It’s estimated seven out of ten Ecuadorians use medicinal plants. Ethnobiologist Omar Vacas has spent 15 years researching local flora used for centuries to cure diseases. He published an article about traditional medicine used by the Kichwa people in the Napo jungle province.
He says the Kichwas are often unaware that this info can be useful in developing pharmaceutical drugs. For example, balsa can reduce labor pains. There are 23 conditions including toothache and rheumatism that can be cured by plants used by the Kichwas. These include uña de gato (cat’s claw), ortiga brava, achiote de venda, palo de tortuga, sábila (aloe), ruda, dulcamara, sangre de drago (dragon’s blood), chancapiedra, chaya, Valeriana, boldo, condurango, and sarsaparilla.
Ecuador currently has over 40,000 hectares dedicated to organic production. The benefits of bio-agriculture include decreased use of chemicals, better conservation, soil improvement, healthier produce, and increased crop yields. In Santo Domingo de los Tsáchilas province, people are learning to use an organic fertilizer called bokashi (compost) to cultivate bananas, cacao, and medicinal plants. Leftover legumes and weeds are used, as well as water, beneficial microorganisms, soil, and manure. This organic fertilizer does not contaminate the water, air, soil or foods. It provides the soil with good organic material and nutrients that plants need.
One of the things about Ecuador is that new species are discovered practically every week. Recently, two new species of plants from completely different families were found by botanists. The first is from the plant family Melastomataceae, collected in the Cordillera del Cóndor, along with the border with Peru. The second was found in the Yanacocha Reserve, about 15km from Quito. It’s part of the genus Anthurium. It’s an epiphyte, meaning it grows on another plant but doesn’t take its nutrients. As of 2010 in Ecuador, there are more than 18,200 species of vascular plants (ferns, conifers, etc). Six thousand of them are endemic.
Part of Ecuador’s cultural heritage is its seed stock. The Seed Guardians Network is responsible for protecting and storing more than 3,000 varieties of seeds, thus preserving genetic diversity and richness cultivated across many generations. It has a catalog from which people can place orders, with the requirement that they are returned once the farmers have cultivated new crops. Some of the seeds available are café, maracuyá morado, plátano macho, tomate de árbol, tabaco silvestre, trigo amazónico, centeno, cebada, achogchas, sambo verde, blanco y negro, zapallo and various types of flowers.
People from different parishes in the Tumbaco valley near Quito are trying to rescue the ancestral flavors of the area. Those flavors include chaguarmishqui, chamburo, jijacho, níspero, guaba and zambo. Chaguarmishqui is a sweet drink that’s considered sacred and medicinal. It’s said to have healing properties. They say their ancestors drank it to withstand the cold and the long hours of work on the haciendas. It comes from the penco (agave) plant and can be used as a flavoring in ice cream.
Ishpingo is the flower of a tree of the same family as Asian cinnamon. It grows in the Amazon. The hat-shaped part that surrounds the base of the acorn is used as a spice in the drink colada morada. The Spanish conquistadors became interested in ishpingo after the Inca emperor Atahualpa told them about it. In the Old World, spices were highly valued. This led the conquistadors to search for the “Land of Cinnamon”. It was during their search that they stumbled upon the Amazon River.
The Andean world view considers man as having a soul and a life force, and so do all the plants and animals. Plants are an essential part of the lives of indigenous people. They are used for medicine, food, rituals, and other things. These plants include cat’s claw, walnut, horsetail, and cinnamon. A recently-published study indicates at least 20% of medicinal plants in the world are endangered. In Ecuador, there are no accurate records of the number of medicinal plants. But studies indicate 80% of the country’s plants have healing properties.
Students studying the environment at the new Ikiam University in the Amazon, don’t have to go far for field trips. Just 20 minutes drive from the university is the Bosque Protector Colonso, a 93,000-hectare biological reserve in Napo province. This reserve has a wealth of flora and fauna. Community guides estimate there are 8,000 types of medicinal plants in the area. Among the best known is the dragon’s blood, which is extracted from a tree. A visiting professor from Stanford said he did not expect to find so much biodiversity in one place.
Qhapaq Ñan, the Inca road system that was recently named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has more than just historical value. It crosses through 15 bird conservation areas and a wealth of flora. One example is Cojitambo near Azogues, where a biologist at the Universidad del Azuay says there are around a hundred medicinal plants in that area including quisquis sacha and moradilla which is used to treat coughs. The Inca messengers who used Qhapaq Ñan were given aromatic and medicinal waters to help them continue the long trek.