Medicines of the Rainforest

I have traveled a number of times to the rainforests of the Americas to study the use of plant medicines by the people who live there.

Rainforest of Costa Rica

Author in the Costa Rica Rainforest

These trips have included trips to Peru, Costa Rica, and Belize. Several of these were with workshops organized by the American Botanical Council.

As was discussed in the introduction to plant medicines, some 70-80% of the world's people depend at least in part on plant medicines.

SantiagoAtitlan, Guatemala

Mercado Central Herb Shop

This is the herbal medicine market in the Mercado Central in San José, Costa Rica.

Here everything from roots to leaves to seeds are sold.

Mercado Central Herb Shop

Mammosa for sale.

Mammosa fruits are boiled in water and the steam inhaled to treat sinus infections. It is related to the eggplant. Eggplant preparations are used to treat skin cancer in some countries.

This shop in Iquitos, Peru, specializes in various liquid extracts.

Herbal medicine shop.

While this shop appears to specialize in optimism and promises.

Iquitos shop.

Macchu Pichu

I first experienced plant medicines 20 years ago in the Andes of Peru. Arriving from sea level into Cusco, at 11,600 feet above sea level, I, as most tourists, quickly developed "soroche", or altitude illness.

Most tourists attempt to treat their headaches with the coca-leaf tea widely sold in cafes in Cusco. They don't know that the active ingredient is not water-soluble. When the locals chew coca-leaf to give them energy at high altitude, they roll it around some ash or limestone - this chemically converts the coca alkaloid into a water-soluble form.

Coca Leaf Tea

This very mild plant medicine, long important to residents at high altitude, has in its more purified and addictive forms become a serious social and political nightmare around the world. The use of kerosene and other solvents to extract cocaine from coca leaves (with large quantities dumped into the soil) has created an environmental catastrophe within much of the Andean region.

Macchu Pichu

When I mentioned to the old Quechua gentleman showing us around the ruins that I had "soroche muy malo", he quickly found a small plant in the mint family called muño.

He demonstrated that when these leaves were crushed and the vapors inhaled, the headache would go away! The effect only lasted five minutes, so I spent the first few days walking around, pockets stuffed with leaves, hand to my nose...

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©2000 Dr. Stephen Blythe