South America

The continent of South America is unparalleled for the richness of its flora; Brazil alone is home to 55,000 species of flowering plants. But much of the indigenous peoples’ traditional uses for these plants remained largely unknown to the outside world until recent centuries, when ethnological and ethnobotanical studies were begun of these sophisticated peoples and their plants. The Yanomami people of Brazil and Venezuela, for example, are believed to have moved to the region nearly 8,000 years ago and have lived very much the same way ever since (although this is rapidly changing). The Amazon forest has provided them (and many other tribes) with berries of urucú, also known as annatto (Bixa orellana), for red dye to decorate their bodies and loincloths, and with fibers of the kapok tree (Ceiba pentandra) to make deadly poison-tipped blowgun darts for hunting.

south america

In the Siona tribe of Colombia, shamans collected stems of yage (Banisteriopsis caapi) and leaves of chagropanga (Diplopterys cabrerana) to make a ritual drink that produced hallucinatory visions of the spirit world, through which they could offer healing to their patients. In the western Amazon region, shamans made a medicine by combining the same vine, there called ayahuasca (B. caapi), or “vine of the soul,” with the leaves of chacruna (Psychotria viridis) to cure a wide range of physical, psychological, and spiritual illnesses.

Interestingly, the psychoactive effect results from the potent chemicals released by the combination of the two plants used together—either plant used alone will not produce the same results. The discovery of the synergistic effects of different plant species from two different plant families, first reported more than 150 years ago by the botanist Richard Spruce, is a most remarkable feat of indigenous technology. This level of sophistication, also seen in the preparation of food plants to remove toxic compounds and make them palatable, can be found repeatedly among indigenous cultures.

The Andean highlands of Peru are home to several plants with a long history of use—potato, maca root (Lepidium meyenii), and coca (Erythroxylum coca and E. novogranatense). Maca is said to enhance physical strength and endurance, as well as sexual prowess. In its leaf form, the coca plant was used to energize the body and stave off the fatigue and hunger associated with living in the rugged mountains or remote rainforest. Andean and Amazon civilizations chewed coca leaves (the source of the purified drug cocaine) as early as 2,000 BCE—some references even suggest that its use began 8,000 years ago. Known as soroche in the Andean region, coca leaf tea has long been recognized as an effective cure for altitude sickness. Because of its importance in sacred rituals, coca was highly valued in early societies, and today this plant remains a revered species within its native region.

Around 1450 BCE, the Incas rose to power in the Andean mountain region, and in less than a century, they developed a civilization nearly as sophisticated as that of the ancient Romans. The Incas built reliable irrigation systems by diverting rivers, building aqueducts, and digging canals along terraces on which they produced maize, cotton, quinoa, peanuts, coca, potatoes, and tomatoes. They also produced medicinal herbs such as vilcacoraor cat’s claw (Uncaria tomentosa), an anti-inflammatory; manayupa (Desmodium adscendens), a detoxicant and blood purifier; and sangre de drago, or dragon’s blood (Croton lechleri), a treatment for wounds.

From the time of the Spanish conquest to the present day, thousands of important herbal medicines have been “discovered” by Europeans in South America—of course, the true discoverers were the local people in the region who taught the early explorers. Legend has it that an Andean Indian with a terrible fever drank bitter-tasting water from a pond that was contaminated by the stems and leaves of the quinine trees that grew around it. Miraculously, his fever disappeared and word about the power of this tree spread. The bark was later found to contain the alkaloid quinine, a drug that reduces fevers and helps prevent malaria. Quinine remained the world’s most effective antimalarial agent until the invention of a synthetic equivalent several hundred years later.

Curare, extracted from the stem of Chondrodendron tomentosum, was the basis for a deadly poison used to coat the tips of arrows and blowgun darts. Hunters could use this poison to kill large or distant animals simply by shooting an arrow or dart at their quarry and penetrating the skin. Curare would paralyze the skeletal muscles and cause asphyxiation, leading to death. Curare later became useful as a surgical anesthetic and treatment for chronic muscle spasms.

Important Herbs Of Central And South America

Herb Examples Of Uses
Allspice (Pimenta dioica) Pungent culinary flavoring
Annatto (Bixa orellana) Cosmetic colorant, culinary flavoring
Epazote (Dysphania ambrosioides) Mexican cooking herb
Ipecac (Carapichea ipecacuanha) Potent emetic, expectorant
Lignum vitae (Guaiacum officinale) Mild laxative, diuretic
Mexican yam (Dioscorea macrostachya) Source of raw material for steroids
Papaya (Carica papaya) Insect sting remedy, digestive aid, culinary uses
Vanilla (Vanilla planifolia) Popular flavoring, perfume
Yerba mate (Ilex paraguariensis) Stimulating tea