October 2011

Surviving the Andean winter on a medicinal plant

As winter sets in, many will inevitably catch a cold that might lead to flu. Hordes of health conscious –some might say obsessed- Bolivians hurry to the nearest pharmacy or health food shop to get a remedy. There is a good chance that the pharmacist will recommend Echinacea. This medicinal plant is very popular all over South America, although its medical efficacy continues to be a subject of scientific and medical debate.

By: Gerben de Roij
Projects Abroad Volunteer
Werkendam – Netherlands


Echinacea in a natural store
Photo: Gerben de Rooij

The history of Echinacea traces back to 18th century North America. The Indian tribes living there used its thick taproot as an antiseptic and painkiller. It was used to treat all kinds of medical complaints, from tooth-ache and inflamed wounds to sexually transmitted diseases. Also, it was the only known treatment for snake bites.

In modern medical history, Echinacea became popular in Germany in the 1930´s. Doctor Gerhard Madaus brought the seeds of the plant from the United States to his native Germany. In 1938, he introduced Echinacin, which was said to stimulate the body´s immune system and prevent infections. During the Second World War, the Madaus firm was involved in an unfinished experiment conducted on prisoners of the Buchenwald Nazi concentration camp. Researchers inflicted burns on prisoners using phosphorus to study the effect of Echinacin cream on the injuries.

The popularity of Echinacea declined rapidly when the use of antibiotics became widespread in the 1950´s. However, within the next two decades it became well known that antibiotics also have their downside and there was a growing interest in more ´natural´ solutions.

As in many countries around the globe, the Bolivian Health Ministry provides flu shots to protect its population during the winter´s flu season. The ingredients of the flu shot are a cocktail of different viruses that are expected to cause influenza in a certain season. However, as influenza is caused by a highly variable virus, these shots do not guarantee total immunity. This uncertainty, in combination with the fact that antibiotics do not cure influenza, has led to an ever growing interest in natural products that stimulate the immunity system.

Although the medicinal qualities of Echinacea have never been scientifically proven, it is popularly believed to stimulate the body´s immune system, as well as preventing infections, tumors and being a laxative.

Echinacea is native to the North American. It was introduced in Bolivia in 1986 by a Swiss couple, Kurt and Beatrice Pauli. They were attracted by the fertile grounds and warm climate of Coroico, a tropical valley in the La Paz Department. Later, they successfully grew the plant on the shores of Lake Titicaca. It turned out that the plant thrived in the harsh Altiplano climate with its cold nights and intense sunlight during the day. Pesticides or chemical fertilizers are hardly ever used in Bolivian agriculture, making the cultivation of the plant completely organic. Kurt Pauli claims that the plant has acquired more beneficial characteristics defending itself against the cold Andean nights and the intensity of the sun.


Echinacea Drops
Photo: Gerben de Rooij

There are nine species within the Echinacea family. As a family or genus, the flowers are commonly called purple cornflowers. Only three species, the Echinacea purpurea, the Echinacea angustifolia and the Echinacea pallid are used for medical purposes. Different parts of the plant, like roots and herbs are used in different preparations.

Whether scientifically proven or not, Echinacea remains very popular among Bolivians and other South Americans to endure the winter without too much trouble. It can be found in pharmacies and health food shops around Cochabamba and Bolivia. No doubt, pharmacists and nature freaks alike will do everything possible to convince you of the natural power of this pretty purple flowered plant.

www.enbuenasmanos.com/articulos/muestra.asp?art=360

www.eldeber.com.bo/extra/2007-07-01/nota.php?id=070627230604

www.cambio.bo/noticia.php?fecha=2011-05-29&idn=46313

Instituto de Investigaciones Antropológicas y Museo Arqueológico

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