Herbal Travels: Visiting a Puerto Rican Herbolaria

| 10/21/2010 1:03:55 PM

M.DunneMarguerite Dunne is a city girl and traveler. Visit her website at www.herbs-on-hudson.com or listen to her radio show, The Urban Herbalist, on www.wtbq.com. Marguerite was also the third place winner in The Herb Companion's essay contest, "Looking Forward to Herbs." 

“Curandera, yo soy una curandera.”

“Curandera? I haven’t heard that word in twenty years…”—A conversation in a Rio Piedras taverna, Puerto Rico

So much for introducing myself with my heartsong pride of being an herbal practitioner, una herbolaria. I’d gone down to Puerto Rico, mi Puerto Rico, a Caribbean paradise where Mother Nature defies laws of limitations, to visit my father’s family and dig up some roots. Walking along the chalk road, down to the luminous blue waters, west of Ponce, the city-town where my father grew up, there are hibiscus and gardenias to perfume the air and iguanas to stand guard and little yellow flowers with bees buzzing and no deeds to do, no promises to keep…I treated myself to a visit this summer, while the touristas were all invading old European castles, I was sunning in Loquillo, a coral-colored beach, following the tortugas, the turtles nesting and making their way down to the water. The rainforest, El Yunque, was close by and nothing seemed more important that day than hiking four miles deep into the jungle and diving into the waterfall before me, cascading down from the cliffs eighty feet above. Luscious, that’s how to describe the Caribbean countryside, and so easy for an herbalist to find flowers and leaves and berries and bark and roots to remedy. But I wanted something more than gathering a few seeds; I wanted to talk to one of the old root women, a curandera who’d lived her lifetime healing her community and caring for her garden as her garden cared for her. That’s where the journey began….

Healing lore has been handed down for millennia, hidden when politics dictated, and coveted by the wise. The Wise Women in the hispanic world have been called curanderas, but as with every trend, the pharmaceutical world’s great tentacles have even reached down to the mountains and plazas of the Spanish-speaking new world; the healing lore, for the most part, has gone underground and the term has become slang. Yet, when I finally reached Ponce, I went to the mercado, the open market place where nearly everyone goes daily to buy fresh eggs, fans, vegetables, freshly-squeezed coconut oil, and saintly candles, and I found Dona Rodriguez. Standing in front of her stall, a rounded, seventy-year-old woman with bunches of dried leaves and knotted roots bundled with jute about her, unashamedly hung the sign, “Plantas Medicinales.” I was thrilled. 

A line of young mothers with crying babies awaited her counsel about taking care of teething and tantrum woes, hunched old men inquired about digestive aids, and robust young men wanted energy boosters in order to keep going on construction jobs under the constant 95 degree sun. I sat and watched and listened, straining through my Spanglish to get every detail. She finally got to me and wondered what the hay I was doing there. I told her that I also helped people with their health issues using medicinal plants back on the mainland. The look this lady gave me! Then I pointed to the beautiful rue she had potted, and I asked her how she used it. She recommended “ruta” as a digestive aid, just what I said, too. I told her that it also helped with concentration, and she seemed impressed. We discussed a couple of other plants I recognized in her healing cupboard, and then we got to the gold. 

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