Mother Earth Living

Herbs in the Rain Forest: Healing and Independence

A women's cooperative in Costa Rica grows medicinal plants and herbs to further both the health of their community and their own independence.
By Steven Foster
May/June 1997
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The Parque Nacional Braulio ­Carrillo, a national park just south of the ­collective, that is named for a Costa Rican president.

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The farming community of El Tigre lies in the lowlands of northeastern Costa Rica, nestled among once-active vol­canoes that are now covered in rain forest. In the community is a small, open-air shop filled with dried herbs and boxes of teas, soaps, and other herbal products and flanked by rows of plants growing in care­fully tended raised beds.

The shop and gardens belong to Mujeres Unidas de Sarapiquí or MUSA (United Women of Sarapiquí), a medicinal plant cooperative named for the Sarapiquí river and established in 1985. Its aim was twofold: to bring affordable health care to El Tigre’s forty-four families, for whom Western medicine was too costly or too far away, and to help local women gain financial and social independence.

A rough start

Passersby could easily miss this tropical nursery that seems to have sprung up naturally among the tree ferns, heliconias, palms, and bromeliads that stock the landscape. A closer look, however, reveals a white sign with black and blue lettering pointing the way to the shop, while another sign advertises organic remedies for arthritis, colitis, high cholesterol, gastritis, anemia, nervous conditions, and diabetes.

Many members of the community initially didn’t support the cooperative, Sandra Jiménez Jiménez, MUSA president, told me on a recent visit there, but the women were still determined to move forward with their plan. They were well-schooled in using medicinal plants, thanks to the lessons learned from their mothers and grandmothers, and they saw in these traditions a way to meet both of the organization’s goals.

The members and their families moved to temporary housing and began working on property that was standing unused. Soon, because their work took them outside the home, the women became targets of community scorn. In addition, a few of their husbands resented their work, complaining that the women were neglecting their home duties. So antagonistic was the community that, when the land being used by the collective came up for development, the residents voted against using it for the medicinal plant project.

MUSA members vowed not to give up on the collective and return to their traditional roles. One member offered the collective a small plot of her family’s land, and the women quickly began working again. Because they didn’t own any tools, they worked with their hands and without pay. After three years, they were able to harvest and sell marketable plant products, which allowed them to buy more seeds and, finally, tools. A local community member gave them a small, framed structure that now serves as the collective’s open-air shop.

The collective came to the attention of Central American representatives of the Global Fund for Women, which gave MUSA a small grant. The money helped the members purchase a small solar drier and a motorized grinder. They also obtained a camera and slide projector, which they use to record their progress and share their experiences with other groups.

Branching out

Today, the collective is supported by the very community that once felt threatened by its existence. Six people belong to MUSA—five women and one man, an experienced gardener hired to prepare the garden beds. In addition to their other accomplishments, MUSA members also have contributed their time to literacy programs for women. They have plans to expand the collective in terms of numbers, hoping that more women will join the effort to provide El Tigre with effective health care while, at the same time, enjoying some independence.

A Garden Tour

During the past twelve years, MUSA members have nurtured their gardens to robust health. ­Organic gardening practices have made the soil fluffy, well-drained, ­friable, and rich in organic matter. The raised beds cover less than an acre and contain thirty species of medicinal plants which the collective members gather, then dry or make into tinctures, soaps and other products, and offer for sale. The collective’s herb garden includes familiar herbs such as aloe, ginger, peppermint, and basil. Trop­ical plants include citronella, turmeric, guava, and mango. Some plants better known in the United States as houseplants, such as wandering Jew and air plant, also grow in the gardens. For a small fee, Jiménez graciously led me on a tour of the garden. Occasional garden visitors are another source of income for the collective. Here are some of the highlights.

Air plant
Kalanchoe pinnata

This perennial succulent captures moisture from the air with tiny hairs on its leaves. Jiménez plucked a 4-inch-long leaf and applied it directly to my forehead, explaining that it is a ­traditional treatment for a headache. (In Haiti and Honduras, as well as El Tigre, the mashed leaves are placed on the forehead to treat migraines.) Nibbling crushed, fresh leaves with a little salt is a good treatment for coughs, she added, and a small piece of cotton cloth dipped in fresh leaf juice, rolled into a ball and then placed in the ear relieves earaches caused by water or air pressure.

In Haiti, an air plant leaf is worn as an amulet around the neck to stop vomiting, and a tea made from the fresh leaves is used as a diuretic and treatment for urinary tract infections. In Bermuda and Jamaica, the plant material has been used to treat coughs. Scientific tests show that it kills bacteria and fungi.

Wandering Jew
Tradescantia zebrina

I had never heard of wandering Jew’s use as a medicinal plant, but in El Tigre, leaves of this familiar ­houseplant are taken in various forms to relieve menstrual cramps, treat ­diabetes and lower cholesterol, Jiménez explained. Perhaps its renown hasn’t spread beyond Costa Rica: back in the States I was unable to find any record of its medicinal use.

Cymbopogon citratus

Standing in neat clumps in well-tended, weed-free beds, the collective’s lemongrass was as healthy as any I had ever seen. Lemongrass looks like most other tall grasses, but if you stroke the leaves (which isn’t recommended because the edges are sharp and can slice your fingers), they explode in a rich, thick lemony scent. Jiménez told me that zacate de limon (its Spanish name) is commonly used to flavor food in El Tigre. She recommended making a tea from one to two teaspoons of dried lemongrass leaves to treat respiratory disorders such as lung congestion.

In many other tropical countries, lemongrass is a folk remedy for colds, flu, fevers, coughs, and stomachaches. Research has shown that its essential oil inhibits the growth of fungi and viruses, reduces fevers and is a mild sedative.

Eryngium foetidum

The spiny-leaved herb growing here is not the cilantro familiar to North American gardeners and salsa lovers (Coriandrum sativum), but a member of the parsley family native to the American Tropics. The leaves are used to flavor bean dishes in Central and South America, where the herb is believed to relieve flatulence, fevers and gastritis. Jiménez recommended using it to stimulate the appetite and said that a root preparation can correct anemia and a leaf preparation can lower high blood pressure. Labora­tory studies have confirmed the plant’s ability to relieve muscle spasms.

Maranta arundinacea

Arrowroot is grown commercially in the West Indies to produce a starch that is used in kitchens worldwide to make biscuits and thicken sauces. Growers place the plant’s peeled, washed, and crushed rhizomes in water-filled tanks. When the starch settles out, they remove it, and let it dry and crumble to a powder.

Arrowroot starch is so easily digested that it can be eaten raw. The collective sells crushed arrowroot rhizome that is to be mixed with milk and used to treat diarrhea, which can be a deadly condition. 

Steven Foster is heading back to El Tigre in July on an herbal ecotour of Costa Rica. For more information call (800) 348-7865. Foster is a member of the Herbs for Health Editorial Advisory Board.

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