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Bahamian Bush Medicine
Bahamians have used indigenous plants for medicinal purposes for hundreds of years.  This tradition, called "bush medicine," was brought to the Bahamas by African slaves and gained importance in the out islands where doctors were rarely available.  Cat Islanders, with their reputation for longevity, attribute bush medicine with keeping them healthy.  Nearly 100 plants in the islands of the Bahamas have been used to cure such common ailments as indigestion, colds, diarrhea, and headaches.  There are even bush medicine treatments for diseases such as leukemia and cancer!  In fact, some of these herbal remedies are beginning to be researched and used by herbalists and natural health practitioners worldwide as viable treatments for serious illnesses, including hepatitis and HIV.

One of the most versatile native Bahamian plants is the Lignum vitae (Guiacum officinale) (tree of life), (or as many old folk call it "Nigly Whitey") the national tree of the Bahamas.  Its glossy leaves are a rich green, and its abundant flowers range in color from purple to blue.  Virtually all parts of the tree are valuable, particularly its heavy, dense wood that was once used commercially in construction, until the tree became scarce.  Its resin, called guaiacum, is obtained from the wood by distillation and is used to treat weakness and strengthen your back.

The bark of another common plant, Cascarilla, also called Sweetwood, is used to make a tonic for digestive irritations and stomach aches. Note: that Sweet Wood is exported from Nassau to Italy.

The Sweetwood is a small, very fragrant tree with silver-bronze leaves and pale yellow bark.  This plant is actually named for Eleutheraóits botanical name is Croton Eleuteria.  Dried quills of Sweetwood bark are exported from Nassau and can be used as an expectorant, or to treat chronic diarrhea or vomiting.  The leaves can be infused for a digestive tea, and the bark yields a good black dye.

Gumbolimbo TreeWhile exploring the Bahamas, you may see a large tree with red shaggy bark that peels off in paper-thin strips. Thatís the Gumbolimbo tree, and its bark is a common topical remedy for skin sores, measles, sunburn, insect bites, and rashes.  Strips of bark are boiled in water and then used topically or drunk as tea to treat backaches, urinary tract infections, colds, flu, and fevers.  Itís even used as an aphrodisiac!

Note: Most Bahamians don't call it the Gumbolimbo tree. Rather they call it Gamalamee, or Kamalamee--look around Nassau and you will see reference to the name in buildings, developments, etc. Kamalamee Cove on Andros. Indeed, Gamalamee is very impt. ingredient in the aphrodisiac Bush Tea (called 21 Gun Salute on Cat---reference Phil stubbs song). Gamalamee is also called the Tourists Tree--Tourist gets burned and peels, much like the red peeling bark on this tree.

The Gale of Wind/Hurricane weed. The botanical name is Phyllanthus amarus is a small annual herb that grows and spreads freely like a weed.   Itís called the "stone breaker plant" because it has been used for generations to eliminate gallstones or kidney stones.  In the Bahamas, this plant is known as "hurricane weed" or "gale-wind grass," and is used for poor appetite, constipation, typhoid fever, flu, and colds. Itís a popular herbal treatment because it has no side effects or toxicity.   Phyllanthus amarus has been the focus of a great deal of research in recent years because its antiviral qualities may even be useful in treating hepatitis and the HIV virus. Kalanchoe

Kalanchoe botanical name (Kalanchoe pinnata). Bahamians call it Life Leaf or Ploppers. In the Bahamas it is mostly used for Asthma or shortness in breath. Bush doctors crush the leaves of a cultivated ornamental plant, the kalanchoe, and soak them in water overnight. 

The next morning the "kalanchoe tea" can be drunk to treat heartburn, or applied as an antibacterial to bruises or skin sores.  Mashed and ground fresh leaves are also used as a poultice for headaches, and the juice mixed with a pinch of salt is a good treatment for bronchitis or ulcers.

Bahamians use the leaves of the Spotted Basil, (Bahamians call it Basily) to treat asthma, bronchitis, chest colds, and skin rashes.  Its lovely, reddish-purple flowers grow on long stems, and they are sometimes used along with the leaves to prepare a hot tea to soothe gastric ailments or reduce fever.  Because of its popular use in bush medicine, Basil is now a main ingredient in several commercial preparations used to treat intestinal worms and parasites.  In 1998, researchers validated the herbís use as an anti-inflammatory, and another research group has found that it protects against ulcers and is effective in treating diarrhea.

Picao Preto
Picao Preto
, a small annual herb with prickly leaves and yellow flowers, is considered a weed in many places.  But in the Bahamas, it has a long history of producing herbal curatives, and virtually all parts of the plant are used.  The people of Exuma grind the sun-dried leaves with olive oil to make poultices for sores and lacerations.   Leaves are balled up and applied to toothaches, or plastered to the head to soothe a headache.

While youíre in the Bahamas, you may want to enlist the services of a native guide to help you learn about the plants used in bush medicine.  Some people may think that in the modern, high-tech world we live in, bush medicine is an outdated way to treat ailmentsóbut as you can see, many modern medical professionals are beginning to pay attention to its long history of success.

Note: We must thank Laurel Richey studying Bush Medicine in the Bahamas,  a botanist (ethnobotanist) at Miami University in Ohio. So far, Laurel has done extensive work on Long Island and Cat Island and informs us that she has found 163 plants used medicinally on Cat Island and about 140 on Long Island. 120 plants are used by both islands. Laurel does not doubt there are many more medicinal plants used throughout the Bahamas, as different islands have different flora compositions. For example, Andros, a pine island, has several medicinal species not found in the Southern Bahamas.

Many of the notes and corrections on this page were provided by Laurel and any errors are certain to be ours.


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