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Useful Plants
By Glenn Shepard Jr., Medical Anthropologist and Ethnobotanist
All text and photos copyright © 1997 by Glenn Shepard Jr.

The rainforests of the Amazon contain dozens of useful plants that are used in everything from medicine to food, and industrial products like rubber. Some of these plants are listed below. The Amazon must be preserved in order to vouchsafe these and other potential discoveries for future generations.

Ayahuasca Vine
Machiguenga Name: Kamarampi
Botanical Name: *Banisteriopsis caapi* (Malphigiaceae Family)

Pronounced as "EYE-a-wasca," the ayahuasca vine is a tropical climbing vine best known for its psychoactive properties and use in Peruvian shamanic rituals. Sometimes called "the vine of the dead," this thick-rooted plant grows long leaves and small flowers. The ayahuasca receives its psychoactive properties from the chemical harmaline, a compound that stimulates the nervous system, produced naturally in the vine.

The common name for this plant comes from Quechua, the language of the Incas, and means "vine of the soul." The Machiguenga name Kamarampi means "medicine of vomiting" due to the powerful purgative properties of this bitter plant. It is used in the preparation of a powerful hallucinogenic beverage, called ayahuasca or yage, taken by shamans throughout the Amazon. This beverage is prepared by cooking ayahuasca vine with the leaf of chacuruna (*Psychotria*, of the coffee family). Neither of the two plants have an hallucinogenic effect when taken individually. Yet when cooked together, the beta-carbolines found in the ayahuasca vine potentiate the dimethyl tryptamine (DMT) found in chacuruna leaf, creating powerful visions and the sensation of visiting another world, the world of the spirits. Machiguenga shamans take ayahuasca to gain healing power, hunting skill and new agricultural varieties from the spirit world.

medicinal sedgePiri-piri, Medicinal Sedges
Machiguenga Name: Ivenkiki
Botanical Name: *Cyperus* spp. (Cyperaceae, Sedge Family)

Native people throughout the Amazon cultivate numerous varieties of medicinal sedges to treat a wide range of health problems. The Machiguenga, for example, use sedge roots to treat headaches, fevers, cramps, dysentery and wounds as well as to ease childbirth. Special sedge varieties are cultivated by Machiguenga women to improve their skill weaving and to protect their babies from illness. The men cultivate special sedges to improve their hunting skill.

Since the plant is used for such a wide range of conditions, it was once dismissed as being mere superstition. Pharmacological research has revealed the presence of ergot alkaloids, which are known to have diverse effects on the body from stimulation of the nervous system to constriction of blood vessels. These alkaloids are responsible for the wide range of medicinal uses assigned by the Machiguenga. Apparently the ergot alkaloids come not from the plant itself but from a fungus that infects the plant.

Curare
Machiguenga Name: Kepishirori
Botanical Name: *Curarea toxifera* *Chondrodendron* spp. (Menispermaceae, Moonseed Family)

Curare includes several species of bitter-tasting vines used to make the powerful poison applied to the darts of blowguns. The Machiguenga name for the plant means "bitter leaf." Traditionally used by indigenous peoples of the Amazon as a poison for hunting animals, curare is the natural source of the drug d-tubocurarine, a muscle relaxant that revolutionized modern surgery. The Machiguenga do not hunt with blowguns, nor do they use curare as arrow poison. Instead, they use curare as a medicine for treating certain severe skin infections.

Tohe (TOE-HEY), Deadly Nightshade
Machiguenga Name: Jayapa, Saaro
Botanical Name: *Brugmansia aurea* (Solanaceae, Tomato Family)

Tohe is a small tree with a large, bell-shaped white flowers that give off a strong perfume at night. Related to the European herb Belladonna (Datura), this plant is a natural source of atropine and scopolamine. Atropine was used by Italian beauties of past centuries to dilate their pupils, creating the mysterious, wide-eyed look such as found in Leonardo da Vinci's "Mona Lisa." However, excessive use often led to madness, and the fashion trend went out of style. Atropine is used today to control muscle spasms, for example when setting broken bones, and is found in medicines such as Lomotil. Scopolamine, also found in this plant, was once given to women during labor to produce the so-called "twilight sleep."

The Machiguenga grow tohe in their gardens, and use it in the treatment of broken bones, sprains and difficult childbirth. For severe illnesses, the Machiguenga sometimes drink a very small amount of the steamed plant to induce a prolonged sleep with healing dreams. However, they must be very careful in administering the plant, for a slight overdose can be damaging or fatal.

