it comes in contact with, including shoe soles or bicycle tires," he said, adding that the large whole pods are preferred.

Giblette said Tribulus terrestris is listed in the "Divine Farmer's Materia Medica," the oldest record of herbs used as medicinals in China. The book includes a wealth of historical information about early descriptions and usages of approximately 300 Chinese herbs. The ancient publication was created by Shen Nong, the Divine Farmer, who legend says, taught his country about agriculture and medicinal herbs. Giblette said the ground, dried goathead pod is included in many of the Chinese medicine formulas used to address pathogenic changes in internal organ functions.

The use of Tribulus terrestris as a dietary supplement became recognized in Western countries after the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, where it was revealed that the gold medal weightlifting team from Bulgaria had used the herb for a natural endocrine system stimulant to boost testosterone production and thus increase their muscle mass. It boosts the endocrine system in both men and women.

"You see it on the market at health food stores selling for around $20 for a bottle of 60 capsules," Martin said. "That's why I am encouraging people to collect this plant as a cash crop. This is just one of many under-utilized plants we are trying to develop into a product with economic value. It's a matter of raising people's awareness to the potential that is out there."

For more information on collection, drying, quality control, grading and criteria for packaging, contact Martin at (505) 852-4241 or email cmartin@nmsu.edu.