6 of the Caribbean Bush Medicine Tradition's Most Potent Plants
by Catherine Morris | December 23, 2020, updated 1 day ago
It's winter in the northern hemisphere. So, let's all take a second to think about warmer climes, clear seas, and sunny days. I feel warmer already.
In the Caribbean, there's a tea for everything. Sip a lil fever grass for the flu; try some steeped cerasee for your sore stomach; boil a brew of moringa for that migraine.
The Caribbean ecosystem, much like its people, is unique and extremely diverse. A colourful display of shrubs, flowers and trees bloom year-round in the tropical heat. Given this fertile abundance, it's hardly surprising that the indigenous people of the Caribbean basin relied on the array of plant life to heal their ailments and care for their communities.
That rich tradition of herbal healing is still very much alive today, and so-called 'bush medicine' is still being practised.
Bush medicine isn't something the Taino, Arawak or Lucayan peoples of the Caribbean dreamed up. Herbalism is the oldest form of medicine and every culture used the resources they had at hand—in the days before doctor's surgeries, and hospitals it was very normal to go out to the garden to get what you needed.
Herbalism may be ancient, but it has very modern applications. More than 80 per cent of common medications, used around the world on a daily basis, come from plants—most of which grow in tropical climates.
6 Potent Plants
Nature's pharmacy has a lot in stock. Some of the most commonly used natural remedies in bush medicine contain the below plants, prized for their healing properties, and plentiful in backyards across the Caribbean.
A member of the mahogany family, the neem tree is particularly suited to hot weather climates thanks to its drought-resistant properties. It's farmed in India and the tropics and highly prized for its versatility—being repurposed into soaps, fertilizers, food, and insect repellent.
In the Caribbean, neem isn't just used to keep the mosquitos at bay. The plant is antiviral, antifungal and antibacterial, so it's regularly consumed or applied topically to maintain health, treat disease, and resolve minor infections or fevers. Neem can be made into oils, capsules, and tea. Neem extract is also used as a skin salve for insect bites, wounds, and conditions like acne or psoriasis.
2. Aloe Vera
Everyone knows that aloe is great for burns and wounds, but did you also know that it's extremely soothing to the digestive tract? This is the remedy Caribbean herbalists reach for when someone has a sore stomach, constipation, or intestinal parasites.
The succulent, which grows well in dry soil and is extremely resilient to heat, has powerful antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antibacterial properties. Studies show it can lower blood pressure, improve glucose tolerance in diabetics, and even inhibit tumour growth in cancer patients.
When it comes to getting aloe vera into your diet, some like to slice open the leaves, scoop out the gel and either drink it with a glass of water, or blend it into a smoothie. If that sounds less than appetizing, there are aloe vera capsules or pre-mixed aloe juices available.
3. Fever Grass
You probably know fever grass by another name—lemongrass. This plant grows wild across the Caribbean and is particularly popular in Jamaica and The Bahamas.
As the name suggests, it's used to bring down fevers but it's also known as a good stress-reliever for busy brains.
The oil also comes in handy when attacked by Caribbean critters as bugs hate the smell. It keeps internal bugs away too, and some like to use it in mouthwash to clean bacteria off the gums, or take it as an antiparasitic to cleanse the digestive tract.
I lived in the Caribbean for ten years and, of all the local delicacies, my hands-down favourite was soursop (and not just because the juice pairs very nicely with a shot of rum).
This sweet and juicy fruit goes by many names—guanabana, custard apple, paw paw, graviola—and shows up on menus around the islands in lots of creative ways from soursop sorbet to soursop cake.
It's known in the Caribbean as a sweet treat, but also a cancer fighter. I once met a woman who swore she beat her breast cancer with daily soursop smoothies. While the evidence for its curative properties on cancers is still largely anecdotal, we do know that soursop can help with managing cancer symptoms and slowing or halting the spread and growth of tumours.
Graviola has also shown promise in treating inflammatory conditions, liver disease, diabetes, and cystitis.
The taste isn't as tempting as soursop, but cerasee tea has a special place in bush medicine for its versatility. The plant makes a dark, bitter tea which is often sweetened with honey to make it more palatable.
Cerasee helps the body process and use glucose efficiently, making it a very important part of the diet for diabetics.
Trouble with your heart? The tea lowers blood pressure and heart rate, treating hypertension. Trouble with your guts? Bush medicine uses cerasee to promote healthy digestion and treat constipation. It's also said to encourage weight loss.
Even if you're in perfect health, it might be an idea to grab some cerasee tea bags next time you see them—the plant is rich in essential nutrients including vitamin A, vitamin C, iron and phosphorus.
Moringa is another bitter plant that isn't to everyone's taste. It's a tropical tree with small, flat leaves used in teas, salads, and cooking.
It's also highly valued in the Caribbean as an all-round curative. Moringa contains all nine essential amino acids, protein, and antioxidants. It out performs most of our well-known dietary superstars—containing seven times more vitamin C than oranges, triple the potassium of bananas, and three times more iron than spinach.
Giving bush medicine a try
Pharmaceutical companies might be transforming plants into prescriptions, but for those who prefer their remedies closer to the source, there's a few ways to introduce bush medicine into your self-care.
Most consume healing plants as a tea, slowly steeping the leaves to draw out their potency. They can also be ground, added to an oil and applied topically, or simply eaten as part of a salad or thrown into a rich stew.
With the popularity of these tropical plants growing, they can now be found in grocery stores all over the world. If possible, choose organically grown, and preferably from small-scale farmers to support island agriculture and fair Caribbean trade.
While herbal remedies come from plants, they are still medicine and some come with side effects. Before introducing anything new to your diet, test a small dose first, be mindful of the potential for adverse reactions and, if in doubt, consult your primary holistic health care professional.
Catherine Morris is an award-winning journalist with a bad case of wanderlust and a passion for all things health and wellness. Originally from Northern Ireland, she worked as a news and feature writer for media outlets in the UK, South Africa, France and the Caribbean before settling in Canada. Catherine now lives in Alberta with her husband and rescue mutt and spends her time happily exploring the great outdoors with both.