Suffering from a Costa Rican summer cold or some traveler’s diarrhea?
You may want to consult longtime Tico Times garden columnist Ed Bernhardt’s new book, “Medicinal Plants of Costa Rica.” The handy, colorful guide catalogues more than 100 species of medicinal plants in alphabetical order, from allspice, a stomach tonic as well as a seasoning, to zornia, an herbaceous plant used to treat stomachaches, diarrhea and fever.
The tropics are filled with natural treatments for almost every health problem imaginable. Before reading this book, I was completely oblivious to the plant-based remedies for many common discomforts growing literally in my backyard or easily found at the local farmer’s market. The book covers the medicinal properties of familiar tropical foods such as papaya and coconut as well as lesser-known plants such as the diuretic saragundí and the antiparasitic wormseed.
A naturopathy practitioner and botanist, Bernhardt bases his book on more than 20 years of study. He credits his Costa Rican mentor, Carlos Gamboa, for imparting him indigenous and traditional knowledge. Each entry includes a full-color photo of the plant, its English and Spanish common names, Latin or botanical name, and plant family. I put Bernhardt’s multilingual index to use to decipher the Spanish-labeled ingredients in my herbal hair conditioner. The entries also include encouraging notes on how to grow applicable species in a home garden as well as tidbits about the origin and cultural histories of many species.
A walk in my Central Valley neighborhood with the book in hand allowed me to identify and learn the medicinal uses of trees, shrubs, flowers and even “weeds” I pass every day. I learned that the pink trumpet tree standing across the street was considered sacred by the Maya and Inca. Its inner bark can be prepared and ingested to restore the immune system and combat health problems from anemia to leukemia. My next-door neighbor has a prickly pear cactus in her front yard. The plant has been used for centuries to treat digestive and skin problems. Even the belittled dandelion can deliver relief for a plethora of problems, including dropsy, acne and rheumatism.
A helpful travel companion, the lightweight paperback guide highlights plants that grow across the country. A drive to the Pacific coast with “Medicinal Plants” led to plenty of roadside identifications.
The visual index provides small, full-color photos arranged in a chart for easy matching in the field. The ubiquitous gumbo-limbo tree (“naked Indian” or “peeling tourist”) used by campesinos as a living fence post also serves as an emergency treatment for health problems, including fever and vomiting. Cecropia leaves can be used in an infusion to treat asthma, colds, flu and sore throats.
So you’ve identified the plant but don’t know what to do with it? Bernhardt includes a section on making herbal preparations, outlining various ways to prepare medicinal plants, including “sun tea,” infusions, decoctions, water extracts, syrups, capsules and poultices. If you are seeking to treat a specific problem, you can look up a list of plants that may be effective.
Bernhardt reminds his readers that the information he provides should be used to “complement, not substitute, the advice of your doctor.”
“Medicinal Plants of Costa Rica” isn’t the be-all and say-all in medicinal plants in Costa Rica, nor does it claim to be. It is just an ideal tool for anyone interested in supplementing conventional medicine with plants that are easily found here, and in learning more about the healing world around them
Where to Get It
“Medicinal Plants of Costa Rica,” by Ed Bernhardt, is available at Lehmann, Universal and Internacional bookstores,
Books in downtown San José (Ca. 7, Av. 1/Ctrl.) and other bookstores and gift stores around the country. The book retails for $12.