As many of you know, I was away for a couple weeks this summer on an ethnobotany trip to Peru. This amazing trip was led by Dr. Jill Stansbury of Battleground, Washington. Dr. Stansbury has spent the past 8 years studying traditional herbal medicine with 5 different indigenous groups in Peru and documenting their use of local plants for medicine.
The trip was filled with wonderful experiences: a visit to the medicinal plant section at the San Pedro market in Cusco; motorcycle taxi rides over the dirt paths which connect homes and villages in the jungle; a boat trip down the Madre de Dios river; several long, lazy soaks in a natural hot spring at a remote research station in Manu National Park; many herb walks with local herbalists and elders; story telling by candle light by elders and chiefs. There were beautiful birds, butterflies the size of saucers and fireflies dancing in a star filled sky.
Our first herbal medicine lesson consisted of drinking copious quantities of coca tea which helped tremendously with the 12,000ft in altitude we experienced in Cusco. Once in the jungle, the abundance of plants and their diversity was extraordinary. A few of the highlights for me were: sagre de grado (dragon’s blood) - a red sap that oozes from a tree when it is cut. The sap is collected and is used to treat wounds and skin infections. Cat’s claw growing wild – the thorns really look like cat’s claws. There were plants whose cut branches poured out fresh water, and another plant that tasted like lemons when the inner bark was chewed. Innocent looking fruits that could kill you if eaten, but is rubbed on the skin to lighten melasma. The most amazing plant I saw was a tree which grew with stilt like roots which could actually move (very slowly over a long time) in order to get more sunlight.
Many people have asked me what I learned in Peru, or what I have brought home with me. I think the most important lesson is that medicinal plants exist everywhere. Each expert who led an herb walk was able to point out dozens and dozens of plants, and name their uses. There were a few plants that grew in all the areas we visited and which were used by the different herbalists in similar ways, but, I was most struck by the fact that in each different plant and climate zone that we visited, there were literally hundreds of different medicinal plants, covering a wide variety of both common and rare conditions. The jungles and forests provide the local populations with an amazing natural pharmacy. I left realizing that we don’t need to travel to the remote corners of the planet to find powerful plants. Powerful plants exist everywhere. The lesson for me was to love and appreciate the plant life we have right here on the coast, and to recommit to learning more about how to use the bounty in our own forests, gardens and wild places.