Rubber Tree
Machiguenga Name: Konyori; Santonka
Botanical Name: *Hevea brasiliensis* (Euphorbiaceae, Poinsettia Family); *Castilla elastica* (Moraceae, Fig Family)

Rubber is produced from the white sap (or latex) of several rain forest trees. The rubber which fueled the so-called "rubber boom" and its related atrocities in the Amazon came from the *Hevea* tree, very common in the upper Manu and known as Konyori in Machiguenga. An alternative source, so-called "black rubber" is *Castilla*, known in Machiguenga as Santonka. This is botanically related to *Ficus elastica* or "India rubber," a native of the Far East that many Americans grow as a house plant.

The Machiguenga use certain species of rubber to make impermeable rain ponchos out of their woven cotton tunics or cushmas. Other species of rubber are cooked with red achiote seeds to make a durable latex paint for adorning the body. The golfball-sized seeds of *Hevea* are cooked and eaten by the Machiguenga.

Manioc, Cassava, Yuca
Machiguenga Name: Sekatsi
Botanical Name: *Manihot esculenta* (Euphorbiaceae, Poinsettia Family)

Also known as cassava or yuca, manioc has a starchy tuber with a taste somewhat like potato. The natural source of tapioca, manioc is the most important staple crop of lowland South America. The Machiguenga name for manioc, Sekatsi, means literally "food," reflecting the importance of this plant in their diet. First domesticated by Amazonian peoples thousands of years ago, manioc is now cultivated in tropical areas throughout the world. There are two main kinds of manioc: bitter manioc and sweet manioc. Bitter manioc has high concentrations of cyanide-producing compounds, and it must be first pounded, rinsed and strained several times to remove these bitter poisons before it can be converted into edible flour and tapioca. Sweet manioc has no such bitter compounds, and can be eaten boiled or baked like a potato. The Machiguenga Indians of Manu use only sweet manioc. In addition to using it as food, the Machiguenga ferment mashed manioc into a beer known as ovuroki or masato, which they drink in communal celebrations.

Barbasco
Machiguenga Name: Kogi, Shimaaro
Botanical Name: *Tephrosia toxicofera* (Leguminosae, Bean Family)

Barbasco is a vine whose roots are the natural source of rotenone, a biodegradable pesticide used throughout the world. The Machiguenga and other native people of the Amazon have cultivated barbasco for thousands of years as a fish poison. When large amounts are pounded with stones and put into a stream, the milky sap of the roots interferes with the respiration of fish, leaving them stunned and floating at the surface. When the toxin wears off, stunned fish that are not captured may come back to life. Native people use barbasco only during the dry season, when the rivers are low, so the toxin will not be too diluted in the water.

Achiote, Annato
Machiguenga Name: Potsoti
Botanical Name: *Bixa orellana* (Bixaceae, Annato Family)

Achiote or annato is a small tree that produces a spiny fruit with waxy reddish-orange seeds that are used as natural colorants in foods and cosmetics around the world. The Machiguenga and other native peoples of the Amazon first used achiote as a bright red paint for adorning the face and hair. Achiote is cooked with sap from the rubber tree to make a durable latex paint that sticks to the skin for several days. The Machiguenga believe that different varieties of achiote can be used to paint the face for different purposes: as a disguise to dispel illnesses, as makeup to attract a girlfriend or boyfriend , as snake repellent, or as war paint to be fierce in battle.

Passion Fruit
Machiguenga Name: Shimantyonaro
Botanical Name: *Passiflora* spp. (Passifloraceae, Passion Fruit Family)

Passion fruit grows wild as a flimsy vine with a colorful flower and an egg-shaped fruit. The Machiguenga eat several species of passion fruit, which is full of crunchy seeds with sweet, slightly tart pulp. There are also inedible species, which the Machiguenga refer to as "passion fruit of the capybara." Machiguenga children love to play with the beautiful flowers, plucking off the petals one by one.

Cat's Claw
Machiguenga Name: Shamento
Botanical Name: *Uncaria tomentosa* (Rubiaceae, Coffee Family)

Known in Spanish as "Una de Gato," this vine has been used throughout the Amazon of Peru to treat inflammations, colds, arthritis and other conditions for hundreds of years. The Machiguenga, for example, drink the water from the thick vine to treat coughs and colds. Until recently, educated urban Peruvians rejected the medicinal values of the plant as superstition. In the past few years, the plant has been subjected to pharmacological tests and shown to have activity both as an anti-inflammatory and as a booster for the immune system. Peruvian researchers are now studying the possible benefits of "Cat's Claw" for AIDS and cancer patients. An Austrian company has patented the standardized extract. This plant is now being exported on a massive scale from Peru to the world herbal market in the form of medicinal teas.

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