Medicinal Plants

Digging In

Digging In: Facilitating Dialogue and Action
Key Themes and Terms
  • P'urepecha People and Territory
  • Medicinal Plants
  • Ethnobotany
  • Pharmacology
  • Healer
  • Animism
  • Totemism
  • Biological and Genetic Heterogeneity
  • Functional Biodiversity
  • Agroecological Complex
  • Polycultures
  • Agroforestry
  • Monocultures
  • Spiritual Values
  • Calendars
  • Invocations
  • Supernatural Beings
  • Chia
  • Corn
  • Landraces
  • Equilibrium
  • Divinatory Techniques
  • Intercultural Syncretism
  • Spanish Conquistadores
Catalyzing Connections

  • Description: What stories are told? How did you feel reading them?
  • Personal Connection: Does this story connect to your personal experience or stories in your family?
  • Common Themes: What social issues/themes are raised in these stories? Is there a common issue shared across contexts?
  • Social Analysis: What are the historical and social processes that created this situation?
  • Planning for Action: What can be done? What can I/we do?

  • How would you describe the worldview of the P’urepecha? How do they understand nature and human relations with the natural world?
  • Maria says that the holistic vision of the P’urepecha is “based more on ecological exchanges (with nature) than on economic exchanges (with markets).” Discuss what you think she means.
  • What are the various ethnobotanical uses of the great diversity of plants in the territory?
  • Why did Maria stop doing the healing work with plants? What are the demands of this work?
  • What are some of the obstacles to the use of natural medicinal plants in your context?

Hands On Activities

Take a walk around your neighbourhood. After reading the examples of medicinal plants that Fulvio introduces, can you find any of the medicinal plants that he describes? Photograph some of the plants and research their uses through the online global inventory PlantNet, a plant identification review that can be downloaded as as app.

Intergenerational and Intercultural Dialogue

What are the different cultural training and practical skills that Fulvio and Maria bring to their joint work with plants?

What are the ways that Maria and Fulvio are passing on their knowledge to their children?

Maria talks about intercultural syncretism in their healing practices that are derived from the process of acculturation in colonial times. What are some of the ways that the rituals they describe combine both Catholic and P’urepecha symbols and practices?

Individual and Collective Action

Try making a tea from one of the plants you’ve learned can be used for ordinary illnesses such as colds, headaches, stress, etc.

Research the pharmaceutical industry in your country. Do corporate research on one company to find out the sources of their medicines and their earnings.

The ETC group has long monitored the “Gene Giants” (who aggregate control over seeds, agrochemicals, pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, genomics and food processing and retailing). What relationships does this company have with other agricultural companies?

What can you find out about any campaigns challenging the power of pharmaceuticals or the biopiracy of companies that exploit Indigenous knowledge of plants for their own profit?

Continuing the Conversation

Continuing the Conversation
Amber Meadow Adams

Amber Meadow Adams is a writer living and working at Six Nations Grand River Territory. She received a B.A. in Literature and Writing from Columbia University and her Ph.D. in Indigenous Studies from the University at Buffalo.

Starting with the invasive ‘medicinal plant’ broad plantain described by Fulvio in this essay, Haudenosaunee scholar Adams excavates the impact of colonial plants on women’s ‘illnesses’ also produced by colonization. She asks us to dig deeper into the destruction of the social fabric that supported women in childbirth.

“An Imported Medicine for an Imported Ill”

Plantago major

In 1938, Albert Jones, Onöndowa:’ga’ from Ohí:yo (Allegany), told newly-minted ethnographer William Fenton about some of the uses of plantain. Fenton recorded that it was “good for what whites call ‘nervous breakdown,’ or when [a] female overworks. When she has many children to look after … She feels badly, dizzy in the head”.1 Jones describes what Fenton identifies as both Plantago rugelii, a species indigenous to North America, and Plantago major, a Eurasian import. Whether Jones referred to one species or two, Plantago major — so aggressive in its spread it earned the name “Englishman’s foot” among some Indigenous nations — had eclipsed rugelii in many parts of the Haudenosaunee homelands by the twentieth century.

