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By Bonnie Thomas-Stevenson

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[from ]

                           By Bonnie Thomas-Stevenson
                                   (circa 1991)
   When first beginning to study Haiti, I was intrigued to learn that
   leaf-doctoring, or herbal cures, are an integral part of many Haitians'
   health care regimens. Since Haitians have very limited access to the
   attentions of doctors and modern medicine when ill, their reliance on
   leaf-doctoring is essential to remedying their sicknesses and maintaining a
   state of good health. My own interest in herbal healing dates back twenty
   years when I moved to a rural area in the Ozarks and had occasion to meet
   local people who gathered herbs and used them to treat various ailments. By
   listening to them, going along into the woods when they gathered and doing
   reading on my own, I too began to gather and use medicinal herbs. The
   Haitian herbalist and her Ozark counterpart share a similarity: they both
   gather and use herbs because of necessity. Ozark people are surely not as
   impoverished as Haitians and they have better access to doctors and
   hospitals, but the majority of improvements to this area of Missouri have
   come within the past fifty years, and before that time, an old-fashioned
   way of curing one's ills was the tradition. Even though the Haitian and the
   Ozarkian know that "modern medicine" exists and is practiced by doctors
   located an automobile or donkey ride away, the old herbal beliefs don't die
   away. They are persistent. To the Haitian, these beliefs are inexorably
   woven in with Voodoo, serving the loa and reliance on the local docteur
   The rural Missourian who uses herbs does so out of an unwillingness to give
   up a part of her heritage. It would seem that to Haitian or Ozarkian, herbs
   are a comfort: they keep one grounded in the past and more importantly,
   they can be effective and inexpensive cures..
   After realizing that a similarity existed between Haiti and mid-western
   America in terms of people gathering and using herbs, I wanted to discover
   if the two countries shared any common herbal remedies. I was fortunate to
   have three solid sources of information on herbs in Haiti: Laguerre's
   Afro-Caribbean Folk Medicine, Colon's Traditional Use of Medicinal Plants
   in the Province of Pedernales, Santo Domingo, and Jordan's Voodoo Medicine.
   I used Kloss's Back to Eden and Santillo's Natural Healing with Herbs for
   my American source books. What I found was that even though Haiti has many
   native tropical plants that are used medicinally, quite a few of the same
   medicinal plants grow there that do in the Ozarks. I have chosen eight that
   are used both in Haiti and the Ozarks to describe and comment on. When a
   person thinks of sarsaparilla, what most often comes to mind is probably an
   old-fashioned sudsy drink not unlike root beer. But sarsaparilla is a root
   that is used medicinally both in Haiti and the Ozarks. It is known in both
   locales as a blood purifier or that which promotes a cleaning action of the
   liver, kidneys, spleen and bowels. But in Haiti, the purifying qualities of
   sarsaparilla are held to be more important because of the emphasis Haitians
   place on the role of blood in the body. (Laguerre, 68) By a mental process
   Laguerre terms cognitive mapping, Haitians seem to have a highly developed
   instinctual sense of their bodies, their circulatory systems particularly.
   Besides the instinctual, the blood is watched by looking into the eyes,
   checking the fingernails, behind one's ears and through skin eruptions and
   bleeding. They observe nuances in the condition of their blood that are
   almost unheard of in white Anglo folk pharmacopoeia. Of concern to Haitians
   are the coloration, volume, quantity, directionality, temperature and
   purity of their blood. If they or their leaf doctor sense that any of these
   factors are out of balance in their body, they dose themselves with an
   decoction (tea) of sarsaparilla root. In the Ozarks sarsaparilla tea is
   also widely used for its purifying properties..
   Another blood purifier that is a very common remedy both in Ozarkia and
   Haiti, is catnip or catmint. Anyone who has seen a cat lolling around
   blissfully on a pile of catnip knows that this herb can produce a definite
   Especially dominant are the soothing effects it is known to have on small
   infants. Since catnip is a very mild herb for humans, it is safe to give to
   babies in tea form. Haitians believe that giving catnip tea to infants will
   clarify impurities in their blood. (Laguerre, 68) In the Ozarks catnip tea
   administered to babies quiets colic and can even be used to stop
   convulsions. More emphasis is given, though to its calming and sedative
   effects than its purifying. (Kloss, 215) In Jordan's research on Voodoo
   medicine, he places more emphasis, however, on the calming properties of
   catnip, rather than purgative. (Jordan, 726) Nonetheless, catnip is such a
   good all-purpose herb it is no surprise that it shares equal popularity in
   Haiti as it does in the hill country of Missouri and Arkansas. Mints such
   as catnip are widely used both in Haiti and America. There are many
   varieties such as peppermint, spearmint, lemonmint and horsemint. All of
   the mints have the effect of soothing indigestion and quieting nausea. In
   Michel Laguerre's book he tells of a Haitian woman who makes herself ill by
   eating the head of a turkey. Her laments were set to music:
     "Sam, bring me some mint!
     Make Catnip up an' sage tea!
     I goes an' gets her all them things
     But she throw 'em back up to me." (Laguerre, 48)
   Needless to say, mint teas are the first to be administered if someone
   complains of stomach upset in Haiti or Ozarkia..
