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Traditional Plant Medicine in Central America

© Kat Morgenstern, 2001

maya (8K)The knowledge and practice of traditional medicine in Central America is as diverse as its cultural heritage and botanical diversity. In an area that is not just home to more species of plants than most other regions on earth, but is equally rich in cultural diversity, the number of plants used for medicines in different ways by different peoples is sheer endless. To discuss this fascinating field of knowledge at any level of depth would require a book (probably in several volumes), rather than a mere introductory article. Thus I will have to restrict myself to giving a brief overview on the history and background of traditional medicine rather than attempting to discuss particular plants in great detail, since I could never do them justice considering the scope of this article. However, I would encourage anyone interested in this topic to make their own inquiries as they travel through Central America. In my experience most people are more than happy to talk about plants and their uses and I have found this subject to be one of the most satisfying ways of making contact and engaging in communication with local people I have met on my travels.

Sadly, in the more urbanized areas traditional plant knowledge is rapidly disappearing, as 'modern' western medicines are becoming more readily available (unfortunately skilled doctors who can dispense them appropriately are not). Modern medicine is considered more 'progressive' and thus distinguishes the urban dwellers from the campensinos. However, luckily one usually does not have to search for very long before coming across a knowledgeable person, who may not exactly be a shaman, but who certainly knows at least some of the more commonly used remedies. Traditional curanderos or yerbaristes are often found selling their wares at market stalls. Also, many forest workers, such as the chicleros, who often spend several weeks deep within the jungle, still rely heavily on the plants they find in the forest, for medicine, for food and for the materials they need to build simple shelters. In rural areas poverty and the remoteness of the communities have been contributing factors in preserving traditional plant knowledge. This knowledge was already ancient and well developed by the time the first Europeans set their eyes on the Americas.

When America was 'discovered', Europe was still in the throws of the, in many ways, barbarous Middle Ages, whilst the Aztec civilization that the Spaniards encountered was at its flourishing height. European orthodox medicine, having divorced itself from its herbal roots and traditions some centuries earlier, was at that time little more than an abhorrent torture. The best hope a sick person had of regaining their health was to avoid the heroic treatments of doctors, which largely consisted of bleeding and purging the wits out of their patients and poisoning them with mercury and other toxic substances. The medical practices of the New World on the other hand, especially among the Aztecs, were extremely advanced. The Aztecs and Maya not only knew and used many different kinds of healing plants but also had various types of medical practitioners who specialized in different kinds of illnesses. There were hospitals where the sick could be isolated from the rest of the community and given specialist care and attention.

Among other indigenous cultures of Central America though, everybody was their own healer and the institution of 'medicine man' or healer did not exist. Sometimes a person acquired special knowledge about a particular disease (usually through direct experience) and would be more than happy to help others with the same affliction. Certain types of illnesses believed to be caused by 'supernatural' forces demanded a more magical treatment for which specialists known as shamans were usually called in.

Today, various healing traditions have merged to a greater or lesser extent, though regional and cultural differences do still exist. Most people have a rudimentary knowledge of various healing plants, which they might grow in their gardens or collect in the fields and nearby forest (folk medicine). For the more serious systemic diseases the help of a curandero is sometimes sought. These are people who are skilled in the uses of medicinal plants and usually have learned their craft from a close relative.

Some practitioners specialize in the treatment of snakebites only. There are a number of deadly poisonous snakes in Central America and help in the form of an antidote injection is often too far away to be of much use. The snakedoctors enjoy a high respect in their communities and are well paid if their treatment is successful.

Older women who are experienced in matters of childbirth frequently act as midwives. They take care of all affairs related to feminine health, provide pre- and postpartum care and offer general emotional support to young mothers.

Despite centuries of determined efforts by zealous missionaries, many people in Central America still adhere to ancient beliefs concerning the spirit world. Thus, it is hardly surprising that many diseases are thought to be caused by what we call 'supernatural' forces (but to them are perfectly natural, albeit invisible beings). Physical therapies have no effect on alleviating the symptoms of those types of diseases, let alone their causes. Babies and small children for example are especially susceptible to what is known as 'the evil eye' thought to be caused by the jealousy of other women or people who are unable to have children of their own. Sometimes the source of affliction is thought to be a curse sent by someone who is bearing a grudge against the victim. At other times a diviner has to be consulted to clarify the origin and possible treatment methods for the disease. Either way, matters of this sort are usually dealt with by priests, diviners or shamans.

The gathering of medicinal herbs, as well as the healing ceremonies themselves are usually accompanied by a more or less elaborate ritual. Copious amounts of Copal or Pine resin are burned as offerings to the Gods. Mayan healers place a great deal of significance on administering their herbs in doses that are based on magically important numbers such as 3, 9 or 13, often given in pairs to establish a balance of male and female energies. They also tend to identify herbs as either 'male' or 'female', though the corresponding parts of a given pair frequently belong to botanically quite unrelated families and the actual physical gender of the plants in question bears no relevance on this system of classification.

The techniques used to administer herbal remedies are quite varied. A common method of preparation is the decoction, whereby fresh herbs, roots or barks are placed in a pot of cold water, brought to a boil and then left to stew for a while. Such decoctions can be taken internally or if required, applied externally to wash wounds or to treat fungal infections and other types of skin conditions. Therapeutic bathing using various herbal decoctions for their medicinal properties, is also a common practice. For wounds and aching muscles or bones herbal plasters are usually applied directly to the painful area. Salves and ointments are less common - perhaps because fatty substances have a tendency to go off or melt in hot climates thus losing their healing properties. So far most of the above mentioned herbal applications may sound pretty familiar since they are also commonly used in western herbal medicine. However, there are a number of methods used by indigenous people in Central America that may seem quite strange to many of us today, though in the past similar methods were also a common part of traditional European herbalism.

