3 Incredibly Useful Tropical Healing Herbs


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I love hearing herb nerds talk plants: they talk about them like old friends with whom they’ve had the most fantastic adventures. The plants are animated and temperamental. In many traditions, every type of plant has a spirit–the one that comes to you in a dream to form an alliance, the one you humbly ask before you harvest, the one you thank and trust in as you use his or her medicine. And they have gendered pronouns! The mysterious smilax is a mischievous He, Ayahuasca is a powerful, brazen She. When I mentioned my cycle was late, Rachel said “I’ll introduce you to Rue.”


The plants will call to you: gently whispering as one or two take your attention. Rachel has said time and again “Know your plants.” Don’t use too many, just have a few that you know intimately and use those. Elena Avila, a famous curandera, was taught that you can only use a plant when they come to you in a dream and become your ally. I haven’t dreamed of any plants yet (except for a monstrous field of spikey, purple-green aloe as far as the eye could see. It was beautiful and terrifying, as the most wonderful things are) but there are a few that I’m thinking about lately, and they all happen to be the ones that have been used to use for empacho.




Or Jackass Bitters in English. Oh bitters, how I’ve grown to love you. Bitter is a taste we don’t get much of, especially in the States. We’re all about the sweet, but the actual taste of bitters on your tongue helps stimulate digestion–from saliva production to enzymes and bile, which is why you find so many digestifs with funky herbal notes. A lack of bitters in your diet can result in sluggish digestion, constipation or the malabsorption of nutrients. While it’s good incorporate bitters into your diet on a daily basis (eating foods like dandelion greens, kale, turmeric, asparagus), Jackass Bitters are better used as medicine, when you need a good fire up to your digestion and metabolism. I’ve tried this in a tincture, but also in a tea as well. And yeah, it’s really friggin’ bitter. Gavilana likes tropical climates, but a good medicinal bitter alternative is Goldenseal.


Mozote de Caballo

I spent the better part of an afternoon, a stack of books next to me, trying to figure out exactly what is up with what people call Mozote in these parts. Turns out, it can mean two plants. I’m talking about Triumfetta semitriloba. This is a mucilage, meaning it creates balance within all the mucus membranes of the body. Aloe, chia seeds, chan, and all other slimy stuff is considered great for mucus membranes also. This is called the Doctrine of Signature, where the way a plant looks gives you a hint at what it’s good for. Another example is the color red: Usually things that are deep crimson (beets, sorrel, and a root called Cuculmeca) are good for the kidneys and blood-building. So, mozote is great for grabbing all the crap that’s sticking to the walls of your intestines and pulling it out. It also signals to the brain to create a new, fresh lining of the intestines, doing double duty to cleanse your pipes. Interesting to note: this herb is a cooling mucilage, which makes perfect sense in the tropics. In Chicago, or other more temperate places, you might need a heating mucilage. Slippery Elm or Irish Moss, perhaps?



I’ve written about this herb before. Dormilona translates to “sleepy head,” probably named for how the plant’s leaves fold in on its stem when you touch them. Dormilona is great as a relaxant taken in a tea or a tincture. The Mexica take a couple branches, form the in a cross and place them under the pillow for sleepless nights. Dormilona also works for urinary tract infections and is used for epilepsy and as an aphrodisiac in India. In terms of exactly how relaxing this relaxant is: it falls in between chamomile and valerian. When I took dormilona in drops, I immediately felt its effects, like dialing everything down just a bit. This is definitely one tincture I’m bringing back with me.

Rachel’s garden has more than 200 medicinal tropical plants. Two hundred! Just a garden walk was overwhelming to me when I first arrived: all the types of foliage just blended into one mass of unfamiliar plant material. Spending the last month surrounded by these plants, though, has opened my eyes tremendously. I can walk through the garden and pick some culantro or katuk to nibble on. I can brush my finger on a dormilona plant and watch her shy away from the touch. I can pick a sprig or two of lemon balm and make a little cold infusion. The world of plants is so vast that tiny pieces of knowledge I absorb seems more and more insignificant, like acquiring a few grains of sand on the unending beach of the topic of herbalism. But those tiny grains are somehow so precious to me, and I crave the opportunity to share them.

I have already been here a month and am scheduled to travel to the Osa peninsula next week. How is this town so difficult to leave? There is the sense that there is so much more waiting for me and that I’ve just scratched the surface of what being here has awakened within me. I’m so excited to discover the rest of this iceberg.


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