   Quite unlike the soothing properties of the mints are the herbs that are
   known for their tonic or stimulating effects. One that I ran across in my
   research that is very interesting and pertinent to this subject is quassia,
   or bitterwood. It is named in honor of its discover, Quassia the Surinam
   slave. Quassia was thought to have been a leaf healer in Surinam before
   being brought to Haiti. He deduced that the bark and wood of the simarouba
   excelsa plant were an excellent tonic and febrifuge (that which acts to
   expel intestinal worms from the system). Somehow, this knowledge was
   transmitted to slaves in America and they began treating themselves with
   quassia, also. It became quite a popular cure in the rural Southern states
   and its efficacy was even employed by the white slave owners and their
   families who needed a thorough worming. (Kloss, 300; Laguerre, 30).
   Another excellent febrifuge used both in Haiti and the Ozarks is senna. An
   infusion (tea) of senna is given to expel worms, reduce biliousness
   (belching and indigestion), and as an all-purpose laxative (Kloss, 312;
   Santillo, 175). Senna is the main ingredient in many modern day American
   laxatives. But in Haiti, where worms are a more prevalent problem among the
   population, senna is gathered and used for its febrifuge properties.
   (Colon, 154)..
   The last group of herbs I would like to comment on are three that could be
   called "female herbs". Before the advent of modern medicine, women had to
   rely on herbal cures for a variety of ailments and symptoms associated with
   their reproductive symptoms. Down through the ages women have had to deal
   with menstrual cramps, excessive bleeding, water retention and unwanted
   pregnancy, just to name a few. While most women in America go to licensed
   medical doctors to find relief for gynecological problems, the vast
   majority of Haitian women cannot avail themselves of expert medical care.
   Some Ozark women do not choose to either. Therefore, herbs are the medicine
   of choice and necessity. In my research, I discovered three herbs that are
   used for female problems both in Haiti and Ozarkia. Red sage is an herb
   found in both locales and is known to be an emmenagogue, or that which
   promotes menstrual flow (Kloss, 308; Laguerre, 94; Colon, 161). I might add
   though, that there is a nebulous line between what constitutes an
   emmenogogue or abortifacient, but the desired result is the instigation of
   bleeding. Another emmenagogue employed in both Haiti and the Ozarks is
   vervain. Kloss describes it as "good in all female troubles, will increase
   menstrual flow much better than quinine for the purposes for which quinine
   is used" (323). Here Kloss seems to be hinting in his 1939 publication that
   vervain can be used to cause abortion. Quinine has quite a reputation for
   being used in the past to induce abortion. Jordan confirms these
   abortifacient qualities in his work, Voodoo Medicine. But quinine is a
   chemical salt that can cause violent reactions, unlike gentle verbena.
   William Seabrook's work The Magic Island also cites the usage of verbena in
   women who are in labor (Seabrook 327). Seabrook claimed it was called
   "pains cutter" in rural Haiti..
   Douching with a decoction made from oak bark is another female remedy found
   in both Haiti and the Ozarks (Jordan, 735; Kloss, 171). It is used for
   general hygiene and curing excessive discharges. While I was able to match
   several Haitian herbs with American counterparts, I was a little
   disappointed that I could find no mention of the "biggies" of American
   herbal pharmacoepeia in Caribbean plant botany. Specifically, I was looking
   for ginseng and goldenseal, both highly sought for their curative
   properties. I think the reason I was unable to find any mention of them in
   Haiti was because of the complete dissimilarity in climate. Haiti is
   tropical and ginseng and goldenseal need cool, shady forest slopes to grow
   in. They both grow well in Ozark soil which contains a lot of limestone
   sediment. The final question that I wanted to probe was some sort of
   linkage between the two cultures of Haiti and America that might account
   for the similarities I found in treatment methods. I soon learned however
   that Caribbean folk medicine cannot be studied without comparing it to
   African-American practices. Because of the importation of workers for
   plantation slavery, a vast body of knowledge departed Africa for the New
   World. Along with the knowledge some of the slaves were able to bring a few
   plants. Today we have black-eyed peas, sesame seeds and peanuts in the
   Americas because slaves brought them along on the middle passage. They
   brought plants and they brought their collective memories. I surmise that
   Quassia the Surinam had seen a plant similar to bitterwood in Africa. He
   remembered and was able to impart that knowledge when he arrived in the
   Caribbean. All of the slaves traded their expertise in healing because of
   the plantation milieu and dire necessity in staying alive. The European
   slave owners were not without their healing knowledge, too. Therefore, a
   medical syncretism of sorts must have occurred. Knowledge, like slaves, was
   traded back and forth from slave to owner, owner to slave, Haiti to
   America, America to Haiti. Throw in the extra cultural factor of what the
   Amer-Indians knew and imparted, and what emerges is a wide body of
   knowledge that serves a very useful, if not vital function. And it is
   precisely that useful function and the needs it fulfils that keep herbal
   healing alive and well in both Haiti and the Ozarks.
                                   WORKS CITED
     * Colon, Sandra Hernandez. The Traditional Use of Medicinal Plants and
       Herbs in the Province of Pedernales, Santo Domingo, in Ethnomedicine 4:
       139-166, 1976.
     * Jordan, Wilbert C. "Voodoo Medicine", in Textbook of Black Related
       Diseases. Ed. Richard Allen Williams. New York: McGraw-Hill, pp.
       715-738, 1975.
     * Kloss, Jethro. Back to Eden, 1939. Loma Linda, CA: Back to Eden Books,
     * Laguerre, Michel S. Afro-Caribbean Folk Medicine, S. Hadley, Mass:
       Bergin & Garvey, 1987.
     * Santillo, Humbart. Natural Healing with Herbs, Prescott Valley, AZ:
       Hohm Press, 1987.
     * Seabrook, William B., The Magic Island, 1929. New York: Paragon, 1989.
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