It was the imported medicine for an imported ill. Until the 1790s, the Haudenosaunee continued to live in houses designed for extended families, organized around one’s Clan. Children had not only ista, a Kanyen’kehaka term encompassing both mother and aunt in English, but also uncles, cousins, grandparents, siblings, and friends to share the responsibilities of feeding, teaching, and caring for them. Women typically spaced their pregnancies three or four years apart, avoiding the physical overtax of carrying and breastfeeding children, sometimes simultaneously, that their European contemporaries often faced. Haudenosaunee women in the 17th and 18th centuries had regular access to something many North American women in the 21st do not: reliable, economical, and effective care, not only for their children, but for themselves.

Breaking the longhouse into single-family homes — “single” counted as that proletarianized unit of production, the nuclear family — has taken centuries. Removed from the insulation of extended family, losing access to birth control as traditional herbalism was driven underground and habitat was urbanized, Haudenosaunee women were forced to meet greater responsibilities with fewer resources. European invasion transformed a rich biome into a state of poverty: land theft, disease, war, and internment in residential schools meant higher average rates of morbidity and mortality in Indigenous populations. As the primary caregivers in more isolated households sheltering poorer, sicker people, a Haudenosaunee woman in Albert Jones’s time could expect at least some periods of extreme overwork. The “dizz[iness]” he describes is a clinical presentation of dehydration, malnutrition, anemia, hypo- or hypertension, migraine, and panic disorder — all conditions associated with physio-neurological stressors. Even the menstrual retirement traditional to longhouse life was no longer possible, nor the period of care of the woman, self-given or offered by others, that privileged her health and wellbeing rather than her dependents’. Also, as capitalism overwhelmed the more matrifocal Haudenosaunee economy, women began to lose voice in Council, both within communities and between their nations and the Crown and its daughter states. This displacement, though never complete, further eroded the social space women’s kasha’tstenhsera — capacity and autonomy — had occupied for centuries, marginalizing them within their own eco-legal system and further increasing burdens of stress.

Jones’s reporting of Plantago spp. as treatment for an individual’s disease stands as a sign of pragmatism and defiance — uprooting and metabolising an invasive species as an act of resistance to being uprooted and metabolised. In that respect, a Haudenosaunee woman was not taking plantain to reverse the disease process, but to fortify herself by absorbing a form of life, no matter its origin, like her and her peers: tenacious, adaptable, and capable of surviving and growing under hard conditions. Yet I wonder if, in 1938 or a century later, the question, “What are your medicine plants?” drives healers toward answers that Western medical philosophy can only misinterpret. The Haudenosaunee woman having a “nervous breakdown” can swallow her Plantago privately, and privately return to all the things that made her sick. No public change, no structural disruption, no biomic recovery is needed.

The Haudenosaunee healers for whom I have greatest respect treat illness as systems reaching beyond the borders of any one body. Ka’nikòn:ra, the spirit, will, desire, and consciousness manifesting as physiological phenomena, exists only in relation to all other yoti’nikonhrashon’a. All parts touch, and all parts move. How would the work of rescue ethnobotany change if curiosity about medical systems, food systems, and even ecosystems became curiosity about the matrices of macro and microlife? What if the acknowledged treatment for one woman’s nervous breakdown were the regrowth of a forest, or a renaissance of the kind of equity-in-care that capitalist medicine cannot accommodate? A sick woman and the sick Earth, our Creation story tells us, are one body. Where do we look for the medicine and the respite care for our shared mother?

Digging Deeper

Digging Deeper: Resources for Further Research and Action
Videos

Biotanical Insecticides
Dr. Fulvio Gioanetto

Books and Articles
Organizations

The Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration works to address the socioeconomic and ecological issues surrounding new technologies that could have an impact on the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people.

