Monday, February 1, 2016

Ethnobotany: Reviving the Natural Relationship of Man and Plants

Superstitious beliefs and ethnobotany are closely associated. On closer examination such beliefs have greatly enhanced the relationship of man and the unseen that shapes his life, drawing from it a rich collection of folklore, songs and prayers. Indirectly such relationship has helped in the preservation of his environment.
Dr Abe V Rotor
Living with Nature - School on Blog 
Paaralang Bayan sa Himpapawid (People's School-on-Air) with Ms Melly C Tenorio
738 DZRB AM, evening class 8 to 9, Monday to Friday  

In rural areas, there are wild and cultivated plants used as home remedies against common ailments, a time-honored ethnic practice associated with customs, beliefs and tradition. This is the field of ethnobotany – the study of the natural relationship of man and plants through evolutionary time.
Dr Romualdo M Del Rosario (left) foremost Filipino ethnobotanist poses with author  

But as people move to towns and cities, and development continues to spread to remote areas, ethonobotanical studies may become just documents for future archives. The irony is that we have barely scratched the surface, in discovering the many uses of plants for medicine, agriculture and industry - sociology and art, notwithstanding.

Whole forest and ecosystems are natural gene banks. But with the fast shrinking wildlife, a technology in gene banking has been developed. Today genes can be banked and patented. This was pioneered by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and the International Center for Wheat and Maiz Research (CIMMYT).

On the viewpoint of pharmacology, ethnobotany has paved the discovery of potent drugs and medicine, validating ethnic practices while leading into the formulation of new drugs. The trend today is that more and more people are going for natural medicine and food. There is a blossoming industry of herbal medicine and organically grown food. And people are willing to pay the price so long as they are assured of good health and a long and happy life. In many ways ethnobotany is helping pave the way toward this direction.

Herbals as First-Aid

There is always oregano (Coleus amboinicus) at home, ready to ease cough and sore throat. I imagine myself wearing a handkerchief wrapped around my forehead, advising my family and neighbors not to take cough drops or antibiotics for simple colds.I tell them to pick a young leaf of Oregano, chew it with fruit juice or soft drink. Or blanch it, extract the juice, and add sugar and warm water. It is practical and there are no side effects. And what a feeling! No wonder the plant’s name comes from the Greek words, Ore/Oros which means mountain, and ganos joy. “Joy on a mountain.”

Pliny the Elder used oregano to ease bad digestion. To Italians, it is the secret of their cooking and pizza, just as the Mexicans added it to chili con carne. Dinuguan tastes best with this aromatic herb.

On the other hand, I found out that Organo is an insect repellant. Notice that mosquitoes, flies, fleas and roaches are kept away by its aromatic scent. It can be prepared as a natural pesticide, by simply crushing a few leaves in water, and applying the solution on the plants to control common garden pest. Oregano has essential oil and thymol, which is a strong antiseptic and disinfectant.

 I have observed many rural homes surrounded by other useful plants such as soro-soro, a species of Euphorbia, used to control ringworm. It is also an excellent meat tenderizer and  vegetable. The leaves are chopped and stuffed in lechon and relyeno. Lagundi is good for fever and flu, alovera (Aloe vera) for burns, pandakaki ( Tabernamontana pandacaqui) for minor cuts. Tanglad is a condiment for kuhol. Young leaves of native bayabas (Psidium guajava) are good for skin infection and allergy. Ilang-ilang (Cananga odorata) and sampaguita (Jasminium sambac) are natural air fresheners in the surroundings. A home garden is very useful indeed as it provides fresh vegetables and herbals as home remedies.  

        Ethnobotany and Economic Botany

     The uses of plants have expanded and more and more species are placed under cultivation for their uses.  When they become commodities of commerce, the place of these plants are no longer under ethnobotany but Economic Botany. As ethnic communities gave in to larger, invading cultures, the original man-plant has changed into one that is economic in nature. The practice of kaingin and overpopulation also contribute to the decline of an ethnic community. Ethnic members become integrated into the more progressive society which would offer them better chances of survival, and possibly  better life. Because of this ethnobotany has become one of the sciences that records the inevitable and dynamic changes our world has been undergoing, more so during this age of accelerated industrialization and modernization.

