Since my short time here in the Ecuadorian Amazon began, I have been completely and utterly blown away by the endless array of medicine that people pull from the forest here. It seems that every Kichwa person I have been in the jungle with, whether an old man or a child, knows exactly which plants can be used for which ailments. I had a small cut, that was getting infected with the constant river dips I have been taking, and showed it to a local farmer friend when we were in the jungle one day. Within minutes he had harvested two different leaves, and some tree sap, with instructions on how I should apply it. My wound was healed a couple of days later.
Chakra, in the Ecuadorian Amazon is a word that specifically refers to the forest gardens of the indigenous people. The Kichwa people typically farm on less than 5 hectares, and keep subsistence crops like yuca and plantain, medicinal plants, fruit trees, various palms and timber trees. Chakras may, to the untrained eye, look simply like wild jungle, but actually contain a variety of naturally occurring and planted/grafted plants, mushrooms and trees which are harvested for medicines, foods and timber. People generally collect medicine both from their chakras, and from the wider surrounding forest.
Below is a short list of the innumerable fascinating plants used for medicine here in Napo.
Barbasco (Lonchocarpus utilis): Barbasco is an interesting plant, with a slightly sinister backstory. Traditionally,
people will crush up the roots, and construct a pool in the river using rocks, tree branches and mud from the mountain. Once they put the barbasco into the water it stuns and drugs fish, which then allows them to be gathered for food. However, it is also poisonous to humans; the story goes that in most communities 1-2 lovesick teenage males a year drink barbasco to end the misery of unrequited love. In small doses it can be used to cure fungus in humans and animals.
Pajotoquila (Carludovica Palmata): This has a strong fiber, and is used to make fish-catching structures, roofs, umbrellas and panamá hats. Apparently, when the Panama Canal was being built, Ecuadorians travelled to Panama and sold the hats. Those from the U.S. started calling them “Panama hats”, but really, they originated in Ecuador!
Chonta (Bactris gasipaes): A type of palm that has a large variety of uses. The needles are mildly poisonous, and work well to
get rid of warts. The spines protect the tree from animals eating the fruit. It is a hard wood, which is used to make blow-guns, spears or knife handles. The fruit is considered a super food, and is very high in vitamins. Traditionally, besides eating the fruit boiled, Kichwa’s also make chicha from the fruit, which is a fermented drink. When it get’s really fermented it is alcoholic. Additionally, chontacurro, Red palm weevil larvae, make their homes in the tree, which are also harvested and eaten (roasted they are delicious).
Yacu wanduk(Brugmansia -Family): This is a hallucinogenic plant, which in higher doses is also used as poison. It is said that it allows you to find lost things. If you ingest it, the plant will take you to find a thief, if you have been stolen from. It is used traditionally to purify the body a few days before an Ayahuasca session, is a powerful purgative and stomach cleanser. An extract of the leaves are ingested, and only one spoonful is typically ingested because it is so strong.
Hormigas limón: While not a plant, these tiny ants live in the seed pods of a leaf, and when ingested they taste like lemon. They are very delicious, and are also consumed to rid someone of a sinus issue. They also create a symbiotic relationship with the tree that they live on: the tree leaves provide a home for the ants, while the ants secrete formic acid as an herbicide that poisons competing trees and allows their home tree to grow.
Hoja de peno: Translated into the “farting leaf”, this leaf supposedly stops someone from farting. It is brewed into a tea and in ingested for digestion and stomach issues.
Palma caminera (Socratea exorrhiza): This type of palm, translates into “walking palm” because of its leg-like roots. The fruit is ingested by bats and the spines are used by humans as a shredder.
Nido de termitas: An empty termite nest can be crushed up, and used as mosquito repellant when in the jungle.
Sange de drago (Croton lechleri): Translated to “dragon’s blood”, this tree latex looks eerily like blood when it drips out of the tree. Medicinally, it is used to promote healing of cuts, wounds, and helps to more quickly form scar tissue. It is also used to treat ulcers, bites/stings and fever. A friend told me that when he was young, people also used the latex as toothpaste (even though it has quite a bitter taste). It is applied externally, or is taken in small doses internally, usually dropped in juice or water.
Manduro (in Spanish, achiote) (Bixa orellana) Is a large shrub or small evergreen tree that produces seeds that are used to make body paint, or lipstick. It is also used as a food coloring and as a spice. It is actually used today in industrial food coloring.
El pene del diablo: The latex from this palm is used to heal wounds and scars. You can look up the translation yourself.
Punto de lanza: This leaf is called “lance point” for it’s red tip. The myth goes that back in the days of intertribal wars, a slain enemy’s soul gets trapped in the leaf, and that is why it has the red tip. It is used for women who are having pain during menstruation, by either making a tea or by crushing the leaf into a poultice and rubbing it directly onto the area of pain.
Cedro (Cedrela sp.): the tropical cedar that grows out here is used to defend against malaria, toothaches, diarrhea. It is considered a sacred plant, and can grow for over a thousand years.
Cebolla del bosque: this “onion of the forest” is used crushed into a poultice and rubbed onto the body of women who are having troubles during labor.
Uña de gato (Uncaria tomentosa): a woody vine that derives it’s name from it’s claw-like thorns, this vine has been used since the Inca civilization. It is used to treat inflammation, arthritis, intestinal complaints, and also is described by shamans as a bridge between the physical and spiritual worlds. It is generally brewed into a tea.
This is a tiny assortment of the Amazonian plants used traditionally for remedies. However, it is my hope that a little knowledge about the plants of the Amazon might spark some interest in the medicine and stories surrounding the plants that grow wherever you are living. Thank you infinitely to the various local friends who have so kindly and enthusiastically shared with me their knowledge about the plants of the area.