Herbal medicine thrives in islands' traditional culture


Writer Terese L. Kreuzer explored the world of herbal medicine at a recent Caribbean conference. Here is her report:

CHRISTIANSTED, St. Croix -- Probably few vacationers suspect that a plant remedy for the common cold grows wild on many islands of the Caribbean. Causton Merchant, resident manager of Elysian Beach Resort in St. Thomas, calls the plant "horse rub dong," its name in his native St. Kitts, where it is used to treat colds, fever and flu.

Herbal medicine, called bush medicine in the Caribbean, was the subject of the second International Workshop on Herbal Medicines held recently on St. Croix.

The three-day conference attracted about 200 participants to the University of the Virgin Islands, one of the conferences' sponsors. Traditional herbal practices, the integration of herbal and modern medicine and the scientific validity and safety of herbal remedies were topics of lectures, exhibits and trips.

Dr. Kumariah Balasubramaniam, a pharmacologist from Sri Lanka, said herbal medicine attracts interest from both developed and developing countries.

An organization called Tramil/enda-caribe, based in the Dominican Republic, has gathered information since the early 1980s about the uses of herbs and other medicinal plants by Caribbean families.

Tramil analyzed 300 traditionally used plants and found 90 of them to be effective, according to Dr. Lionel Germosen-Robineau, the group's founder. Data on other plants is still incomplete.

For more information, contact the organization at [email protected] or by fax at (809) 541-3259.

Many West Indians use herbal remedies in addition to, or in place of, modern medicines to treat problems from respiratory infections to heart disease. With high blood pressure and diabetes rampant in some regions of the Caribbean, plants have been used for generations to keep these disorders under control. Herbs also frequently treat diarrhea, stomach ailments, and joint and muscular pain.

Couples turn to certain herbs to enhance fertility, and women use herbs to help prepare for childbirth. On St. Thomas, Rastafarian farmers sell herbs in the parking lot by the side of Veterans Drive in Charlotte Amalie.

Black wattle is sold as a laxative and a sedative; Spanish needle is recommended for backaches, bruises, kidney problems and strains, and worrywine treats rashes and prickly heat when used externally. Taken internally, the herb helps relieve headaches, worms, asthma and jaundice.

Caribbean supermarkets and small grocery stores often carry a range of herbs. Many people grow plants or find them in the bush. Bush tea is popular for its taste and its prophylactic benefits.

Virgin Islander Jacquel Dawson packages and sells bush teas in several locations in the U.S.V.I., including the coffee shop by the fish market in Frenchtown, St. Thomas. The teas can be purchased through the Web site at www.bushtea.vi.

Mango tea is good for arthritis; soursop helps insomnia; anise treats intestinal gas, and japana helps coughs.

On St. Croix, Olasee Davis, a botanist and specialist with the University of the Virgin Islands, leads herbal hikes in the hills near Point Udall on the island's east end. Another popular site is the Caledonia Valley in the rain forest area near Frederiksted on St. Croix's west coast. Davis explains the historical uses of various plants. His tours cost $15 per person. For information, call (340) 778-9491.

Veronica Gordon, a traditional "weedwoman," sells herbs and dispenses advice Saturdays at the Frederiksted dock. Gordon also occasionally lectures and guides tours at the St. George Botanical Garden in St. Croix.

In Trinidad, Francis Morean, a botanist with an interest in folkloric medicine, conducts workshops and seminars and leads hikes through the Arima Valley. For information, call (868) 681-0272.

The Caribbean Association of Researchers and Herbal Practitioners is organizing the third herbal medicine workshop, scheduled for June 2000 in Jamaica. For information, call (876) 942-3063.

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