     It is a race time, before we lose the opportunity to record the shrinking ethnic communities, and the knowledge about the plants that shaped lives and culture through countless generations. Ethnobotanical studies at the UST Graduate School, point out that there is no longer a “pure ethnic community.”  Immigration, marriages with lowlanders and exposure to the latter’s way of life through the influence of media and school, have contributed to the modification and subsequent loss of ethnic identity.  Apparently such loss is irreversible because the cultural base which largely consists of ancestral lands are opened to development and other forms of exploitation.

  Ethnobotanical  Researches at UST

     Let me cite some studies in ethnobotany conducted at the UST Graduate School with Dr. Romulado M. Del Rosario as professor and thesis adviser. Dr. Del Rosario introduced me into this field, and with him I worked on the Ethnobotany of Maguey in the Ilocos Region, and the Ethnic Practices of Basi Wine Making in the Ilocos Region.

       Old camphor trees at UST campus Manila

One of the pioneering works is Ethnobotany of the Itawes, a dissertation by Sister Mamerta Rocero SPC, which was published by the National Museum in 1982.  Ethnozoology soon followed. Ethnozoology of the Itawes by  Generosa Balubal. (MS Biology 1996) is a pioneer research  in our country.

     Wilfredo Vendivil (1994) worked on Ethnomedicinal Plants in Ilocos Norte along the borders of Cordillera and Cagayan.  He reported 141 species of plants, 58 percent of which grow in the wild, while the 42 percent are cultivated, mainly on the backyard. The study reported 228 uses of these plants on 56 kinds of diseases and ailments, which include fever and flu, diarrhea, stomachache, boils, toothache, colic, dysmenorrhea, and rheumatism. The list also includes anemia, general weakness, numbness, gall bladder trouble, convulsion, paralysis, tuberculosis, intestinal worms, heart problem, poisonous bites, scabies, lumbago, beri-beri, and fungal and bacterial infections.

      Vendivil reported that the local residents believe there is no plant growing in their area that does not have any importance. This implies that there is a wealth of knowledge these people have on plants, and their belief in the curative power of plants - which brings to mind that healing and faith go hand on hand.

     Lolita O. Uy (1994) worked on the Ethnobotany of the Ilongots in Nueva Viscaya. She described 141 species of plants belonging to 136 genera and 108 families, of which 42 species are for food, 9 for construction, 10 for animal feeds.  The rest are used for cleaning, making toys, preservative, masticatory, soap and shampoo, ripening agent, perfume, fish poison, insect repellant and ornamental purposes. The tribe’s local economy is centered in the forest and there are 9,000 hectares of virgin forest they claim as their ancestral land. Like other ethnic tribes, they feel threatened by lowlander intruding into their territory.

     Reny Casanan (1997) conducted a similar study with the Gaddangs of Isabela. Among the 167 plant species she studied, 88 are food to the natives, 47 as medicine, 18 for construction, handicraft, furniture and the like, and 56 for various uses from toys to perfumes, rituals and ceremonies. The Gaddangs are now a heterogeneous group through inter-marriage and cultural integration with the nearby population centers.

     Alma Poblete (1999) worked on Ethnobotany of Bamboo among the Aetas in Orion, Bataan. There are four important species of bamboo for their edible shoot, and two species as an occasional source of drinking water (water is stored in the internodes). The leaves of Bambusa blumeana is used in curing kidney disorder, while Schizostachyum lumampao is used to bring a patient from relapse, and as cure of fever and malaria. It is this species that the Aetas use in cooking rice and other food. Three species are used in making flute, toys and different kinds of basket that they sell on the lowland. Bamboo is indispensable to the Aetas. Aside from the uses mentioned they depend on bamboo for transport, weapon, fish trap and even riprapping river banks. Because of this they have learned to propagate bamboo, intercropping it with bananas, thus indicating a departure from fundamental ethnobotany.

