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.

| August/September 2011

  • A local weaver works in the Awana Kancha center.
    Photo by Thomas Walsh
  • Begonia veitchii is used for dye and also to reduce inflammation in the body.
    Photo by Thomas Walsh
  • Cochineal dye bath.
    Photo by Thomas Walsh
  • Coca leaves in the marketplace.
    Photo by Steven Foster
  • Coca growing in Peru.
    Photo by Steven Foster
  • Coca leaves.
    Photo by Steven Foster
  • Indigofera tinctoria is of particular importance for dying in Peru.
    Photo courtesy Muséum de Toulouse, www.museum.toulouse.fr
  • Llacon, which helps manage diabetes, has been found in ancient burial sites.
    Photo by Thomas Walsh
  • Machu Picchu in the fog.
    Photo by Steven Foster
  • A display of natural dye materials and the colors they create.
    Photo by Thomas Walsh
  • Weaver Nilda Callañaupa helped restore traditional methods using platn-based dyes.
    Photo by Thomas Walsh

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.

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