Confession of an Herbalist’s Intern: Part One

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A lot of people back home are wondering what exactly it is I’m doing here right now. Officially, I’m helping Rachel Thomas–an incredibly knowledgeable, experienced herbalist and spiritual healer here in Puerto Viejo, and the director/owner of Hidden Garden Wellness Center–with admin and retreat business. Unofficially, I’m learning about a little thing we decided to coin Integrative Tribal Arts.

This term is a catch-all for traditional herbalism and other cross-cultural modalities of physical and spiritual healing. Think medicinal plants, pipe ceremonies, sweat lodges, therapeutic massage, and so much more, all with Latin American and Caribbean roots. I got my first taste of this when I was sick last week, and I can’t stop reading and researching this stuff. I keep wishing that I had taken an introductory Herbalism course before I got here (fairly sure that was a class offered at Hogwarts, by the by) just so I wouldn’t feel so agonizingly inept when it comes to the basics and sciencey terminology I’m surrounded by.

Hidden Garden is home to over 200 varieties of medicinal plants, and I already have favorites, some of which were the ones that Rachel gave me when I was sick: dormilona (divinely relaxing), mozote de caballo (I spend a whole afternoon researching the two different plants, both colloquially called mozote) and gavilana (jackass bitters–let’s hear it for digestive bitters!). But more on those later–we’ll be tincturing some soon! Here are a few others I’ve fallen in love with:

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Katuk flowers. The berries develop a gorgeous pink blush as they ripen.

Katuk wins for being both beautiful and delicious. The leaves of this bush are edible and taste crisp and nutty, kind of like green beans or chickpeas. Plus, they’re super nutritious: nearly half protein, more potassium than bananas and more calcium than cow’s milk. I’d love to grow this back in Chicago, but Katuk likes tropical growing conditions. And I heard it snowed today in Chicago, so I guess I’ll have to eat the whole katuk bush before I leave.

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Reina de la Noche–these blooms are huge, almost a foot long.

Jungle plants look like alien life forms, violently technicolor and strangely sized. Reina de la Noche is powerfully hallucinogenic, and can induce insanity. In the evenings, they emit an intoxicating perfume–it reminds me of lilies–but you shouldn’t even smell them for too long.

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Hey cuties.

Rachel also has a beautiful little cinnamon tree. The leaves and branches all taste and smell like the warm, toasty spice–I’m currently experimenting with drying out the leaves. Then I found a little hive of stingless bees making their home on one of the leaves–two of my favorite things in one place: honey and cinnamon. This powerful duo has been mixed together as a folk remedy in lots of cultures, used for curing everything from colds and bladder infections to hearing loss and even cancer. I just like to put them both in tea or coffee.

 

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Carao syrup haul.

 

Speaking of coffee, I’ve been adding this stuff to my cup every morning: carao. Guys in town sell it out of backpacks in recycled beer bottles, cork the top with foil and wrap them in old newspaper. Inside is pure gold: carao syrup. Carao fruit is action-packed with iron, so this syrup helps with anemia (oh, hey), but has also been used for digestive issues, lung problems, and is even an antifungal. The syrup is slightly sweet, but actually helps balance blood sugar. It tastes vaguely chocolatey and makes my coffee taste like a tropical mocha. Awesome.

So that’s what I’m up to these days. It’s hard to believe I only have a week and a half left in Puerto Viejo–I’ve already met some of the most amazing souls. My head and heart are bursting with all this knowledge and warm, fuzzy oneness. Aside from soaking up all this herbal info, there are tons of projects in the works, including developing therapeutic herbal smoking blends, and bringing a bit of ancestral medicine magic back to Chicago. Stay tuned for details!


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