In the Amazon, native healers work with medicinal plants from the rainforest, and prepare remedies for people who live in their areas. Often, these traditional healers are the only doctors available. In the course of my extensive travels in the Amazon, I have met many highly capable healers. One Brazilian woman, Nazareth, possessed extraordinary plant knowledge.
Nazareth lived by the Amazon river, in a tidy shack that suggested constant care and attention. My native friend Ipupiara and I stepped onto a neat, well kept porch, and were greeted by Nazareth. At sixty-four, her skin looked weathered beyond her years. But her eyes shone with great warmth, and she appeared trim and fit. We introduced ourselves and told her that we had come because we heard that she was an expert in plant medicines.
Over the course of the next few hours, Nazareth told us about several dozen plants, and described their uses. Some of the plant names she gave were in Portugese, some in native dialects. I subsequently identified many of the plants she described by referencing my notes with botanical books. Several proved to be popular plant remedies used widely by numerous native groups in the Amazon, but little used anywhere else. The following plant remedies hint at the vast pharmacopoeia of medicinal rainforest plants used by Nazareth and the traditional native healers of that area.
Andiroba (Carapa guianensis)
This is a huge tree, the fruit capsule of which contains oil-bearing seeds. Andiroba seed oil is used as a household liniment to rub on muscle sprains, rashes, sore and inflamed tissue, and skin tumors. It is used to remove ticks, and is applied to the skin in cases of infestation by some types of parasites. Indians use andiroba oil by itself or mixed with annato oil (Bixa orellana) to repel insects. The bark of the andiroba tree is made into an infusion for internal use in cases of fever and intestinal worms. Nazareth explained that making infusions of tree barks was commonly accomplished by placing a small handful of bark in a vessel of room temperature water, letting it sit overnight, and drinking the resulting liquid in the morning.
Aripari (Macrolobium acaciaefolium)
From this tree commonly used for making boats, aripari bark is taken internally as an infusion to relieve diarrhea. Topically, finely powdered leaves are used to treat ulcerated wounds.
Mastruco (Chenopodium ambrosoides)
This common tropical plant is astringent and highly aromatic. Dubbed “wormseed,” mastruco contains ascaridole, a nematicide which kills Ascarus, a large intestine nematode, and Oxyrus, a large species of pinworm. Infusions of the plant are used to kill roundworms, tapeworms, hookworms and dysentery. An infusion of the leaves is used to relieve flatulence and asthma, and to improve breathing. Some native women use mastruco to relieve cramps and as a contraceptive, and the plant is also employed to induce labor.
Quebra pedra (Phyllanthus niruri)
A leafy shrub, quebra pedra, also known as “shatter stone” makes a bitter-tasting tea used as a diuretic, to treat kidney infections, eliminate kidney stones and gallstones. Quebra pedra inhibits the hepatitis B virus, and is under investigation for use in cases of hepatitis and other liver diseases. The plant contains anti-carcinogenic agents, and is rich in antioxidant phenols which inhibit cellular aging.
Jurubeba (Solanum paniculatum)
A popular hangover remedy, jurubeba is used widely throughout Brazil, and is drunk as a tea to relieve discomfort associated with excessive consumption of both food and alcohol. Jurubeba tea and extract reputedly work quickly, relieving discomfort quickly. The tea relieves indigestion, and reputedly reduces inflammation of the liver and spleen. The plant contains alkaloids and a steroidsaponin compound named paniculidin, which may account for Jurubeba’s liver-protective properties. The leaves, roots, and fruit of the plant are all used.
Tayuya (Cayaponia tayuya)
A widely used analgesic, tayuya contains cancer-inhibiting compounds known as cucurbitacins which may additionally inhibit the Epstein-Barr virus. The plant reputedly relieves many types of pain, especially nerve pain, headaches and backaches. Tayuya is additionally taken as a general tonic, to regulate metabolism, to cleanse the blood and to reduce swelling.
Chris Kilham is a medicine hunter who researches natural remedies all over the world, from the Amazon to Siberia. He teaches ethnobotany at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he is Explorer In Residence. Chris advises herbal, cosmetic and pharmaceutical companies and is a regular guest on radio and TV programs worldwide. His field research is largely sponsored by Naturex of Avignon, France. Read more at www.MedicineHunter.com
Chris Kilham is a medicine hunter who researches natural remedies all over the world, from the Amazon to Siberia. Chris advises herbal, cosmetic and pharmaceutical companies, is a regular guest on radio and TV programs worldwide, and is the author of fifteen books. Read more at MedicineHunter.com.