Medicinal herb walks not that different in Canada and Peru

I didn’t expect to like the violet vodka cordial but I was wrong. Those pretty but invasive little Johnny jump-ups that dot our front lawn each spring, much to my husband’s on-going annoyance, provide the makings for a mighty fine aperitif.

I was attending Sip and Stroll – Plant Medicine Walk at the TBG with the Danette Steele, an accredited wise woman practitioner of herbal medicine.  The class began indoors on a lovely summer evening and ended out in the garden. All the while we were sipping on interesting drinks known as shrubs, balms and cordials while Danette identified and described the benefits of various herbs including mint, sage, wormwood, elderberry, catnip, lavender and more.

I was particularly interested in joining this class because I had attended a similar program at Nape Botanical Garden in the Amazon jungle in Peru a few months earlier and was eager to compare the two. In Peru, medicine man Jorge Mishaja took us through his garden and explained how he uses the bark, stems and leaves of several trees and shrubs to make tonics to treat everything from colds and fevers to cancer and Parkinson’s disease. He also showed us the Para Para (Stand Up, Stand Up) plant, known as the Viagra of the Rainforest,  used to treat sexual impotence, and Sacha Bufeo, a love potion. The most celebrated plant is the Ayahuasca vine, known as the Master Plant, capable of inducing altered states of consciousness.

Jorge treats local people who cannot afford to see professional medical doctors. And, some of the plants are being studied around the world for use in the treatments of other diseases.

He, too, gave us the chance to try some of the herbal concoctions he makes from the local plants including Una de Gata (aka Cat’s Claw) used for treating digestive problems) and Chuchuhausi (aka Red Bull of the Rainforest) the bark of which is used to relieve pain and treat arthritis, rheumatism and regulate menstrual periods.

Jorge’s rainforest garden, which we travelled to by boat, was also home to tarantulas, howling monkeys and a friendly peccary or wild boar that followed us throughout the tour.  Although the flora and fauna are different, his methods are not unlike Danette’s.  Both use various plant parts to make soothing teas, tonics and cordials often mixed with honey and/or alcohol.

The violet cordial, for example, was made with a sugar syrup base and a splash of vodka and served over ice. According to Danette the virtues of violets include cooling down hot or irritated parts of the body and treating sore throats, coughs and colds. It is also an anti-cancer herb, good for both prevention and treatment of breast cancer.

Who knew that mint is good for respiratory health, sage for sore throat and hot flashes, rosemary for the lungs and sinuses and that thyme is antibiotic, antimicrobia and antifungal?

As we walked through the garden at the TBG, Danette pointed out various medicinal plants including:

  • Lavender, which makes great syrup and has many uses including insect repellent, sleep inducer, anti-inflammatory and taking away the pain of insect stings;
  • Lady’s mantle (Alchemilla vulgaris), a member of the rose family good for the ovaries when taken in tea, or for sore throats or diarrhea;
  • Calendula, which has a yellow or orange composite flower and is related to the dandelion. Its oil is good for healing skin irritations and can work to mediate the side effect of cancer treatment.

Danette has been studying and advising about plants for health and healing for 30 years. She is a registered herbalist with the Ontario Herbalists Association and belongs to several other herbalist associations.

On her website www.danette-steele.com, she points out that herbal medicine is the oldest and still the most widely used system of medicine in the world today. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that at least 80 per cent of people worldwide currently depend on herbal medicine as part of their primary health care. Herbal medicine makes use of all plant parts – the seeds, berries, leaves, roots, bark and/or flowers for medicinal purposes.

Danette’s next class at the TBG, Harvest & Preserve Your Herbal Garden, takes place Monday, Sept. 19 from 7 to 9 p.m. You can learn various methods of preserving herbs while tasting samples of herbal tonics, elixirs, syrups, vinegars and more. Public $30; Members $25. For more information, visit torontobotanicalgarden.ca.

Captions below, clockwise from left: boat to Nape Botanical Garden, Peru; herbalist Danette Steele at the TBG; calendula, TBG; peccary in the Peruvian rainforest medicine garden; Peruvian medicine man Jorge Mishaja; lavender, TBG; lady’s mantle, TBG

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