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
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.
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 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
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
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, 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
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.