Prescriptions from the forest deep
The vastness of biodiversity in the Yasuní is mind blowing. And plants are not the exception. According to the latest studies, Yasuní National Park boasts 4,000 plant species per 10,000km2: “…over 2,200 tree species, 450 species of lianas (woody vines), over 300 species of epiphytes, 800 species of fern, and the list goes on…
Amongst this incredible diversity of plant species, many believe, exist cures for all of man’s ills, a true nature’s pharmacy. In fact, many of the pharmaceutical drugs we use today have been derived from plants found in the Amazon. Countless plants that thrive in the Amazon Basin have been proven to be active against cancer cells (the American Cancer Institute indicates around 2,000 species). Quinine, used in the treatment of malaria, taken from the bark of the cinchona tree was one of the first large scale cures derived from an Amazonian plant. In the Ecuadorian Amazon Basin, alone, there are over 500 different species of medicinal species from Cat’s claw to Dragon’s blood, from anti-inflammatories to natural contraceptives.
En la Amazonía de Ecuador, existen más de 500 especies de plantas medicinales, entre ellas, las cura-todo como la uña de gato y la sangre del dragó, numerosos antinflamatorios e incluso anticonceptivos naturales.
Many of the natural plant sources already used in medicine were found simply by trial and error and the ancient tribal culture of passing Mother Nature’s secrets down through the generations. Ancient Amazonian cultures discovered and found plants that could cure all their ills. They started to use specific plants for different ailments and created recipes for how to prepare and use each potion.
The peoples of the Amazon have found many practical uses for the huge variety of plants and trees found in their back garden. The walking palm, known as shikita in kichwa has many different uses: the spikes on the trunk are used to grate yucca or plantain, once the tree has matured the first four metres of trunk are used as posts for the traditional stilt houses, and the venomous ‘palmito’ in the upper part of the tree is used as a natural pesticide against cockroaches.
The roots of many plants have medicinal properties, such as the Yawati kaspi tree’s roots, used to treat diarrhea. First, dug up and cut into pieces, the roots are then cooked with water until reduced to a syrupy consistency which is then taken orally, 1 glass before eating, by the patient.
Some plants have a more ritual use and are even believed to invoke beings from the spirit world. The supay chakra (devil’s orchard) tree is used in a rite of passage for young men yearning to be stronger and braver. They are sent into the jungle, alone, for five to seven days in search of this tree, and at sundown must scrape the bark from the part of the tree that is exposed to the sun between sunrise and sunset. The bark they collect in a pambiro leaf, must be mixed with water and left overnight to ferment. After spending the night in the middle of the jungle, the young man drinks the mixture, which gives him strength, courage and energy to confront his enemies and fight his battles.
Ayahuasca-drinking Amazonians meander through the forest understory in a daze… some describe it as nothing less than an interplanetary voyage to the spiritual creation of life, where they’ll travel through dimensions, in and out of the underworld and ‘overworld’ to come face to face with the fangs of the twoheaded serpent, wrapping themselves in the coils of the universe. Ritual ayahuasca drinkers can spend weeks in the jungle. It is hard to understand how they make it back to their communities, to impart their knowledge and¿ offer a cure to those who seek it. Ayahuasca, a natural hallucinogenic found in the depths of the rain forest, allegedly offers these healers essential information about the composition of the world’s natural spectre, and after several week-long deliriums inside the forest, the drug cracks their mind open to flow throughout the vegetation, allowing them to communicate with every living plants, which in turn will offer an answer, a cure, a revelation.
The crotón lechleri tree, literally bleeds when its trunk is cut into, even the smallest of marks causes red blood to slowly seep from the bark, giving it, its local name of Dragon’s Blood (Sangre de Drago). This red viscous sap can be applied topically to cuts, mild skin infections, minor burns, bites and acne; it heals and helps the skin to naturally regenerate. It can also be taken orally in water to treat gastritis and alleviate the symptoms of ulcers.
Such diversity is also a case against the destruction of the Amazonian tropical forests, especially when taking into account the fact that plants come in such varieties that any parcel of the forest that is cut down, for whatever reason, could mean the disappearance of a myriad of medicinal properties beneficial to our wellbeing. Instead of hurting or helping to eliminate any part of this wonder trove, we should employ our efforts to studying it intensely.
Land of cinnamon
When the Spaniards made the decision to send over 3000 men to the Amazon rainforest, they planned and realized the expedition solely because of their obsession with cinnamon, blindly following tales of natives who claimed the existence of a land where this species filled the air with its sweet scent. One of the great mirages of Conquistador history, the legendary reputation of the Land of Cinnamon fell to the ground upon finding species such as the endemic ishpingo, whose scent did not measure up to the real thing.
Amazon apothecary: Teas and cure-alls
- HORSE LEAF (Swartzia sp.)
A ‘master plant’ (sacred plant) that cleanses the spirit, accompanied by a strict diet that benefits whoever ingests it with the tree’s full-blown powers.
- GUAYUSA (Ilex guayusa)
A highly caffeinated and sacred energizing plant; most drink it as a tea.
- SOUR CANE (Demerocostus sp.)
Of the ginger family, is taken as a tea to treat kidney disease and fever.
- El MATIMUYU o MATITI (Clavija sp.)
Is inhaled through the nose to treat nasal congestion. The Waorani place its extremely fragrant flower (namotaki) on arms and hair during ceremonial events.
- DRAGO’S BLOOD (Croton lechlerii)
A powerful antiviral, antibacterial subatance, good for the skin, gum infections, and even eliminates dandruff.
- EL SUPAY CHAKRA (Duroia hirsuta)
Is used for tattooing (burning the skin) by Secoyas; it is a poisonous tree around which nothing grows, also called ‘Devil’s Garden’ and considered a transdimensional portal for shamans. It relieves fever and diarrhea.
- TZICTA, in kichwa; PENGUNKOWE in wao:
The most powerful hallucinogenic antibacterial and antiviral alkaloid; cures severe drug addictions; after mothers give birth, the family ingests it and vomits comunally; also said to improve hunting skills.
- PITÓN, in kichwa, WENGAKA in wao (Grias neuberthii)
Is a type of Brazil nut, an important source of food and an emetic, used to clean the lungs; baskets are made with its fiber; cures acne in adolescents.
- CHUCHUHUASI (Mytenus leavus)
A known anti-inflammatory and blood purifier, good for anemia.
- PAIANCHI or YAWATI KASPI (turtle leave, in english)
Is good for diarrhea and in combination with other plants, cures hepatitis.
- COMEJÉN (termita in english)
When cut heals itself quickly, so it is used to treat stubborn wounds. When burned, it is used as a mosquito repellent.
- CAT’S CLAW (Uncaria tomentosa)
A known antiviral, good for digestion and also arthritis.