Herbal Traditions of Costa Rica
We each have our favorite part about Tico culture – the gallo pinto, the soccer games, the connection to nature, the vida pura. After 17 years of living in Costa Rica, I can tell you mine – the herbal traditions. Costa Ricans are remarkably health conscious and many of the older people grew up with a traditional diet which included herbal teas and food medicine. Typical Tico condiments such as onion, garlic, cilantro, pepper, thyme, oregano, are known for their therapeutic properties, as are many other Tico foods and drinks. In fact, the word fresco, cold drink, actually comes from an herbal term, refrescante, referring to those plants which help to keep the body cool in the face of extreme tropical heat. Try it out for yourself one day when the sun is blazing – tamarindo, agua de arroz, chan, agua de sapo, rosa de jamaica, just to name of a few. According to local folk medicine, the regular use of refrescantes might be related to improved cardiac function, digestive performance and fertility.
Why do I say might? Unfortunately, there is not a lot of scientific experimentation done about the wellness traditions in Costa Rica. Much of the information that is documented by academic research is actually internationally funded and produced, and may not be available to Central Americans. For example, some North Americans are using Chanka Piedra (Phyllanthus niruri) to fight cancer after promising research was conducted. Here in Costa Rica, it is a common weed for many of us. You have probably never heard of it, nor has your family doctor, and they will not likely even carry it at your local macrobiotica. This Tico version of a health food store will likely carry herbs like Chamomile and Rosemary, originally brought by Europeans and now integrated into Latino Herbalism. They may have a few native herbs, like Cuculmeca (Smilax spp.), an endangered tuber which has been exported for centuries for it’s blood building properties. Due to lack of access to information and beurocratic obstacles, they are often missing some of the countries most powerful medicines.
Many of the quaint little shops, like the one you can still visit in the Mercado Central, are disappearing. International companies such as GNC, Herbalife and Himalaya are replacing the herbalism of the abuelos. At one such shop in Escazu, a jar of Turmeric pills was almost $80. This powerful anti-inflamatory herb grows easily in my garden, as it could in yours. Later, I checked out a macrobiotica in the center of Limon and asked if they carried Irish Moss (Chondrus crispus), one of the most common household remedies in the Caribbean, made out of a seaweed and used as a refrescante. The woman attending to me did know the remedy, but told me that they do not carry it, nor any other locally-made preparations. I have since discovered that there are a few local men who produce it and sell it to their friends and neighbors.
I love the way that Ticos so often share their home cures with pride. As an outsider to the folk medicine system, I have learned to always ask around before trying something new. If the waitress, the gardener and the grocer all suggest ginger tea for my cough, I will look it up online and may find a lot of studies to prove this folk remedy to be true (always check thoroughly before trying anything new!).
As an herbalist, it is my job to document the use of the plants in Costa Rica, but that is not the only reason I stop and listen to my neighbors. Every time we ask a Tico person about their traditions, we are helping to keep those traditions alive. And in turn, those traditions may help keep us alive too!
Rachel Thomas is an international teacher, author and the owner of Hidden Garden Wellness Center, in Puerto Viejo de Limon. There she has a botanical sanctuary, home to over 200 medicinal plants, and an educational program to promote the documentation and implementation of local wellness traditions.
Photo credit: Louise Lakier Photography