Mother Earth Living

Explore the Herbs of Peru

From medicines and foods to the richly hued textiles for which it is famous, herbs are in use everywhere in this ancient land.
By Thomas Walsh
August/September 2011
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Weaver Nilda Callañaupa helped restore traditional methods using platn-based dyes.
Photo by Thomas Walsh
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The best way to appreciate Peru is to cultivate an appreciation for complexity. Occupying a large chunk of South America’s western side, Peru has been home to some of the world’s oldest known civilizations and is now a representational democracy working to establish itself economically and politically. People live and work in buildings constructed by their pre-Columbian ancestors, yet in 2010 the Republic of Peru had one of the world’s fastest-growing stock markets and was making rapid gains in its gross domestic product. And throughout the country, individuals continue to respect age-old wisdom based on the use of herbs in medicine, food, cosmetics and clothing.

Click here to view our Peru Image Gallery.

Though less than twice the area of Texas, Peru’s altitudes range from sea level to more than 20,205 feet above, and its climates range from scorching desert to cloud forest to year-round ice and snow. With such a wild mix of conditions, it is no great surprise that the Convention on Biological Diversity calls Peru “one of the world’s 10 ‘megadiverse’ countries,” adding that 4,400 flora species “have known properties and are used by the population.” Herbs rank high among this celebrated flora.

Former capital and heart of the Inca Empire, Cusco and its surroundings in the inland south-central part of the country remain a core of culture. One place to see herbs in their traditional uses there is in the Center for Traditional Textiles of Cusco (CTTC), a few blocks from the heart of town. Like Dorothy stepping from her monochromatic home into Oz, visitors pass through an unremarkable storefront into a riot of color. Bright, richly hued textiles cover the walls. Weavers in traditional clothing sit on the floor in customary fashion and create products on back-strap looms, the design of which predates the Incas. In another room, an informative little museum displays the history and contemporary role of textiles in Peru.

The CTTC owes its existence to Nilda Callañaupa, one of the few in the textile world who might well lay claim to rock-star status. And this remarkable woman owes that status in no small part to herbs.

Born in 1960 in the Andean agricultural community of Chinchero, Callañaupa came of age when Shining Path revolutionaries held her country in a grip of terror. The economy stagnated; tourism collapsed; friends disappeared. Having learned to weave as a child, Callañaupa prepared for the future through education, becoming the first person in her village to earn a university degree. In 1996, she founded the CTTC. Chemicals and their resultant brilliant colors had largely replaced the traditional natural dyes, but Callañaupa devoted herself to the advancement of traditional techniques including the use of plant-based colorants. By extensive experimentation, she has developed methods for obtaining bright hues from ancient plants to satisfy contemporary tastes.

Supporting the Community

Through the center, artisans from several mountain communities, each with their time-honored practices, find financial opportunities using age-old methods and materials of their home communities—70 percent of the items’ prices go directly to the artisans and communities involved in the project. Certain days are set aside when locals gather to dye their materials. With an eye on the globalized market, the center has an increased emphasis on utilitarian products such as place mats, wall hangings and jackets.

The nearby Cusco Central Market serves as both a cultural celebration and a place to shop. This teeming mix of the modern and traditional offers food, textiles, household items and a large section devoted entirely to medicinal herbs. Pharmaceuticals are prohibitively expensive for many in this developing nation, so herbal remedies remain extremely important. Despite the bustle on busy days, vendors take time to listen as customers describe ailments, then offer specific treatments from their array of herbs and remedies. Recommendations may be custom blends based on centuries of acquired knowledge. On the sidewalks, street vendors, many in traditional dress, mix herbal teas to order for specific complaints or simply for a refreshing drink.

Some 15 miles from town, Awana Kancha (local Quechua for “Palace of Weaving”) nestles on tree-covered slopes of the Inca’s Sacred Valley of the Urubamba River. Three brothers founded the center in 2003, after spending years traveling Peru and working with scientists, engineers and others to gain a deep knowledge of the flora, fauna and folklore of the Peruvian Andes. Awana Kancha works with a number of communities to use their traditional techniques and herbal dye sources. At this living museum, activities run from husbandry of South America’s four camelids—alpaca, llama, vicuña and guanaco—to weaving of final products.

Dye Sources

A separate display emphasizes the importance of herbs, presenting numerous dye sources as well as sample products with resultant colors. Nogal/walnut (several plants of the family Juglandaceae), the leaves wafting an earthy scent similar to wild rice, bequeaths a rich brown. Indigo bestows a coveted, vivid blue, though the traditional dye bath emits a powerful odor of ammonia (aged human urine is used to extract the coloring compound from herbs). Several plants contain the valued blue agent; in this region Indigofera tinctoria is of particular importance. Sources for natural dyes are not limited to herbs: The insect cochinilla/cochineal (Dactylopius coccus) gives striking hues of crimson, orange and dark maroon.

Farther along the Sacred Valley, Machu Picchu Pueblo stands astride the Urubamba. A short stretch of dirt road from town to the Machu Picchu Museum runs through cloud forest teeming with countless wild herbs and a barrage of lush, fecund aromas. In addition to archaeology displays, the museum contains a fine outdoor botanic garden. A wealth of plants with a variety of uses grows here, including begonia, wild strawberry and the notorious, though not necessarily insidious, coca. The legal coca leaves produce a tea, whose taste, aroma and effect are similar to that of green tea (Camellia sinensis). They are also chewed to ward off altitude sickness. As both leaf and cocaine, coca is one of Peru’s major agriculture-based exports. Since it is underground, no one is certain of the illegal trade’s exact size, but estimates are that 80 percent of Peru’s coca production is for prohibited cocaine. This outlawed trade employs as many as 200,000 and brings in some $600 million a year. The government remains committed to its eradication.

Ancient, Timeless Herbs

Roots of the herb llacon (Smallanthus sonchifolius, sometimes spelled “yacon”) contain a sweet but indigestible sugar. Because insulin is expensive, many Peruvians use the plant to control diabetes as well as to kill bacteria and fungi and to protect the liver. Llacon has been found in burial sites predating the Incas by centuries. The delicate-appearing yet potent Begonia veitchii, discovered near Cusco in 1866, is taken for relief of inflammation, especially of the kidneys, and provides the basis for a red dye. Chicory, with its baby blue flowers, enjoys a reputation for numerous benefits including relief from constipation, improvements in liver and gallbladder functions, aid to the eyes, and relief of hay fever and asthma.

To this day, many Peruvians believe that herbs grown on sacred ground or otherwise blessed have greater potency. The Inca Empire reached a pinnacle of development under emperor Pachacuti (1438 to 1471), who oversaw Machu Picchu’s construction 1,200 feet above the Urubamba. (See a photo of Machu Picchu on Page 49.) Much of this ground is believed to have been sacred and guides point out a particular holy plot where herbs were grown in the belief that they would be more effective.

The wisdom of the ancients has not been lost in this quickly modernizing culture. Herbs continue to play time-
honored roles as Peruvians, their roots deep in tradition, develop new ways of advancing themselves in the fast-paced, global community of today.

If You Have Wanderlust

For herb lovers who find Peru’s enticements irresistible, National Geographic Traveler has recognized Adventure Life as one of “The Best Adventure Travel Companies on Earth.” The company offers trips to Peru that focus on the nation’s herbs, as well as the major historical attractions. www.adventure-life.com 


After receiving his Ph.D. in physics and serving as a National Research Council post-doctoral fellow at the National Institute of Science and Technology, Thomas Walsh broadened his work to include photography. He is now a freelance writer specializing in scientific and environmental issues, as well as travel.    


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