     Meet Maria Dulce Pototoy-Bunquin who worked on Wild Food Plant Resources of the Batak Tribe in Palawan and lived with these natives during her study to learn their culture and dialect. There are 24 uncultivated plant species belonging to 15 families utilized by the Bataks as food, the most important is Arecaceae or the Palm Family. But the use of wild food plants has become infrequent in the presence of cultivated crops in the settlement. The utilization of wild plants and their method of kaingin farming are part of their indigenous culture. The Bataks are no longer a homogeneous ethnic group, although they are still very much dependent on the forest for their subsistence.

  Plant Introduction and Wild Food Plants

     Let me turn back the hands of time. Many of the plants that give us food today, from cereals to fruits and vegetables, fibers we make into clothes, and hundreds of products, are not indigenous. These include the popular coffee, cacao and tea. Drugs and medicine, derived from plants, were once growing in the wild. The primordial turning point of human society is in the discovery and subsequent development of useful plants by our primitive ancestors. As communities grew, demand increased and many of these plants became important items of agriculture and commerce.

     Remember Mutiny on the Bounty? A shipload of breadfruit or rimas (Artocarpus communis) seedlings was being transported to England’s prison-islands in the Pacific when the mission was foiled by the uprising. Breadfruit could be a cheap and ready source of staple for the convicts.

     Similarly, many plants were actually introduced into the places they are growing today. Grapes, apricot, grapes, oranges and the like, were introduced into the United States continent from the Middle East and Europe, Mexico and South America by the colonizers and pioneers. Before the Europeans found the Orient, many plants of Asian and Pacific origin were already growing throughout the region, an indication that they were introduced by earlier cultures.                                 

             Viewpoints on Pharmacology  

      Only about 20 percent of the population in developing countries in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Pacific Ocean benefit from modern drugs. People in these areas generally use traditional and natural remedies in curing ailments. Even in the next millennium, it is believed that plants will remain as the main source of materials in the manufacture of drugs and medicine.

     Rhodora Escalada-Gonzales worked on the anti-inflammatory properties of three common weeds - parol-parolan (Cardiospermum halicacabum), vanatnid (Indigofera tinctoria) and tahebteb (Vitex trifolia). She found out that these plants are a potential dual inhibitor of cyclooxygenase and lipoxygenase based on their strong anti-inflammatory activity. The significance of this finding is that it confirms the reported effectiveness extracts by herbolarios. Having identified the active principles, the essential chemical moieties can lead into the manufacture of a new drug.

Plants and Ethnic Beliefs and Superstition

Superstitious beliefs and ethnobotany are closely associated. I still remember many of these beliefs learned from old folks, the curious boy that I was, surrounded by fields and woodlands. While passing through a thicket where no path is visible you should utter repeatedly, bari-bari, an apology for trespassing into a place guarded by the unseen.

