Our Herbal Heritage

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In Haïti, herbal tradition runs deep as the grave and hot as an explosion. 

Native Caribbean herbs are the backbone of Haïti’s phytotechnology, and practitioners seem to exploit every plant in the nation in some way. 

On May 2, 1962, doctors at Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Deschapelles, Haïti, pronounced Clairvius Narcisse dead. His corpse was subsequently interred as grieving friends and family looked on. There, the story of his life ends.

His first life, that is. Because in 1980, eighteen years after the date on his tombstone, a healthy and indisputably alive Clairvius Narcisse returned to his home village.

The Narcisse case, meticulously documented by Canadian ethnobotanist Wade Davis in his book The Serpent and the Rainbow (Simon and Schuster, 1985), seemed to be conclusive proof of the existence of zombies. Solving the enigma plunged Davis into Haïti’s intricate, mystery-shrouded culture, including a precise and complex herbal tradition.

The Republic of Haïti was founded in 1804 by Africans who freed themselves from French captors by force of arms. Most of Haïti’s labyrin-thine culture and Vodoun (“voodoo”) religion is of West African origin. However, the first Haïtian herbalists adapted their practices to herbs they found in the new land, resulting in one of the planet’s most highly developed herbal traditions.

Davis isolated twenty-two constituents in the Haïtian zombie formula, including jimsonweed, called kokomb zombi (“zombie cucumber”) in Kreyól (the language of Haïti); two herbs indigenous to Haïti but previously unknown to botanists; and assorted amphibians, spiders, and fish.

Many of these ingredients are deadly poisonous and must be processed, blended, and administered with scientific exactitude. As Davis revealed, when properly applied, Haïtian zombie powder produces a deathlike state convincing enough to fool Western-trained doctors into issuing a death certificate. Days later, the “remains” are disinterred, resuscitated with an antidote, put through a grueling regimen of herbal narcotics and psychological manipulation, and sold into slavery as a soulless, reanimated corpse.

As might be expected of a culture so ethnobotanically advanced, Haïti also enjoys a remarkably developed cuisine. Blessed with a variety of microclimates, Haïtians grow or forage a wide variety of edible plants. Traditional dishes include boiled rice colored deep black by tiny djon djon mushrooms, and soup joumou, the thick, golden squash soup served to celebrate Independence Day (January 1). Soup joumou is infused with cloves, thyme, malanga, sorrel, lime, garlic, and a dozen other flavors.

Perhaps the most widely known Haïtian dish is griot, chewy fried pork or goat smothered in fiery ti-malice (“little devil”) sauce. One of Haïti’s flagship sauces, ti-malice uses garlic, shallots, thyme, chives, chili peppers, citrus, and rum, all classic Haïtian flavorings. In addition to griot, this sauce often accompanies meats such as conch, chicken, and jerked beef.

Native Caribbean herbs are the backbone of Haïti’s phytotechnology, and practitioners seem to exploit every plant in the nation in some way. Herbal teas, called rafrechi (“refreshers”), are ubiquitous. Most are accorded mild medicinal properties as well as beverage value. Cassava (manioc) and malanga, both large, cultivated roots, are sold in village markets alongside sesame seeds collected in the wild.

Other New World resources that Haïtian herbalists have bent to their purposes include milkweed, vanilla, nasturtium, and tamarillo (Cyphomandra crassicaulis). Gourds, used to make household implements and musical instruments, are so important to Haïtian culture that they once served as currency. The Haïtian monetary unit, la gourde, recalls this practice.

As Wade Davis discovered, Haïtian culture defies abstraction, requiring total immersion of the foreigner who hopes to come away with any valid conclusions. Yet for all its complexity, Haïti can at times become as simple as the charm that was once said to snap the zombie trance: plain old salt.

Robert Henderson lives in Rosedale, British Columbia, Canada. His lastest book is The Neighborhood Forager: A Guide for the Wild Food Gourmet (Chelsea Green, 2000).

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