With families to maintain and daily chores to be done, Caymanians of yesteryear living off the land and sea had to learn to make use of the resources on hand, which included the local herbs.
The knowledge about the medicinal and therapeutic uses of these plants, once passed down from generation to generation, is sadly difficult to access these days. However, thanks to the efforts of a few individuals and organizations, among them North Side’s Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park, that knowledge is being preserved.
Medicinal plants have their own special section of the park’s Heritage Garden. The garden also features a traditional Caymanian cottage built circa 1900 and once owned by Julius Rankine of East End, a front sand garden, grounds for the cultivation of root crops and vegetables, and a collection of traditional fruit trees.
The garden reflects the importance of the earth’s bounty to survival in Cayman’s challenging conditions. Herbs provided medicine for health, flavor for the pot, fragrance for the skin and hair, and, for some, the added recreation of a good smoke.
“There was no modern medicine back in Cayman’s early days, and people had to rely on what is known as ‘bush medicine,’ which what people may not be aware of is the origin of many modern medicines as we know them today,” said park manager John Lawrus.
“Most societies in the Tropics valued the therapeutic uses of plants, and the same was true in the Cayman Islands,” he said. “Some of these traditional remedies are now becoming well known in alternative medicine to treat various ailments.”
In Cayman, families grew or gathered these valued plants, dried and preserved them for future use, and kept seeds from year to year. Plant traditions were passed down to children, who accompanied their parents inland to the family grounds to help with seeding the soil after helping to harvest the crops.
Herb plants were cherished, and folks watched to see that more than what was needed was not picked, so that others could make use the benefits of the plants.
The following examples were commonly used, but a word of caution is urged as those unfamiliar with proper use of the plants should refrain from picking or using them without first consulting with an expert, as many of them can be harmful in the wrong doses.
In bygone days, ripe castor seeds were placed in the sun to dry. In a wooden mortar, the seeds were mashed to a pulp to extract a brownish liquid. It was then boiled, cooled, skimmed and bottled for a whole year to be used for drinking, rubbing and as a laxative.
Rosemary bush was used to cure many ailments, as well as a shampoo, while the branches made a good broom to sweep the yard. The leaves were also dried and used as tobacco to smoke or to relieve asthma.
Rosemary contains two chemicals known as camosic acid and carnosol. These substances are not only extremely potent cancer cures, they also are said to protect against the deadly effects of radiation exposure.
Curiosity leaves were warmed over the fireplace and the green water that was extracted was squeezed in the ear for earache.
Sage bush was crushed and mixed with talcum powder and applied to burns for quick healing.
Fowl berry leaves are excellent for treating ringworm. Leaves were heated over the fire, rubbed together and applied to the affected area.
The plant known as “Ramgoat Dash-Along” is good for the common cold, wheezing and coughs. One or two limbs of the flowering yellow bush were boiled and placed in a bottle with the juice of two limes and two teaspoons of salt.
Sinkle Bible (also known as aloe vera) today is used as a laxative by many Caymanians. It is also used to treat cuts, bruises and burns. This herb has been used for decades as a natural cancer treatment.
Tea basil leaves were added to a pot of boiling water and sweetened with sugar to make a superb cup of tea. It is also good for calming the nerves and upset stomach.
Soursop leaf is steeped in hot water and taken for the nerves or a good night’s rest.
“Soursop is now used to treat hypertension,” said Mr. Lawrus. “Tamarind tea, on the other hand, was used for helping measles sufferers, and the cooling effect of verveine helped with fever.”
Soup basil was an excellent seasoning for simmering dishes. The leaves were picked green and added to the pot of beans, stews or soups.
Dandelion seeds were parched, pounded, boiled and strained to make a tasty cup of tea to help with diabetes. The roots were used as a bitter purge for the digestive system.
Bud pepper leaves were picked and warmed over the fire, plastered with castor oil and applied to painful boils.
Fever grass leaves were boiled and given as an antidote for fever, which would make the patient sweat and break the fever.
Jennifer leaves were used to cure a toothache or earache. Gathered at the beach-front, they were crushed and held in the mouth until the pain subsided.
Lavender bush was known as a health and beauty aid used for bathing and washing the hair.
Bean wine was helpful in treating cuts and boils, while mulberry leaves plastered to the head would relieve headache.
Headache bush stems and leaves were boiled to make tea for headache; the crushed leaves were used to relieve a toothache.
Cow itch, though a powerful skin irritant, mixed with ripe papaya and eaten was known as a remedy for worms.
Periwinkle was traditionally used to treat diabetes and to slow the growth of tumors.
Cerasee leaves were used to purify the blood. A bundle picked and dried, washed and boiled made a bitter cup of tea.
Cochineal was used for cuts and with lime for whitewashing houses, and the inside pulp used as a shampoo.
Finally, the small but powerful strong back plant, mixed into a tea, was thought to strengthen the limbs.