Navdanya, an organization in India, has a campaign for the protection of Neem, a traditional medicine and fungicide.

An intercultural partnership between Maria Blas Cacari and Fulvio Gioanetto

“This is a love story – a love of territory, of ancestral knowledge, of plants, of culture, of family and of people, in the P’urepecha Indigenous communities of Michoacán, Mexico.

The collaboration between Maria Blas Cacari, P’urepecha medicinal plant expert, and Fulvio Gioanetto, Italian-Mexican ethnobotanist, is unique, as they combine their different cultural histories and world views in the work they do with medicinal plants.”

– Lauren Baker (Co-Editor)

This is a love story – a love of territory, of ancestral knowledge, of plants, of culture, of family and of people, in the P’urepecha Indigenous communities of Michoacán, Mexico.

Fulvio Gioanetto
Maria Blas Cacari

Fulvio Gioanetto: I came to the Indigenous community of Nurio in 1995, invited by the European Union and a Mextec organization to evaluate traditional medicine and to work with 100-150 youth learning about their culture through plants. It brought together more than 100 healers to share information and improve their medicinal products.

I didn’t speak P’urepecha and Maria was my translator as she understood the language and came from a family of healers. Over time I fell in love with her, and stayed in Nurio, where we live and have raised our four children.

Fulvio and Maria with her parents at their wedding in 1997.

Maria Blas Cacari: I learned the use of traditional medicine with my grandmother in Nurio. She was a healer and knew a lot about medicine. When I was a child, I spent a lot of time with her, because as the oldest of her great grandchildren I was able to help her out. Over time, I realized that what she knew was very interesting and could be useful to people.

My grandmother was asked by many people to share her knowledge about medicinal plants, and because she didn’t speak Spanish very well, I had to translate for her. I travelled in the territory and did more research because I knew the plants in our P’urepecha language.

Fulvio and I worked together to recover and research plants that could be used in traditional medicine. Based on the knowledge of about 100 healers in four regions, we produced a book in 1997 about plants in the P’urepecha plateau, identifying their scientific names and functions, in both Spanish and P’urepecha.

Fulvio: I have a doctorate in botany and in pharmacology. I chose not to work in big companies because they are often taking ancestral knowledge and exploiting it for profit. I’d rather work with the people and look for viable options for them to live more decently, more humanely and more sustainably.

Maria Blas Cacari: I learned the use of traditional medicine with my grandmother in Nurio. She was a healer and knew a lot about medicine. When I was a child, I spent a lot of time with her, because as the oldest of her great grandchildren I was able to help her out. Over time, I realized that what she knew was very interesting and could be useful to people.

My grandmother was asked by many people to share her knowledge about medicinal plants, and because she didn’t speak Spanish very well, I had to translate for her. I travelled in the territory and did more research because I knew the plants in our P’urepecha language.

Fulvio and I worked together to recover and research plants that could be used in traditional medicine. Based on the knowledge of about 100 healers in four regions, we produced a book in 1997 about plants in the P’urepecha plateau, identifying their scientific names and functions, in both Spanish and P’urepecha.

Fulvio: I have a doctorate in botany and in pharmacology. I chose not to work in big companies because they are often taking ancestral knowledge and exploiting it for profit. I’d rather work with the people and look for viable options for them to live more decently, more humanely and more sustainably.

“I chose not to work in big companies because they are often taking ancestral knowledge and exploiting it for profit.”

I am a botanist and I think that the plants are spirits; they are a form of intense energy, and not just matter. When we eat plants, the energy or spirit of the plant enters our bodies.

I’m interested in animism, and totemism. Not just in the anthropological sense, but more profoundly, in understanding how a territory functions and how we interact with life.