     The following superstitious beliefs were selected from Ethnobotany of the Itawes, a doctoral research of Sister Mamerta Rocero, SPC.  These beliefs are not only confined among the Itawes of Cagayan Valley but are shared by other cultures as well.  These are translations from the Itawes dialect.
1.    A conceiving mother should never pick fruits from a tree otherwise the tree will die.
2.    A papaya plant in front of a house brings bad luck.
3.    A pregnant mother who eats twin bananas might give birth to twins.
4.    A tree surrounded by fireflies during the night brings good luck.
5.    Plant coconuts during starry nights so they will yield abundant fruits.
6.    Plant coconuts during moonlight nights so they will produce big nuts.
7.    Hang empty  bottles on the trellises of upo (white squash) so that it will bear more fruits.
8.    Eating from stocks intended for seeds will bring poor harvest.
9.    Burying a little sugar with the seeds of ampalaya (bitter gourd) will prevent the fruits from becoming bitter.
10. Anyone dreaming of something tragic, such as death in the family should, upon waking up, strike the trunk of any tree with a bolo so that the dream will not become a reality.
11. If a Fortune plant received as a gift bears flower, it is a sign of good luck; if it dies it is an omen of bad luck.
12. The balete (Ficus benjamina) is the home of bad spirits which cause those who go near the tree to become sick.
13. A woman on her menstrual period should not visit a garden or orchard otherwise the plants will become sick and ultimately die.
14. Avoid laughing while planting kamote (sweet potato) otherwise the roots will become liplike.
15. One who has incomplete teeth (bungal) should keep his mouth closed when planting corn, otherwise the plant will bear empty or poorly filled cobs.
16. Stoop when planting coconuts so they will not grow very tall.
17. When planting a tree seedling, avoid looking up so that the plant will not grow very tall.
18. Place the first fruits harvested from a plant in a large container and pretend to carry them as if they were very heavy so that the plant will be heavy with fruits.
19. A spiny cactus inside the house drives the witch away.
20. Someone will die if the fire tree blooms.
21. Talking while preparing gabi (taro) for cooking will make the it itchy when eaten.
22. Eating chicken cooked with squash will cause leprosy.
23. A person who eats any ripe fruit that is partly eaten by a bird will become talkative.
24. Bringing salt under a sour-fruit-bearing tree will cause the fruits to fall.
25. When planting sitao (long bean), place a comb on your hair to induce the production of abundant long fruits.
     One of the common beliefs among rural folk is maan-anungan, a case when a person suddenly becomes indisposed, characterized by cold sweating and general weakness, often accompanied with stomach cramp, because “a spirit might have chanced upon person.” This is attributed to somebody who has been dead, or a living person who has the power to mangan-annung.   Relief is sought by brushing or lightly whipping on his or her body with branches or leaves of malunggay (horse radish tree), atis (sweetsop), guyabano (soursop), or dayap (sour orange).  Or let him or her be touched by the suspected mangan-annong, or wiped him with any clothing of the suspected dead person.

     Then there is the belief that garlic cloves hung above the door will ward off the mananangal, a vampire who hovers around dwellings and attacks unwary victims. Then there are stories of the duwende (dwarfs) who bring either luck or misfortune, depending on the world they belong to. Next time you answer the call of nature under a tree, say, bari-bari, and don’t forget to spit on the spot after your relief.

     Reny Casanan, in a similar study, relates these beliefs which are found among the Gaddangs of Isabela. The first items to carry with when moving into a new house are rice, a bundle of fuel, salt, sugar and coffee so that family will not run out of basic needs. Another belief is that, if harvest has been good, offer atang which consists of rice, viand, wined and palaspas (palm) as an offering, so that next year’s harvest will be as bountiful.

         Ethnobotany and Gene Piracy

          Sound the alarm. The pirates are coming! These pirates are armed with the latest tools of genetic engineering, and shielded by patent laws in their country Across the world, prospectors are sampling the local flora and fauna, and the genes of ethnic peoples, in search of new miracle drugs. An ethnical battle rages as prospectors scour the globe to find - and profit from - organisms that could cure the world’s worst diseases. According to Time, some ecologists are sounding dark warnings of a coming “gene war” between industrialized and emerging nations.

     The idea is not really new. It started with IRRI when it put up a Gene Bank which houses today some100,000 cultivars and varieties of rice.  IRRI’s counterpart, CIMMYT in Mexico has a similar gene bank for wheat and corn. With genetic engineering today, genes banking and patenting have become mighty political and economic weapons of highly developed nations and giant trans-national corporations.

     I had the opportunity to review and comment on a proposed bill to patent plants in the Philippines, under the title Plant Patent. The Senate of the Philippines remained firm to this date not to allow the passage of this bill. It believes that it is not only a matter that involves moral turpitude, but that the new law will adversely affect small farmers - millions of them, say in planting a patent-covered variety without paying the corresponding obligation to the patent holder.

     This is the reported modus operandi of gene pirates. Foreign scientists disguised as tourists or volunteer workers, steal indigenous plants and animals - even human genes - develop useful products out of them which they then patent in their own country. According to Isidro Shia, a pharmacologist at UP, scientists posing as anthropologists have been gathering tissue samples from ethnic communities in the country known for their immunity to cancer and diabetes. The late Senator Juan Flavier called this exploitation a form of piracy and is rampantly committed in many parts of the world. Drug companies and agribusiness firms have been tapping genetic resources without even paying anything to countries where these genes are found.

