Tuesday, February 17, 2015

A Taste of Ethnobiology

“Ariba, a bajo, al centro….. al dentro!” Jaime sung out as we dropped a small, green, seemingly unimportant leaf into each of our mouths. Flavors of fresh citrus exploded inside my mouth. It is called bitter orange, or naranja adria, and is used by local Costa Ricans to make “tranquillo” relaxant teas. This plant is one of many used by local and indigenous communities for medicinal purposes. However, 10 minutes earlier, if I had seen this leaf on a tree, I would not have thought there was anything special about it other than its nice smell. This was the beginning of our first Ethnobiology lecture and was followed involved a vast demonstration of many plants people use for medicinal and practical purposes. Just a few of the names of plants we learned about were chiyote (makes natural red dye), lemongrass (used for teas), ginger (aids in stomach secretions), basil (cures earaches when combined with garlic), gavilana (cures stomach illness and elephantiasis), and quasia almata (cures stomach parasites). One of the most fascinating was called "piper" and acts as a natural anesthetic. Jaime instructed us to chew a leaf before we knew this however, and instantly our tongue and lips became numb and tingly! It was such an experience being able to touch, and smell and taste all these plants that could cure almost any simple illness you could think of. It made me wonder how many other natural products there must be all over the world that people use as remedies in their every day lives. To me they were just plants, but to Jaime, they were a way of life.

I left the lecture that day with a sense of awe about this whole new world of biology I never learned about in my cellular and biochemistry classes. Every plant has a story and purpose, no matter how small. To think I’ve walked past thousands in my life without ever giving them so much as a second glance. Ethnobiology encompasses so much more than just scientific knowledge. It encompasses an entire culture’s interaction with the environment around them. I believe that this first lecture was only a small “taste” of all we will learn about Costa Rica’s rich history of ethnobiology.

Stephanie Hynes

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