Maria: In the territories of the P’urepecha indigenous nation, our subsistence is based on a holistic vision of the territory and of the beings and spirits that live and interact. It is also based more on ecological exchanges (with nature) than on economic exchanges (with markets). We interact with the landscape and the territory maintaining and favoring the mosaic of habitats, biological and genetic heterogeneity, and functional biodiversity.

In the spatial dimension, the territory becomes an agroecological complex in which cultivated fields, cornfields, fallow areas, forests and bodies of water are all functional units of the complete food system. This increases biodiversity (e.g., the milpa agroecosystem), in spaces where the strategies of multi-species, polycultures, agroforestry (edible forest gardens) rather than monocultures are favoured.

We also attribute positive spiritual values ​​to components of biodiversity; everything in nature has a ‘spiritual owner’ and we have to ask permission to use it.

Fulvio: Through living and working in Mexico for more than 20 years, I have learned that gastronomy, food, and medicine are part of a cultural reality, a way of connecting to a spirit called ‘plant’. For example, Maria has taught me that in the P’urepecha culture, there are many levels of reality. 

Cosmic planes of the p'urepecha tradition

The p’urepecha cosmogony is similar to that of other Mesoamerican traditions like the Mayans, where the universe is conceived in three planes:

  • Aunadarhu (firmament), where the celestial gods dwell;
  • Echerendi (the earth), intermediate plane inhabited by humans and the provident spirits, of the mother of the earth Xaratanga;
  • k’umajchukuarhu (where you are with the gophers), the place of the underworld

There are four types of calendars – solar (Juriata Miiukua), agricultural lunar, astronomical and the oldest ritual or festive (Kuiuchukuaro) – all related to fire and its characteristics. The element of fire, reflected in the energy of the sun, is at the centre of our cosmovision and all our rituals. Every year on February 5, we offer a ceremony to the new sacred fire.

Invocations are still offered to Tata Jurhiata, or Father Sun, and Nana Kujtsi, Mother Moon and goddess of the night. During the Day of the Dead we honour the idols of the ancestors, protective deities and guardians of the family and of the houses of the Tharhésicha, or elders. The People of the Plateau think that some supernatural beings like the spirits of the forests, the hills and the ravines (the Hapaingua, Japingua, and Phitsikorhekata), the black spirit (Sumbatsi) and the Lord of Death (Ach-varhikua) sometimes cause illnesses and nothing less death.

The meaning of specific plants

Fulvio: Within this cosmovision, the cultivation of chia was important since it was strongly linked to the solar cult and the 4 cardinal points; a deer-shaped bread is made. A similar ritual worked for corn, corresponding to the cultivated varieties of white, pinto, colorado, blue and yellow corn. The animals are also related to spiritual elements, setbacks and/or beneficial events and are thought to possess extrasensory insight and clairvoyance.

Around 2500 species of plants, including 18 species and subspecies of ferns, 86 species of lichens, 195 species of mosses and liverworts and 235 fungi, have been botanically inventoried in the four P’urepecha bioregions. Of these around 43% have ethnobotanical uses (as medicines, food, fodder for animals, dyeing).

"There are about 50 different variants of tziri, or criolle corn, grouped into more than a dozen varieties."

There are about 50 different variants of tziri, or criolle corn, grouped into more than a dozen varieties. These landraces of corn are sown at different times throughout the annual cycle and in diverse geographical spaces, allowing our people to cultivate this plant throughout the year, to take advantage of environmental diversification and to develop a vast culinary culture.

Women’s work

Maria: In our current work with natural plants, whether for medicine, food, or organic inputs, it is the women in our community who gather them in the forests, fields, and meadows. 

Women gathering wild plants
Women in Maria and Fulvio’s family

In 2018, Fulvio produced a new book, which includes many more medicinal plants he has identified with their characteristics and uses. We asked him to name three different examples of plants that are commonly used in Mexico; he suggested the Broadleaf Plantain, Spanish Sage, and Argemone Platyceras.

