Herbs of the Andes: Focus on Maca and Cinchona

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  • Andean Medicinal Plants
  • Cinchona (Cinchona spp.)
  • Maca (Lipidium meyenii)
  • Date: August 15, 2005 HC# 030556-286

    Re: Herbs of the Andes: Focus on Maca and Cinchona

    D'Arcy G. Exploring the flora of the Andean highlands. Altern Complement Ther. December 2004:321-325.

    Many medicinal plants come from the Amazon basin and the highlands of the Andes. The highlands ecosystem produces important traditional medicines that are crucial to human health. For this reason, the author visited the Andes mountains and recounts his experiences in this article.

    The author first visited the highland town of Cusco, Peru. It is the oldest continuously inhabited city of the Americas. The town is filled with Incan and Spanish influences. Next the travelers went to Machu Picchu, which is perched on the steep eastern slopes of the Vilcanota mountain range. The climate was subtropical with a dense rainforest. According to the authors, Machu Picchu's primary function was a precise indicator of the date of the winter solstice and other ritualized celestial periods of the Incas.

    The Spanish settlers considered the Incan medicine men to be more skilled in the use of medicinal plants than their own Spanish doctors. This may demonstrate that the medicines the Incas used were more evolved than that of the Europeans. The Kallawaya peoples, who live in the high plateaus of midwestern Bolivia, are considered to be the most skillful herbalists in the highlands. They are renowned throughout South America for their skill. Kallaway herbalists are called the "Lords of the Medicine Bags," in reference to the woven saddlebags that hold their herbs. Medical knowledge is transmitted from fathers to sons or via male apprenticeship. Training can last up to 8 years. Kallawayas collect their own herbs. They know more than 800 plants, with 300 used medicinally. The Kallawayas have adopted and propagate only 18 medicinal herbs from European traditions.

    The author describes two Andean herbs. Maca (Lepidium meyenii) grows at high altitudes among the glacial mountains of the Peruvian Andes. Maca was reportedly used by native Peruvians before the time of the Incas as a sexual tonic and for its nutritional properties. It increased both humans' and animals' energy and fertility. Laboratory studies show that it increases rat fertility. Maca use has become more popular. It has also been used to reduce hot flashes and other menopausal symptoms.

    Cinchona (Cinchona spp.) or Peruvian bark is the inner bark of a tree/shrub that grows from Venezuela to Bolivia. Cinchona bark has been used for over 3000 years. One of the most important uses for cinchona bark was to treat malaria. Before synthetic drugs were developed, any trip to the tropics for business or war could not be embarked upon without first securing an ample supply of cinchona bark. The active ingredient of cinchona bark is quinine. The English, in India, placed the herb in water to protect soldiers and colonists from malaria. This was the origin of tonic water with quinine. The current malaria treatment uses a combination of chemicals that are similar to the components in cinchona bark.

    Today American agribusiness conglomerates have business plans that depend on a few patented genetically modified species. The authors conclude that these companies have not learned the lessons of species diversity in that it would be wiser to use the many plants from around the world.

    —Heather S. Oliff, PhD

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