The Origins of Plant Medicine: Central and South America

  • Sophie Kittredge

Ipecac (Cephaelis ipecacuanha) was used by South Americans to clear the stomach and respiratory tract. European explorers took it home with them in 1672 and found it to be an effective treatment for amoebic dysentery. It’s still used for this purpose today; it also is used to treat bronchitis and whooping cough and to induce vomiting—but it can be deadly when used at large doses, so use the herb only under the guidance of a qualified health-care professional.

Curare (Chondrodendron tomentosum) grows wild in the Amazonian rain forest. The root and stem gave early hunters a prey-paralyzing poison to use on their arrows. This poison comes from an alkaloid in the plant known as tubocurarine, a form of which is used to paralyze patients’ muscles during surgery.

Cacao (Theobroma cacao) comes from an evergreen tree native to Mexico and Central America. The Aztec name for this tree is chócolatl, from which comes the English word chocolate. Cacao seed pulp was used to stimulate the nervous system.

Quinine (Cinchona spp.) is native to the mountainous regions of South America. Peruvians used the bark to make a treatment for fevers and infections. Today, we know that its bark contains alkaloids that provide a remedy for malaria, which was used until the early 1900s and again after the 1960s, when resistance to the synthetic anti-malaria drug chloroquine developed.
The papaya (Carica papaya) tree bears a sweet fruit that Mayans used, along with the tree’s latex and shoots, in their herbal medicine. We know now that the fruit contains papain, a protein-dissolving enzyme that eases digestion.

Coca (Erythroxylum coca) is best known as the source of the illegal drug cocaine. But it is also used in folk medicine as a treatment for toothaches and to combat the chill in mountainous, rainy areas of the eastern Andes. Cocaine and other alkaloids in the plant’s leaves have stimulant and anesthetic actions.

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