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Old Mother Nature’s recipes: That bring the bare necessities of life

July 29, 2021

Gazing out over the vista from the cabaña it is clear to see why Ecuador is famed for its bio-diversity. Like a giant muddled tapestry of green that blankets this country, the flora is one of the most striking and obvious components that hosts and hides Ecuador’s bountiful fauna. With an estimated 20,000-30,000 plant species, with more being added daily, it represents some 10% of the world’s species. Therefore it seemed only befitting, given the opportunity, to write about the medicinal and useful plants that surround us in the cloud forest.

As a self-confessed food-aholic, I herald food as the epitome of culture. I use travel as an excuse to sample the food on offer in the world and as such I found myself walking through the jungle eagerly trying to spot something palatable. Jungle raspberries were one of the first and most obvious things to find and a quick consultation of one of the reserves plant books confirmed that these were indeed edible. They have since become a favourite porridge topping of ours.

Jungle Raspberries “Frambuesa”

However, it quickly became evident through reading and research that the plants here don’t just offer a source of food for animals and humans but they are also the source of many compounds used in medicinal purposes. A quick stroll down one of the many senderos here at the reserve will unveil a multitude of analgesic, astringent, diuretic, emollient and many other useful plants. We have such a limited knowledge of what is on offer in these environments (about 1% of known plant and animal species have been examined for their medicinal properties). It is easy to forget when popping a pill or applying a cream that most if not all of these medicines were at one point derived from natural sources. For example, the blueprint for aspirin is derived from extracts of willow trees found in the rainforest. 70% of plants with anti-cancer properties are found solely in the Amazon. Treatments for malaria, Parkinson’s disease and leukaemia in modern medicine also come from plants found in the Amazon. Therefore it is evident that the protection of these environments is paramount to preserving and discovering the answers to many human diseases.

Whilst it would appear nearly all the plant life surrounding the reserva pertain some use or are consumable, there are a few on our backdoor step which I’d like to draw particular attention to, not only for their beauty but for the numerous usages they hide.  A particularly striking perennial herb that is also a favourite of tanagers for its fruits is the Candlestick Ginger “Caña Agria”. The uses of this plant are seemingly endless. Young plants are crushed and the juice extracted for the treatment of internal fever and bronchitis. The sap is a hypoglycaemic agent used for controlling diabetes. A decoction from the root can be used to treat stomachaches and snakebites. It is also known as a cure for gonorrhoea, one Indian group even making a douche from the flowers to treat vaginal infections. Other known uses are as an application for skin ailments, a treatment for intestinal worms, and an anti-dysenteric. If that wasn’t enough, the sap can also provide a refreshing drink!

Candlestick Ginger “Caña Agria”

Equally distinctive and found anywhere from roadsides to dangling from the jungle canopy: Angels Trumpet – also known locally as Campaña, Toé, or its Latin name Brugmansia suaveolens. A member of the nightshades family, it produces large, showy, pendant shaped flowers. The leaves of this plant are cultivated and use for a variety of applications. Ranging from the treatment of general aches and pains to relieving tension and anxiety, it is also an ingredient in the preparation of the hallucinogenic drink ayahuasca and as a component of the arrow poison curare.

Angel Trumpet “Campaña”

For those of you that haven’t heard of the aforementioned concoctions, read on!

Ayahuasca refers to the ritualistic hallucinogen that has been employed by Amerindians for centuries in communal rituals. It is has been used by shamans in order to communicate with the spirit world to help diagnose illness or to seek answers to tribal crises. There is growing interest and research into its treatment for mental health issues. Ayahuasca also known as banisteriopsis caapi is a giant vine plant found in tropical forest regions of northwest South America. A drink is prepared out of the bark of the B. caapi, sometimes alongside other ingredients such as the Angel Trumpet in order to lengthen and intensify the experience as well as improve the flavour of the beverage.

Curare (or curaré) on the other hand is an arrow and dart poison used throughout northern South America for hunting and killing game. The contents of the poison vary from region to region. Generally the bark of the source plant is scraped, pounded, and then filtered with cold water through a rolled palm leaf. Other notable extracts for curare come from famed the poison-dart frog (genus Dendrobates) or from the venom of large stinging ants. Curare works by inhibiting neuromuscular activity in the target, resulting in paralysis and eventual death. Due to the fact that curare does not affect the heart, it found its way into widespread medical applications, most notably as a muscle relaxant during surgical operations.

Not only do the plants of the Amazon serve as an important carbon dioxide sponge for the planet (absordbing 15% of CO2 in the atmosphere) but they are also clearly vital resources for the eradication for disease. The current pandemic only further highlights the need for greater research into this area. The rate of deforestation in this region of the world threatens much of the primary habitats of these floras. The future health and welfare of humanity will be determined, to a great extent, by the fate of the rainforests. Mother nature has provided the bare necessities of life, it is up to us to use them and conserve them.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Dusti permalink
    July 29, 2021 4:28 pm

    Fascinating blog! Hope you stick with the raspberries and not the hallucinogens – ha ha!


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