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Medicinal Plants at Reserva Las Tangaras

May 6, 2015

The cloudforest of Ecuador is situated between the Andes Mountains and the low expanse of the Amazon. It has traditionally been a hostile place to those who were not born there, and consequently have not been swaddled in its mist, suckled on the damp of its rainy season, and weaned on dust in its dry summer months. To outsiders, the tropical forest has been a thing to be conquered, cleaned, and used to our own purposes. This trend is an obvious one, starting with conquistadors who exploited not only the forest, but the native people who they saw as part of it, and is being carried on with rubber plantations and more recently natural resource extraction.

What lies at the bottom of our disregard for the tropical forest? What is the cause of our feud, and where is the cure? Maybe, as Jose Eustasio Rivera writes in The Vortex, our apparent hate is derived from fear of the unfamiliar:

“No cooing nightingales here, no Versaillian gardens or sentimental vistas! Instead the croaking of dropsical frogs, the tangled misanthropic undergrowth, the stagnant backwaters and swamps. Here the aphrodisiac parasite that covers the ground with dead insects; the disgusting blooms that throb with sensual palpitations, their sticky smell intoxicating as a drug; the malignant liana, the hairs of which blind animals; the pringamosa that irritates the skin; the berry of the curuju, a rainbow-hued globe that holds only a caustic ash; the purging grape; the bitter nut of the corojo palm.”

Perhaps instead of giving into irrationalities and fright, the traveler should learn what leaf is tonic to his snakebite, and to seek out the bark that is an antiseptic to his wound. In this vein, I have selected five medicinal plants that grow on the reserve, and given short descriptions and photographs of each.

Clusia sp.

This sprawling native epiphyte can be found along trails near the cabin. It has large, simple, opposite leaves which are used as an astringent. Its fruit is an edible star-shaped capsule. According to Tobias Policha in Plants of Mindo, there are 63 species of Clusia in Ecuador, five of which are endemic. The species that we see at the reserve has a white, almost fleshy sweet-scented flower.

Piper sp.DSCF2357

The dangling pointed leaves and flower stalks of Piper sp. are easily seen along the entry trail to the reserve. According to Castner, Timme, and Duke in A Field Guide to Medicinal and Useful Plants of the Upper Amazon, the roots are used as a remedy for kidney stones. Piper sp. is also used for lower back pain, toothaches, and to aid healing in women who have just given birth.

Cecropia sp.DSCF2353

As you make your way into the reserve, you might trample over some large palmately-lobed leaves. Upon looking up, you would see Cecropia trees. This species is a valuable source of food for birds, bats, and other animals, especially as it is a pioneer species. It is easily found on the entry trail to the reserve, which traverses an old pasture. According to Policha, Cecropia is used as a diuretic, and its bark as an emollient and for making hammocks.

Begonia parvifloraDSCF2354

This is another native plant with large distinctive leaves. The sweet-scented white flowers are five-merous, and borne on a panicle. Policha writes that B. parviflora is used to treat inflammation, mastitis in cows, and as an antiseptic.

Psidium guajavaDSCF2410Psidium guajava is a native tree which grows right outside of the cabin at the reserve. Its most distinctive characteristic is the thin flaky bark that curls back to expose knotty, almost rippling wood. However it is most recognized at the bearer of the guava fruit. This plant is edible and very high in vitamin C and A. All parts of this plant are useful. Castner, Timme, and Duke write that Psidium guajava leaves are used for treating mouth sores and and the bark can relieve dysentery. Its flowers can help regulate menstrual periods. Policha writes the fruits are anti-diarrheal as well.


A Field Guide to Medicinal and Useful Plants of the Upper Amazon

James Lee Castner, Stephen Lee Timme, James Alan Duke

1998 Feline Press, Inc.

Plants of Mindo: A Guide to the Cloud Forest of the Andean Choco

Tobias Policha

2012 American Herbal Dispensary Press

Tropical Rainforests: Latin American Nature and Society in Transition

Edited by Susan E. Place

1994 Scholarly Resources Inc.

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