MAR 06, 2016 12:55 PM PST

Los remedios del Amazonas: the medicine cabinet of the Amazon

Of course we all know about the grand discovered and undiscovered potential that rainforests harbor for medicinal remedies. Cancer ailments, treating malaria symptoms, muscle relaxants, digestive calmers, as well as laxatives - all very practical uses, especially for those people living within the depths of the jungle and all of the various parasites, insects, and stinging plants that come with it. However, the Amazon’s medicine cabinet isn't exclusively for practical health purposes. From my recent trip to the Colombian Amazon and as the first of a series of articles focused on the boundless environment of this region, I write to you about three remedies that are that are a bit more vain. Remedies, that if the rest of the world knew about, would definitely encourage greater protection of the unlocked biodiversity of treasures that the Amazon holds.

The first is called the Mulateiro tree. You can find this tree in terre firme, forest floor that sits high enough upland that it never floods, even in the rainy winter season. A tall, enchantingly beautiful tree, it is known for fully shedding its bark approximately once every six months, leaving it with a clear smooth skin. The ecological purpose of this great expenditure of energy is to evict any lianas that have been using the tree as a support system to reach the sunlit canopy.  By doing so, the tree ensures that it has the most nutrients for its own growth. However, the indigenous Ticuna people see meaning in it's new skin from more than just a biological competition perspective. For those who struggle with acne or early age wrinkles the tree can be used as a remedy to promote clear complexion. Leslie Taylor explains in her book, The Healing Power of Rainforest Herbs, that “Mulateiro bark contains a great deal of tannin chemicals which give it an astringent or drying effect. Recently the plant has been documented to contain a high content of phenols and organic acids which have demonstrated antibacterial, antifungal and insecticidal activity. The isolated phenols have demonstrated strong antioxidant activity, which may explain its traditional use to stop the aging process of the skin.” To use, the bark or roots are taken internally or rubbed externally in a decoction two to three times a day.
 
The mulateiro tree

Number two:  listen up, men. For those who have ever had insecurities about the size of their genitals and have ever tried any of the much disputed chemicals or salves or various treatments to enlarge said genitals,  look no further. Fondly known as the Devil’s Penis tree, Iriartea gigantea is renown by several indigenous Amazonian tribes for its somewhat mystical powers. A tree whose roots look astoundingly similar to the human male anatomical parts, it is legend that when a man is unsatisfied with his size he can go to this tree and cut off the new growth of a young root.  The man must then rub the sap from this root so as to thoroughly cover his own member with the tree sap. After waiting a time the man must return to the tree where he cut the young root and sever the root at the length that he himself wants to grow to. If he fails to return to the original tree to cut the root to his preferred size, thus stopping its growth,  it is rumored that he will continue to grow to an undesirably long size, such that eventually he will be able to wrap his genitals around his waist for use as a belt.  Although none of my male guides  admitted  to personal success stories, this fable still holds true throughout the region and one must think that it has come from some truth.
 
The roots of Iriartea gigantea

This third most incredible remedy found from the Amazon rainforest appears to have the most tangible success rate. After three weeks of living with indigenous people from the Ticuna tribe in the Colombian Amazon, I noticed a certain lack of body hair. Thinking it unlikely that people living in the depth of the jungle would go so far as to shave or wax or laser themselves in order to remove their hair from armpits, legs, arms, faces, and other unmentionables, I wondered what could be the cause. Finally I asked. And what I was told was by far the most surprising answer. When children are young, typically between the ages of two and five years old, their parents gather small worms that grow as larvae within a fruit and are therefore unexposed to external parasites. They extract the worms from the fruit and mash them, creating a sort of creamy lotion which they then proceed to rub over all the body parts of their children on which they do not want to grow hair. When I asked about the scientific logic behind this crushed-worm lotion, expecting to hear some reason about blocked pores and stunted hair follicles, I was told that the lotion is made from virgin worms who themselves lack hair. There was no further explanation. Nevertheless, I can attest to this remedy - every single Ticuna person I met had legs and arms as smooth as babies, very few men had beards or even any stubble at all, and all were aware that they had been worm-creamed as a young child and were prepared to do the same for their children. If only Gillette could monopolize on that.

The Amazon rainforest has countless anecdotes of remedies like these, each of which is more exciting and impressive than the next. However, the common theme between all of these medicinal plants is their importance to the biodiverse ecosystem that the Amazon basin supports. Importance not only for a clear complexion or shiny-smooth legs, but for the even further undiscovered realms of life that depends on the dense vegetation that, for now, still exists deep within the Amazonian jungle.

About the Author
  • Kathryn is a curious world-traveller interested in the intersection between nature, culture, history, and people. She has worked for environmental education non-profits and is a Spanish/English interpreter.
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