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Rainforest Pharmacy: Medicinal Plants that Treat a Plethora of Ills

J. A. Young

It seems everybody knows that the rainforest is home to plants that contain medicinal properties, but exactly what those particular plants are is not common knowledge. Saving the world’s rainforests becomes a much more important priority when people can truly gauge what’s at stake if the forests dwindle or even become extinct. The following plants are grown in various rainforests around the world and do, indeed, contain important medicinal properties that can contribute greatly to world health.

Chondrodendron tomentosum, better known as curare, is a famous vine found in the Amazon basin where its poisons notoriously topped the arrows of indigenous tribes. Medicinally, however, curare has some healing properties contained in its leaves and roots; curare appears to have the potential to reduce fevers, block pain, and relax the muscles. Scientifically speaking, curare isn’t precisely poisonous; it can cause asphyxia, however, by relaxing the muscles so intensely that the diaphragm and lungs simply stop functioning.

The shell-flower, commonly called boca de dragon and scientifically called Alpinia zerumbet, seems to have the power to kill bacteria, reduce pain, and even lower blood pressure. Native to the tropical forests of Asia, particularly Malaysia, Vietnam, and Thailand, the shell-flower’s leaves and rhizome contain its known healing properties. The plant also seems to reduce the tendency for spasms.

Vassourinha grows profusely in the Amazon rainforest. Known scientifically as Scoparia dulcis, this plant is medicinally potent in its roots, leaves, and bark. It is famed for a variety of healing properties and is used widely in the tropics. Vassourinha contains the potential to inhibit the growth of tumors, reduce blood pressure, reduce pain, kill viruses, and even kill leukemia cells. Additionally, this plant is sometimes used to lower blood sugar, reduce fevers, and heal open wounds. A tropical powerhouse, vassourinha is a favorite medicinal plant among native healers and is sometimes taken in tea form.

Bixa orellana, commonly called lipstick tree, is famed for its bright pink clusters of flowers. Found in the Amazon rainforest as well as other tropical areas, this plant’s healing power is contained in the pulp of its seeds which is ingested through infusion. The lipstick tree, sometimes referred to as annatto, is said to reduce mucous production in the respiratory tract, kill parasites and germs, reduce fever, and reduce coughing. It has been called an antidote to Prussic acid for its ability to reduce acid. Aside from its seeds, its bark, leaves, and roots are sometimes used medicinally and cosmetically.

A native to the rainforests of Southeast Asia, particularly to Indonesia’s Greater Sunda Islands, crape ginger, known scientifically as Costus speciosus, has been used for centuries in Ayurvedic practices and is cultivated in India today for its medicinal uses. Crape ginger has historically been used to treat asthma, bronchitis, intestinal worms, and even to reduce fever and rashes.

Huanarpo macho, known scientifically as Jatropha macrantha, is found in the Amazon’s Maranon River Valley. The useful parts of the plant are its young branch stems that are used to treat coughs and increase renal function. This medium-sized tree is shrub-like in appearance and boasts orange-red flowers. Traditionally, Huanarpo macho has been regarded as an aphrodisiac in some cultures; it is believed be endowed with the power to stimulate a low libido and increase one’s energy.

Native to the Amazon, quinine is cultivated in many parts of the world today. Its scientific name is Cinchona officinalis and the plant is famous for its ability to treat malaria. Its useful parts are its bark and wood. Quinine is also used to reduce fever, kill germs, reduce pain, and even calm the nerves. As malaria is a serious problem in many parts of the world, this plant is one of the rainforest’s most important gifts.

Suma, known scientifically as Pfaffia paniculata, is also sometimes called Brazilian ginseng. This plant has been used by Amazonian natives for ages to reduce pain and calm the nerves. However, it is recently being researched for its anti-cancer potential as it appears to inhibit the growth of cancer and is able to kill leukemia cells. It is also regarded as an immune system booster and a cholesterol-lowering agent. Suma’s roots appear to contain its potent medicinal properties.

Another gift of the Amazon, clavillia, is used to fill bacteria, viruses, and fungi. Known scientifically as Mirabilis jalapa, clavillia is additionally used as a diuretic, particularly by indigenous Peruvian tribes. With flowers that can be white, pink, red, or even purple, clavillia is a typical garden plant that is also highly regarded for its beauty. The plant’s healing properties are contained in its flowers, root, and leaves.

The vine wood, roots, and leaves of Tynanthus panurensis, commonly called clavo huasca, are used to treat pain and stimulate the digestive system. Indigenous to the Amazon, the plant is sometimes regarded as an aphrodisiac since it is believed to stimulate the libido; consequently, it is prescribed by many native healers to treat impotency. The vine bark and roots are easily detected by their telltale clove-like smell. The plant also sports small white flowers.

Cat’s claw, known scientifically as Uncaria tomentosa, is a well-known Amazon rainforest plant. With thorns that resemble the claws of a cat, the plant is used medicinally to kill cancer cells, cleanse the bowels, reduce inflammation, and even reduce blood pressure. Some research is targeting the plant as a potential AIDS treatment. Famed for its apparent cell-repairing properties, cat’s claw seems to be a medicinal powerhouse whose hidden potential is still being researched.

Physostigma venenosum was made infamous as the poisonous agent in Agatha Christie’s novel Curtain. A native plant of tropical Africa, the more common term for the plant is the calabar bean which is particularly poisonous. However, like many killing plants, this one appears to offer some healing properties to offset its calamitous ones. Medicinally, the plant has been used to treat glaucoma, neuromuscular disease, and anticholinergic syndrome.

A tropical fruit tree, Spondias mombin is known in Peru as Ubos. According to tradition, many parts of this plant such as its fruit, bark, flowers, leaves, and roots have medicinal properties. In South America, the plant is especially favored by midwives to induce labor and reduce the pain associated with labor. Ubos appears to have contraceptive qualities, but it is more commonly used to lessen inflammation, stop bleeding, and heal wounds. Ubos also appears to have the ability to heal rashes and expel worms from the body.

Aside from its use as a natural sunscreen, Polypodium decumanum, known commonly as samambaia or calaguala, is used to protect both skin and brain cells as well as to reduce inflammation. A fern that grows in South American rainforests, samambaia has traditionally been used by rainforest tribes to treat malignant tumors. The plant’s medicinal properties seem to be contained in its leaves and rhizome. Additionally, this plant has been used to suppress coughs, lower blood pressure, and cleanse the blood.

These, of course, are just a few of the medicinal powerhouse plants contained in the rainforests of the world. Even today, chemists look to these lush forests and their ritual healers and shamans to discover the potential hidden within the plants’ chemical compounds. Research suggests that modern science has only scratched the surface by tapping into a mere five percent of the rainforest botanicals to create medicines; there is a wealth of knowledge yet to be gained and pharmaceutical companies are finally clamoring to bring this natural pharmacy to the developed world. And, of course, more than half of the world’s population still depends on the folk remedies passed down in indigenous populations for centuries. The practitioners who prescribe these natural remedies retain a wisdom of the ages that may be the key to curing many of the ills of our time.

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