Learning about medicinal plants from a local expert

Ollantaytambo community member Adolfo Del Alamo Sota has a wealth of knowledge about medicinal plants in the area, including those used by the Incas many hundreds of years ago. We recently visited Adolfo and his wife Adela in order to learn from them. Our health promoters showed great interest in our recent medicinal plants training, and we hope to collaborate with Adolfo to expand this aspect of SVH’s programming.

Adolfo showing us his favorite medicinal plant, malba blanca.
Adolfo showing us his favorite medicinal plant, malba blanca.

When we asked about where and how he learned about plant medicines, Adolfo explained, “The knowledge of the plants was passed down from my great-grandmother to my grandmother to my mother, and then to myself.”

He discussed how when a patient has an illness, one must look at certain qualities of the illness to determine if it is “hot” or “cold” in order to determine what kind of herbs to use to counteract this imbalance. He compared this to the duality of yin and yang in Chinese medicine. For example, a patient may have diarrhea, but depending on the quality of it, it may be “fresco” (cold) or cálido (hot). The belief here is that the body must maintain equilibrium between hot and cold, or illness develops.

Adolfo sharing his knowledge of medicinal plants
Adolfo sharing his knowledge of medicinal plants

Based on whether an illness is “hot” or “cold”, the patient can use a plant that is opposite of the affliction to become more balanced and therefore heal. Cold plants include dandelion, mullasca (which can be made into a juice to counteract the after-effects of alcohol consumption), flax seed, and aloe. Plants that increase heat include carrot, anise, celery, Andean mint, chamomile, and other herbs commonly used in digestive teas.

When asked about the best teas for concentration and energy, he said coca leaf tea is great, but he prefers a mix of 7 “flours” of superfoods and beans. Included in this mixture are the flours kiwicha (a Peruvian grain), maiz (corn), soy, fava beans, other beans, quinoa, and wheat.

Adela prepared us a tea of the energetic grains and beans. “Full of phosphorus,” she said. Adolfo stated that NASA uses many of these grains in their space expeditions for astronauts because they are so packed full of nutrients.

One of the teas Adela so kindly prepared for us from the fava bean flour

We noticed a big vat of herbs in the house soaking in cañaso, or cane alcohol, and he mentioned that he is preparing a drink he called “matachancho”, or pig killer, to aid in the digestion process after a very large meal. Included in this mixture are mostly “hot” herbs, but there are a few “cold” herbs such as cidra, a citrus-like herb, and uña de gato, or cat’s nail (just the name – not an actual cat’s nail!)

A digestive liquor known as matacancho, or “pig killer”

When asked which is his favorite medicinal plant, he replied without hesitation, “Malba blanca!” He explained that its anti-inflammatory properties help him immensely.

He discussed the importance of coca leaves, especially to the older generations, and explained that it has lots of iron. He pointed out that when people in the high mountain communities chewed coca more, they had less tooth decay, obesity, cholesterol problems, and general health issues than they do today.

“Everyone is becoming increasingly modern, and the plant medicine knowledge is becoming lost,” he said with a look of concern.

Through seeking out and sharing knowledge of medicinal plants, the SVH/ Ayni Wasi team hopes to do its part to preserve and sustain local healing traditions.

Community coordinators Sarah and Jenny Beth take notes.
Community coordinators Sarah and Jenny Beth take notes.

Written by Community Coordinator Brooke Bachelor, RN BSN


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