The rainforests of the Peruvian Amazon are often described by scientists as a vast repository of plants and their associated natural chemicals, with both known and unknown medicinal applications for humans. Many experts believe that as rainforests are destroyed through deforestation, humanity is losing countless treatments are going undiscovered.
Of course, the medicinal properties of many rainforest plants are well known. More than 7000 medical compounds currently prescribed by physicians in Western culture are derived from plants. But some experts estimate that there could be more than 21,000 medicinal plants in the world’s remaining tropical forest ecosystems.
While many of the guests who visit us at our eco-lodge to experience our ecotourism activities come in the hope of seeing jaguars and other major fauna, we also encourage them to learn from our expert naturalist guides about the medicinal plants of the Amazon.
Perhaps the most famous medicinal plant of the Amazon is Cinchona, from which quinine has been used for centuries to treat malaria. For their part, the indigenous inhabitants of the forests of South America have known for countless generations which plants can be used to treat their ailments.
Known as uña de gato in Spanish, and cat’s claw in English, the woody vine Uncaria tomentosa is used today in herbal medicine to treat a variety of ailments, and also as a dietary supplement. The bark or root of this plant has been used for generations as part of traditional medicine, to treat rheumatic pain, toothache, wounds and ulcers.
Achiote is something most travelers will experience in their food when vacationing in South America, although they might be unaware of its existence. The crushed seeds of the achiote tree (Bixa orellana) are used to make annatto, a condiment with a slightly peppery flavor, added to many typical Peruvian dishes to create a pleasing orange-red color. But for indigenous people, it is much more than a food coloring. It has been used for centuries as a dye to create body art, as well as in medicine to treat fevers, heal wounds, and even as a sunscreen and insect repellent.
Tourists may also be introduced to the tall shrub sanipanga (Picramnia sellowii) as the source of a purple dye, and invited by their naturalist guide to use its leaves to paint their hands or face. But for the indigenous people of the Amazon, including the Ese Eja of our own Madre de Dios region, it is also used as an antiseptic.
Also used by the Ese Eja people of southeastern Peru, where we operate our ecoadventure tours, the spiked pepper (Piper aduncum), or cordoncillo in Spanish, is a flowering tree with a peppery odor. Indigenous people use it to as a painkiller (if you chew on its leaves, you’ll experience an effect similar to that of Novocain!), as an antiseptic, in the treatment of respiratory ailments, and even as an anticoagulant to stop hemorrhaging.