The art of smoking for example, (now largely considered a vice) was originally learned from the Indians who Columbus encountered on his first trips to the New World. Among all indigenous people of the Americas Tobacco is considered one of the most holy plants. It is a most powerful, sacred medicine and (among other things) plays an important part in plant gathering rituals. Many indigenous people (as well as more traditional western herbalists) believe that plants are closely associated with particular spirit beings who govern the medicinal powers of each particular plant. Thus it is of utmost importance to address the plant spirit and to ask its permission, cooperation and assistance when gathering plants for healing purposes, otherwise the gathered plant material would have no therapeutic value. According to Indian tradition plant spirits appreciate tobacco, which is generally offered as a reciprocal gift. It should be mentioned though that natural tobacco is quite a different kind of substance to what is nowadays sold as cigarettes. The chemical concoctions produced by the tobacco companies and the dried leaves of Nicotiana rustica used by most indigenous people can hardly be compared. Furthermore, this sacred tobacco was never intended to be inhaled, but is generally used by blowing the smoke, e.g. at a sick person to dispel the disease causing demons or to purify ritual instruments. Smoking is not restricted to tobacco either. Many different medicinal plants are rolled into large cigarettes, which may be smoked for their therapeutic action. Sometimes such herbal cigarettes are not used for smoking at all, but are employed in a kind of fumigation practice, which involves passing the herbal cigarette over particular energy meridians of the body in very precise patterns and rhythms. Sometimes they are even burnt more or less directly on the skin (moxibustion). The explanation for this procedure is that burning a herb releases the plant spirit, which can then directly penetrate the skin of the sick person and thus perform its work where it is most needed. Similarly, the protective power of plant spirits are often utilized as herbal amulets, which are believed to ward off disease causing spirits and other negative influences.

Surprising though it may seem, enemas are also an Indian invention. The Spaniards learned this method from the Aztecs, who used it not just for healing purposes, but also to administer powerful hallucinogenic drugs as part of their religious practices. Enemas have found their way into western herbal medicine and about 100 years ago were considered to be of foremost importance for 'inner cleanliness'. While they have since gone out of fashion, one should not underestimate their effectiveness and therapeutic value.

The types of plants used to treat various kinds of illness very much depend on seasonal and local availability. Many plants, familiar to us as decorative in-door plants or tropical fruits and vegetables from the shelves of our supermarkets, in Central America are also known for their medicinal properties. Corn (Zea mais) for example, a sacred plant among all agricultural peoples of the Americas provides not only a staple food considered a staff of life, but is also used medicinally. Its' life-giving properties makes it an ideal nourishment for the sick, whilst the maize-beard or cornsilk (hairy bits that surround the cob) and the inner core of the cob are used as a diuretic and diaphoretic, which can be employed as a lymphatic cleansing remedy.

The Papaya (Carica papaya) is not just valued as a refreshing fruit (especially good with lime juice), but is also valued as a digestive aid. The milky latex of the unripe fruit, leaves and stem has meat tenderizing properties. In Central America it is a common remedy for treating warts and corns, whilst phytopharmaceutical companies of North America use it to produce tablets with it that can help with protein digestion. The very ripe fruit is also said to be a very soothing application for those unlucky ones who have had too close an encounter with the dreaded fire coral. (Might be useful for other stings and bites of venomous beasts as well).

The Avocado-tree (Persea americana) provides a favorite vegetable as well as a number of natural remedies. In Belize the leaves are used to make a tea for colds, coughs, fever, diarrhea, painful menstruation and high blood pressure. A poultice of the leaves is used to treat headaches, rheumatism and sprains. In South America a preparation made from the seeds is used as a contraceptive.

The leaves of the Wild Pineapple (Bromelia pinguin), when crushed and heated, can be applied as a plaster for sprains, fractures and bruises. Mangoes (Mangifera indica), which originally came from Asia, also provide more than just a tasty snack. The seeds are said to be useful in treating intestinal worms and the Caribs make a tea with the leaves to treat flu. In Belize children with feverish conditions are bathed in a Mango-leaf decoction whilst in South America a leaf decoction is used as a contraceptive and abortifacient.

Allspice (Pimento dioica), a familiar spice often used in christmas cookies etc. also has medicinal properties. Not only can the leaves and berries be made into a useful soothing and aromatic tea that helps to settle upset stomachs, but the fresh berries crushed with oil also make quite a potent warming application for aching or arthritic joints.

Many palms are rich sources of food and medicines and also supply materials for building (e.g. thatch) or provide fibers for weaving, basketry etc. Coconut (Cocos nucifera)trees for example are not just a valuable source of fibre and thatch but very young Coconuts for example yield a gelatinous substance (which later hardens and becomes the familiar coconut flesh) that can be used as a nourishing food for people suffering from stomach problems or hepatitis.

The list goes on and on and on. The above mentioned examples are by no means intended as complete accounts of the uses of these plants but are merely mentioned as a small offering from the ethnobotanical riches of Central America, that await anyone with an interest in this field.

© Kat Morgenstern, adapted from an article which was first published at the El Planeta website.

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Please note that although all the references to edible and medicinal herbs are tried and tested, their efficacy cannot be guaranteed and has not been approved by the FDA. Furthermore, everybody responds differently to various plants, and adverse reactions cannot be ruled out. Historical information regarding poisonous plants is included for educational purposes only and should not be tried out at home. Everybody uses herbs at their own risk and thus must make themselves fully aware of their potential power. Any information given here is educational and should not replace a visit to the doctor should this be necessary. Neither Sacred Earth nor Kat Morgenstern accepts responsibility for anybody's home experimentation. Links to external sites are included as pointers to further resources - we do not endorse them or are in any way responsible for their content, nor do we thus verify that their content is accurate.