In our column ‘Eyes on the Amazon’ we talk with artists, indigenous peoples, journalists, scientists and many more. Asking them to share their knowledge about the Amazon with us.
Jungle lessons 101.
Our recent event with Dennis McKenna was due to include a short lecture on Amazonian plants but when the evening spiralled into otherworldly conversation the proposed presentation was eventually skipped. Dennis kindly offered to share this plant compilation with the Xapiri community so here goes.. but first, a few words from Dennis to introduce this work.
The Amazon Basin is one of the most biodiverse regions on the face of the planet. It is home to more than one third of the approximately 240,000 known species of plants, more than 2.5 million insect species, over 2200 species of fish, 1300 species of birds, 427 mammals, and 380 species of reptiles. The biodiversity of plant species is reflected in the chemical diversity of the compounds found in these Amazonian species, many of which are bioactive and potentially useful to humans as medicines and nutrients. Like over 80% of the world’s peoples, the indigenous tribes of the Amazon, and increasingly the mixed mestizo populations, rely on this rich natural pharmacopoeia to meet their basic healthcare needs. Only a fraction of the world’s flora — by some estimates, less than 10% — of all plant species have ever been evaluated for potentially useful biologically active compounds. There is little doubt that there are billions, if not trillions, of dollars worth of block buster drugs that exist, ‘undiscovered’ in the Amazon rainforest. Only lack of time, funds, and willingness prevent the thorough evaluation of this chemical treasure trove. As ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes once observed: 'The medicines of the future will come from the forest primeval’.
Although most of these species may be unknown or ignored by science, many are known to the indigenous peoples whose habitats are located in this vast rainforest. Through trial and error, experimentation and necessity, the people of the rainforest have discovered the healing properties of many of these plants and utilize them in their own systems of traditional medicine. The greater part of this folk knowledge is not codified or written down anywhere; and as these cultures succumb to cultural decimation, as the habitats that are the home of both the peoples and the plants they utilize are degraded and destroyed, this knowledge, and the biotic resources, will be forever lost. As ethnobotanist Mark Plotkin once observed, ‘when a medicine man dies, it’s as though a library has burned down.’ Dozens of libraries are burning every day in the Amazon and elsewhere in the world, as the people, plants, and plant knowledge of rainforest ecosystems succumb to the rapacious onslaught of ‘development.’
The plants profiled in this section represent only the tiniest fraction of the medicinal lore of indigenous Amazonian medicine people. In many cases, some of these plants have been investigated by science, but usually, the investigations are cursory and incomplete. When it comes to Amazonian species, a ‘well investigated species’ may be the subject of less than a dozen peer-reviewed publications. There are fortunately some notable exceptions. Cat’s Claw (Uña de Gato), Uncaria species, for example, has been discussed in over 570 peer reviewed publications, most (but not all) related to their chemistry or medicinal properties. But even this large number is only a small fraction compared to, say, Panax ginseng, which is referenced in nearly 7000 peer reviewed publications. So the purpose of presenting this small collection is simply to highlight many of these plants. Most are widely known and used in the folk medicine of the region. Most can be purchased in the market place of any Amazonian town or village. Their uses are known and valued by the local people. Most have been barely touched by science, if they are known at all. So perhaps this small collection will be an inspiration to future generations of ethnobotanists; to seek out, collect, document, and understand these species and others. There is not much time left; both the knowledge and the plants are disappearing rapidly.
Two sources of information on Amazonian medicines have been useful to me. in my studies. One is the Amazonian Ethnobotanical Dictionary, by James Duke and Rudolfo Vasquez. Originally published in 1994 by CRC Press (ISBNk # 0-8493-3664-3), it has long been out of print, but occasionally used copies can be found in the catalogs of rare book dealers. If you run across one, buy it!
Dennis McKenna is an ethnopharmacologist who has studied plant hallucinogens for over forty years. He is the author of many scientific papers, author and co-author of books such as; The Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss, Ethnopharmacologic Search for Psychoactive Drugs, and Psilocybin: Magic Mushroom Grower's Guide. He holds a doctorate from the University of British Columbia, where his research focused on ayahuasca and oo-koo-hé, two hallucinogens used by indigenous peoples in the Northwest Amazon.
Lovingly compiled by Dennis McKenna
(with lots of help from the Internet and friends)
Folk Uses: Secoction of stems & roots mixed with wild honey used for sterility in women. Root decoction for post menstrual hemmorrhages, alcoholic maceration, for rheumatism. Macerated leaves, bark, roots, mixed with rum, usd by Creoles as aphrodisiac. Wayapi use decoction of bark and stem as dental analgesic.
Root decoction used as a cardiotonic and antianemic. Antimalarial. Sionas use leaf decoction for fever. Ecuadorian Ketchwas use leaf decoc. for conjunctivitis and snakebite, root tea for difficult delivery and for nervous or weak children with colic.
Latex for worms; fever, rheumatism. Latex for hernia, lumbar pains, tumors; bark fro gastric ulcers. Powdered bark for recalcitrant sores. latex for botfly larvae infecttions.
Folk Uses: Premiere psychedelic medicine of the Amazon. Basis of numerous indigenous and mestizo shamanic traditions. Used for divination, telepathy, diagnosis and cure of illnesses, and in treatment of numerous diseases of the mind/body. Beta-carboline alkaloids in Ayahuasca are potent MAO inhibitors, and render DMT (contained in other admixture plants prepared with the brew) orally active by protecting it from degradation in the gut.
Thank you for reading, we finish with some words from Dennis on Ayahuasca.