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 feille..
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 reaction..
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.
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