Hundreds of Island Plants Provide an Alternative to Conventional Medicine
Living in partnership with nature means knowing your plants, understanding their properties, and respecting their place around us. While common knowledge of plant healing properties has disappeared, a few older islanders and a couple young ones continue the tradition of scholarship and healing with island plants.
Older islanders still remember the times before Roatan had a hospital when individuals were self-reliant, helpful, supportive of their community, respectful of elders, and led rich spiritual lives. A time when what could save you was maybe growing behind your home. The tradition of island healing developed a real appreciation for nature on the island.
This naturopathic and herbalist knowledge is passed on by talking, showing, trying. Often healers observe animals eating certain plants when they get sick. What works for a horse, a cow or a dog can also help an ailing human. The tradition of ‘bush medicine’ is as old as humanity. Tree bark, roots, leaves and stems are used to control pain, bleeding, treat interior ailments and help with fertility.
The tricky part is to spot these plants, know their application and way of combining them
Roatan, with its humid climate, is a perfect home for hundreds of such healing plants. “Our ancestors left us riches – plants and knowledge that we don’t always use,” says Karla Leyva, owner of a Punta Gorda restaurant that uses local plants in her cooking. Otis Raymond, 74, is an island healer. He sits comfortably on a worn down chair across the street from his Sandy Bay home. He greets the passersby with a nod and a smile. If you need help with an ailment he is there to help. Otis finds plants by walking around in Sandy Bay and he knows where they grow.
It is as if he is visiting old friends: this plant can heal this, that once can help with that. This is Otis’ kingdom. Mr. Otis’s mother, Mrs. Doris Johnson Ramon, was a healer, and much of the knowledge Mr. Otis acquired he received from her. “I know a little and I share it with people,” says Mr. Raymond. The tricky part is to spot these plants, know their application and way of combining them with others. Raymond explains that now people use chemical compounds they buy off the shelves in pharmacies and are even afraid to combing herbal medicine with their treatment. “We used to use herbs for two-three days if someone was sick. If it didn’t get better, we would take them to Doc Polo Galindo,” remembers Melissa Raymond, who uses plants to help women in conceiving.
Each island community still has a person who knows about plant’s healing abilities
While there are still a few healers, there is a trickle of business people capitalizing on the abundance of island plants and remedies they provide. Gary Chamer, a 20 year resident of Roatan, is starting a business that is taking advantage of the underutilized resource abundant on the island – sour sop. Chamer is making a sour sop tea and selling it to businesses around the island. “Locals claimed the use of the tea helped stabilize and maintain their blood sugar levels,” says Chamer. Soursop leaves have been shown to be beneficial for lowering the bad cholesterol, lowering high potassium levels and lowering blood pressure. For people with hypertension, this is an excellent way to lower strain on the heart and reduce the risk of atherosclerosis, heart attack, and stroke.
There is even a homeopathic pharmacy on the island. Francisco Rodriguez has a store and clinic Reino Botanico in Coxen Hole.“Islanders believe in natural medicine,” says Rodriguez, who is also a naturalist and healer. In addition to the 145 medicinal remedies produced by Reino Botanico there are foreign plant based medicines. Twice-a-month doctors from San Pedro Sula give consultations at the clinic. “The biggest complaints are with digestive systems, bones, skin infections and nervous system,” says Rodriguez. Calaica (bitter melon) and quebrapiedra are two of the more popular and versatile plants at the clinic.
It’s good for diabetes, strength. I’ve been fermenting it for a week
Each island community still has a person who knows about plant’s healing abilities. In Brick Bay there is Maritza Bustillo, 51. “When we were growing up we wouldn’t even go to the doctor. We would take the calaica plant. We would use red bush to disinfect wounds and help them heal,” she says. Bustillo was born in Corozal and her father, Lucio Rodriguez, was known in the community for his knowledge of plants and ability to heal with them. He told Bustillo about common plant’s overlooked abilities to heal. “For example mango leaves, boiled, are good to treat diabetes. Some even say they can fight cancer.”Bustillo says that her brother in law was due for kidney stones surgery, and started drinking liquid of boiled leaves of ‘Quebra Piedra’or ‘stone breaker plant’ plant. “Before long, the stones were all gone.
No need for operation,” said Bustillo.‘QuebraPiedra’(phyllanthusamarus)is also called Gale of Wind Weed and Hurricane Weed. This common plant has no side effects or toxicity and is perfect for poor appetite, constipation, typhoid fever, flu, and colds. It can potentially help with treating hepatitis and HIV.
In Punta Gorda, the Garifuna community has a long tradition of healing with plants. One such person is Mrs. Lucia Avila-Garcia, 82, a local lady healing people with plants for almost half a century. One of her favorite, most used plants is Caña Santa, which she ferments in an aluminum pot behind her small, blue house surrounded by plants. Next to her main door a plant of Caña Santa or Cymbopogoncitratus grows in abundance. Commonly known as lemon grass, or oil grass, it has proven antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-fungal properties. Next to her window a Valerian root is fermenting in an aluminum pot. “It’s good for diabetes, strength. I’ve been fermenting it for a week,” says Doña Lucia about the root that also helps with sleep, treats anxiety, blood pressure. Ms. Lucia received most of her knowledge about pants from her mentor: Dona Izidria Mejilla, of Balfate. But not all. The knowledge about healing is shared openly in the community and it sometimes surfaces in a less common ways. Sometimes knowledge about healing and plants is brought in a dream vision, brought by a message from a deceased ancestor or a friend. “This is what we believe,” says the Garifuna healer.
knowledge about healing and plants is brought in a dream vision, brought by a message from a deceased ancestor
Boiled breadfruit leaves treat high blood pressure. When breadfruit leaves are crushed and placed on the forehead, they are a perfect remedy for a headache.
The red peeling bark of the Gumbo-Limbo tree is used to treat skin sores, measles, sunburn, insect bites, and rashes. The boiled bark concoction can be drunk as tea to relives backache, urinary tract infections, cold, flu and fevers. Young Gumbo-Limbo leaves rubbed on skin exposed to poison wood sooth the itching and quicken the recovery.
Sea Grapes are good for upset stomach. Noni or Cheese fruit (Morindacitrifolia) has been an island remedy for generations.
It helps the liver and cardiovascular tonic, a cancer preventative, and immune booster, among other things. While a fermented noni emits a ‘funky cheese’ smell it is a powerful pre- and pro-biotic that regulates blood sugar levels. Noni leaves are used for irritation of all types even hard, red spider bites.
Island’s tropical climate is a perfect home to a cornucopia of complex and powerful remedies
“Nature’s pharmacy” is present in hundreds of Roatan plants: some common, others quite rare. The island’s tropical climate is a perfect home to a cornucopia of complex and powerful remedies stored in leaves, bark and fruits of island’s plants. The entire island is an open pharmacy, a pharmacy fewer and fewer people recognize.