Written, illustrated & photography by George Cruz

Ecuador is rightly proud of its incredibly varied flora and fauna. This bilingual (English and Spanish) publication is an in-depth study of 168 plants with natural medicinal properties that grow in this small but ecologically rich country. Many of the plants will already be familiar to people from other parts of the world, either because they also grow elsewhere or because they are familiar varieties found in our markets and kitchens. Others will fascinate with their exotic names, many of which will be unknown to many readers.

Dr. George Cruz, who with his family runs a professional ecotourism business in Ecuador, has authored several other publications, on birds and cookery. This large but not overly voluminous tome takes you through a wide range of trees, shrubs and flowers, focusing on their pharmaceutical usages and explaining how to use them and for what diseases and complaints. He is responsible not only for the highly informative texts but also for the photographs of each species and even the colourful front page illustration. His biography, along with portraits of him and his close-knit family, feature usefully at the beginning of the book.

The scene is set with an explanation of shamanic practices in Ecuador, which have existed for thousands of years. There follows a easy-to-use index in the form of a series of charts giving the plant names, the page number, the geographical location and their medicinal use by means of colour codes. Some of the plants have edible fruits that are nutritive, while others have effective properties ranging from diuretic and antibiotic to anti-depressive and cancer prevention.

Many are well-known culinary herbs, like thyme, sage and mint - but maybe you didn’t know that these can also be used for combating colic, influenza and dermatitis, respectively. Then there are fruit and vegetables, including potatoes, onions and papayas, whose properties - according to local tradition - include the treatment of heart disease, constipation and warts. 

Each plant is listed in the main body of the guide along with a photo, the name in English, Spanish, Latin and sometimes a native language such as Quechua, and the botanical family it belongs to. Underneath is a description of its habitat, its medicinal and other properties and the means of treatment and dosage. You learn, for example, that an infusion of mountain sweet pea flowers or leaves helps to regulate menstruation, tone the heart pump and soothe stomach aches.

Some less familiar varieties include the delicious pitajaya - which doesn’t even have an English name - whose seedy pulp is good for the heart and works as a light laxative. A member of the gentian family, with bright yellow flowers, is known as Andean tobacco - it is used by shamans as a cleansing agent. They burn the dry leaves and breathe the smoke over infected bodies, though the foliage can also be made into a curative tea that is good for anyone with fever, laryngitis or liver complaints.

The book ends with two dramatically contrasting photographs of Andean landscapes, followed by more useful indices, a comprehensive bilingual glossary of medicinal terms, and a bibliography, should this fascinating study spur you on to more research.

One word of warning - although there are detailed explanations of how to use some of these medicinal plants, you should always be aware of the need to take advice before picking any wild plant. Nor should you take the treatment of illness - especially serious disease - into your own hands without professional counsel. With those provisos - enjoy this fascinating exploration of millennial shamanic tradition in the Ecuadorian Andes.

This book may be purchased at San Jorge Eco-Lodge/Quito  reception office.  Cost: $20.00 USD