Examples of Common Medicinal Plants

Broadleaf Plantain

(Plantago Major)

There are more than 300 uses of this plant. The leaves are boiled and applied as a plaster for skin infections. It’s considered a diuretic, expectorant, emollient and healer. In liquid or syrup form, it can be used to fight colds, bronchitis and asthma. It can also be used externally on burns or ulcers. It can be gargled to relieve angina, used as eye drops for conjunctivitis and inflammation of the eyelids. Recent research has shown its cytotoxic effect on cancerous cells.

SPANISH SAGE

(Salvia hispánica or chia)

There are more than 300 uses of this plant. The leaves are boiled and applied as a plaster for skin infections. It’s considered a diuretic, expectorant, emollient and healer. In liquid or syrup form, it can be used to fight colds, bronchitis and asthma. It can also be used externally on burns or ulcers. It can be gargled to relieve angina, used as eye drops for conjunctivitis and inflammation of the eyelids. Recent research has shown its cytotoxic effect on cancerous cells.

ARGEMONE PLATYCERAS

(xate or chicolote)

Many parts of this plant can be used for medicinal purposes: the roots can be boiled and used as an immune booster; the seeds can be macerated in water and used to cleanse the eyes; the liquid from the stems can be also be used in the eyes; the crushed leaves applied to the temples are good for headaches, and an infusion of the petals can be taken for coughs.

Healing practices

Maria: Tradition teaches us that life is an equilibrium between worlds and interconnected beings, and that illness is caused when this equilibrium is broken. Healers and traditional therapists, in addition to the visible observation of the body use different divinatory techniques to identify the origin and cause of the disease, either by removing the spell or by cleaning whatever is “dirty” in the house. Another technique consists of a diagnosis by means of a fresh chicken egg, with an interpretive reading of the yolk and white forms.

In healing practices there are aspects of intercultural syncretism derived from the process of acculturation in colonial times. The healers used to cover traditional practices with a veil of Christianity to avoid persecution by the Inquisition. Simultaneously, the Spanish conquistadors began to incorporate native drugs into colonial academic medicine.

As in most of the other indigenous populations of Mexico, traditional P’urepecha therapists use plants and perhaps animal raw materials, which are sometimes combined with mineral substances, in herbal preparations and in usual forms of administration, such as infusions (Kanelita), cooking (Jamakata), maceration in water (t’okeman), vinegar (shalipera), maceration in alcohol (alcoholejatziman), serenades (left to macerate in lunar light, angatap xaliperan nanakutsiri tzantzqua jinguñi), tinctures, poultices (sanucuntan), soaps (xapú), horchatas, syrups, ointments and poultices with oil, petroleum jelly or animal fat.

Tradition teaches us that life is an equilibrium between worlds and interconnected beings, and that illness is caused when this equilibrium is broken.

How does the spiritual practice of a healer affect the healer herself? When one is curing someone spiritually, she uses plants. She must be very focused and draw upon energies to help the person feel better. The work of trying to capture the bad or negative energy and transform it into good or positive energy, can be very exhausting. Still, some people keep doing this work, at times because their economic survival depends on it.

But in my case, it was too demanding emotionally, so I eventually left the work. There are special cases, perhaps when my grandchildren feel sick, when I can return to this practice and offer spiritual healing. But healing work can also cause affect you physically, for example, it can give you headaches. So you have to focus on healing yourself as well.

"Now our children and grandchildren are learning about how to use plants for their own healing."

Passing on the knowledge

Now our children and grandchildren are learning about how to use plants for their own healing.

Our daughter Serena with her husband Miguel gather resin from pine trees for medicinal use and our granddaughter Lindsay helps to gather pine cones which can also be used to treat skin infections and coughs. Our sons Bryan and Jorge assist me in the medicinal plant workshops I offer around Mexico.

This is our legacy – carried on through the next generations.

  1. James Herrick, Iroquois Medical Botany (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1997), 61.