     Here are some examples of drugs manufactured from pirated plants. Taxol came from bark of a tree from a tropical rainforest, a cancer preventer. Jeevani is a drug from Kanis’ berries. It is a rich energy source, an anti-fatigue drug. “Old man’s cure” came from an African Pygeum tree. Sales of the bark reached $ 220 million a year. Sandeimmum/Neoral (Cyclosporin) another drug came from Kava plant, a Dioscorea species, which is a tranquilizer safer than Valium.

     Actually we have just started for a long search because only one percent of the world’s flowering plants has been tested of their curative powers. But prospectors are all over like in a gold rush. Pirating is pocketing a gift God gave to all, and patenting is putting a tag on an act of God. There must be something to be done before these pirates loot our natural resources and heritage.

                Age of Natural Medicine

     According to Time, the sale of herbal and botanical supplements in the US in 1994 was $2 billion. It doubled in 1998, and by the following year it rose to $6 billion.  There are 7.3 million Americans who swallow capsule made from Echinacea (Echinacea purpurea), a purple petalled daisy particularly during the cold and flu season. Some 7.5 million more take Prosac, an extract from a bright yellow flower called St. John’s wort. And there are 10.8 million people who are worried of fading memory so that they remind themselves to take regularly Gingko (Gingko biloba), a tree with fan-like leaves, and the only survivor of a large Family (Gingkokales).

     Millions of people are now taking in dose routinely, from various preparations of herbs, to stave off disease, brighten their moods, rev up their sex life or retain their youth.  In the US alone the annual value of natural supplements amounts to more than $12 billion.  This blossoming market is all over the world. People simply go for natural – natural food, pest- and fertilizer-free products, organically grown crops, native animals and fowls. Awareness is growing high against pesticide-treated fruits and vegetables, and high level of antibiotics in poultry and livestock products. People shy away from irradiated food, microwave-cooked food, and products of genetically engineered plants and animals (GMOs). And they are willing to pay the premium as long as they are certain the food and medicine they are taking are free from adulterants and other substances that are deleterious to health.

     People today make more visits to non-traditional physicians, including faith healers, herbolarios, and naturopaths, who claim expertise in herbs and other natural therapies. In the Philippines, more and more people seek natural remedies, and a proof to this is the sudden emergence of apatot (Morinda citrifolia), a locally growing wild plant found to be the source of Morinda, a health drink among the Tahitians. The fruit is sold in the market and made into fruit juice. Recently, the Bureau of Food and Drug banned the taking of seeds of mahogany (Swietenia macroloba) as cure of rheumatism, arthritis and heart problem. Senator Juan Flavier warned the public that the seed contains cyanide which can cause damage to the brain, kidney and liver.

     Because of this trend many pharmaceutical companies are changing their products and strategies. There has been a proliferation in the market of various health food and natural medicinal preparations, many of which are exaggerated. Laws and regulations on drugs are being reviewed. The sudden revival of thousand-year-old remedies focuses the importance of ethnobotany. It buoys the sagging faith of people in conventional medicine, and kindle and hope quaintness of healing using time- tested remedies, remedies instilled in the live and culture of our forebears. The perceived coldness and remoteness of sophisticated, computerized, and red-taped medicine, are driving people away to look for a humane, practical, community-oriented alternative - a kind of healing that touches the human spirit.


     These viewpoints present a Janus’ vantage point from where we stand today.  Ethnobotany is besieged by advancing culture, seen on the screen of a computer, serving the needs of modern medicine, and globalization in terms of commerce and intercultural exchanges. On the other hand, ethnobotany offers us an opportunity to turn back to an unspoiled landscape where we study, even under extreme pressure of time and change, the drama which has been taking place many, many years ago, an enduring natural man-plant relationship vital to our success as a species, to be what we are today, our lifestyle and society. In our approach to the subject we may undermine the wealth of indigenous knowledge about the subject, which we must admit, we know so little about.

     We should take time out and beat a path out there, bidding the unseen with whispers of bari-bari, as we seek and enter the Shang-rila of health and plenty, a place, a natural order of things, where our ancestors must have lived a full life. ~

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