The plants of the Caribbean can be a virtual medicine chest, once you get to know them.
Call it what you will — bush medicine, folk remedies or jungle medicine — but Caribbean mothers call it by the proper name: good health. Traditionally, flora growing throughout the region has been used to treat ailments of all kinds, everything from colds and flus to more intense issues like infections and parasites. And the best thing about jungle medicine is it’s freely available, growing out in the wild. Check out these 10 indigenous island plants that have long been used to cure what ails the people of — and visitors to — the Caribbean.
We know this as sunburn relief, the magical ingredient in gels and lotions that eases the burn from too much time in the sun. It’s the same in the Caribbean; the clear gel inside the leaf soothes pain and speeds up healing for cuts and burns. To the Caribbean people, though, it’s known as “the miracle plant” because its benefits reach so far. Drinking the gel as a tonic relieves all types of breathing ailments, from bronchitis to colds, and the browner-colored gel is a strong laxative used to purify the body’s digestive tract. If you put the gel on your head, it helps ease dandruff as well as strengthening the hair and encouraging it to grow. Plus, aloe can prevent both scars and wrinkles. Miracle plant, indeed.
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Typically, people don’t eat the large fruit that grows on the calabash tree. But in the Caribbean, it’s roasted and consumed to prevent cramps or induce childbirth. It can also be used as a laxative, and the flesh from the fruit heals the skin and helps bruises disappear quickly. Almost every part of the tree can be used in folk medicine. The pulp of the fruit works as cough medicine and treats asthma. The bark cures earaches and cools a fever. Tea from the leaves can lower blood pressure, treat a cold and digestive problems, ease headaches and help alleviate dysentery symptoms.
This grass is actually quite common — we put it in tea and smoothies, and use it as a seasoning in meals. But we know it by another name: lemongrass. In the Caribbean, they call it “fever grass” because it’s brewed into tea to reduce fevers. But that tea has other medicinal properties, too; it eases stomachaches and digestion problems, relieves cramps and gas, and guards against nausea and asthma attacks. Some even use the crushed leaves as a poultice to relieve arthritis and other pain.
As a testament to Caribbean cleverness, this tree also goes by a much more appropriate name: the sunburned-tourists tree. The name represents both illness and remedy. Tourists come to the Caribbean and leave with red, peeling, sunburnt skin that matches the bark on the tree, which is also red and peels away. And the tree helps cure it, too. Boiled strips of bark can be laid over sunburns to speed up healing. The bark strips are also used as a topical remedy for any type of skin ailment, including measles and rashes from poison plants. Taken as a tea, gumbo limbo is said to ease cold and flu symptoms and relieve urinary tract infections and headaches.
You may prefer the less crass moniker “gavilana,” but the common name tells a story about the flowers and leaves; it’s said that a tea made from the plant is so bitter that you have to be a … donkey to drink it. But it’s worth it to muscle through the taste. When made into tea or wine, jackass bitters serve as a powerful anti-parasitic, tackling everything from ringworm and malaria to yeast and fungal infections. It’s also anti-viral, helping speed cold and flu recovery. Topically, it disinfects wounds. And if you ever have the unfortunate opportunity to catch lice, just wash your hair with the bitters and it’ll get rid of them right away. Its versatility really makes the taste worth it.
No, not that mimosa. This one has nothing to do with Champagne and orange juice, and everything to do with a pretty purple flower and leaves that shy away if you try to touch them. It’s also called the sensitive plant, or the humble plant. When you touch the leaves, they close in on themselves and droop down to avoid further contact. Its medicinal purpose reflects its actions — tea from the leaves and branches can help the drinker fall asleep. Mimosa is also a good pain reliever, and mashed leaves can be put on toothaches to help calm the hurt.
Want to keep away evil spirits? Europeans of old suggested growing some periwinkle to deter them. On a less ethereal plane, the flower has a long history as folk medicine. It’s traditionally been used in the Caribbean to fight against diabetes. But also, if you juice the flowers, it calms stings and insect bites. A tincture from the petals treats eye irritation and infections, a poultice stops bleeding and relaxes sore muscles, and a tea helps sore throats and coughs. Plus, it’s pretty enough to keep around all the time.
This plant grows wild all over the Caribbean, and is commonly known as a kalanchoe or “leaf of life.” The leaves can be eaten on their own as medicine — and, indeed, some people chow down on them sprinkled with salt — but it can also be made into a sun tea, which is most common. Siempre viva works well to relieve respiratory ailments of every type, no matter if the problem is viral, fungal or bacterial. Just chop up the leaves, throw them in a mason jar full of water and set it in the sun or in the fridge to steep for a day. Strain it and drink up. It’s also beneficial for gastrointestinal ulcers due to its anti-inflammatory and soothing properties.
True to its name, the snake plant’s leaves look like snakeskin and are used as a remedy for the serpent’s bite. But the plant itself isn’t used as the medicine; you would boil the leaves and then use the water, which extracts all the beneficial properties from the plant. The water is also said to help rashes and other skin wounds. Cheekily, snake plant is also called mother-in-law’s tongue — it grows rapidly, is long with sharp edges and, as local gardeners will tell you, you can’t get rid of it once it’s started. Beware with this one, though. It’s a common houseplant that’s easy to grow indoors, but can be poisonous to pets.
Soursop is more than just jungle medicine in the Caribbean; it’s also a delicious native fruit often called a custard apple. Prickly green on the outside, it can look like a heart, a small thick cucumber or a pear. Cut open, the interior is a creamy white with black seeds. The fruit tastes like a mix of strawberry, coconut and pineapple, with a tart, citrusy kick. For medicinal purposes, drinking a tea made with the leaves is said to reduce fever, help cure urinary tract problems, lower blood pressure and regulate the nervous system. A poultice made from the crushed leaves relieves skin issues and reduces swelling. As a bonus, soursop is a powerhouse against bugs and insects. It kills lice and bedbugs and helps to drive away caterpillars, armyworms and leafhoppers in the garden.
Consult your physician before using these or any other alternative medicines to treat or prevent illness.
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