Excerpts from Jim Conrad's
Naturalist Newsletter

from the September 1, 2008 Newsletter written in Sabacché and issued from a ciber in nearby Tekit, Yucatán, MÉXICO

All through tropical America, from Mexico to Paraguay, if you're traveling down a road where there's enough rainfall to support forest at least 20 feet high, the vegetation is weedy and the soil is halfway rich, if you see a much-branched shrub with rich-green, leafy, non-woody branches ending in bright clusters of slender, red flowers, a good first bet is that the plant is HAMELIA PATENS, in English sometimes called Scarlet-Bush. That's one of our roadside beauties below:


One reason Hamelia patens is so conspicuous is because it has a long flowering season. As an evergreen shrub with herbaceous shoots up to 12 feet high, it just catches your attention again and again.

Hamelia patens is a member of the Coffee Family, the Rubiaceae, characterized by its stems bearing conspicuous, sharp-pointed stipules between opposite leaf bases, and the flowers being " inferior" -- corolla and stamens arising above the ovary, not at its base as in most flowers. Doña Martha, who calls the plant Kanán in Maya, has a high opinion of the species' medicinal value.

"Combine its leaves with those of Pomegranate and Guava, brew a tea from them, and you can cure skin sores by washing the skin with the tea. The tea is also good to wash around in your mouth when your mouth is inflamed and painful. And if you cut yourself, you heal better if you toast its leaves in the comal, grind them to a fine powder, and sprinkle the powder in the wound."

I have seen that people who really know about medicinal herbs typically combine two or more herbs together for a cure, seldom depending on a single plant. In this case it's interesting that while Scarlet-Bush and Guavas are native Tropical American plants, Pomegranates originated in Asia, so the blending of these three plant leaves by the Maya clearly came about after the Spanish Conquest.

It's also interesting that Maximino Martínez's Las Plantas Medicinales de México mentions different uses for the plant. There the plant is recommended for swollen, aching legs, and for removing "bad humors" from the body.

from the August 9, 2015 Newsletter issued from Yuxunah, 20kms southwest of Chichén Intzá, Yucatán, MÉXICO

A friend with psoriasis lesions on her feet was approached by a local Maya man saying that he knew an herbal treatment that could cure it. Interested in traditional uses of medicinal plants, my friend jumped at the opportunity to have her feet treated with a genuine Maya cure.

Next morning when the man arrived to begin treatment he brought with him parts of two plant species. One was a leafy sprig of Scarlet-Bush. Back in 2008 when the above entry was made, my camera couldn't focus very close but now we can better show some of Scarlet-Bush's field marks. For one thing, after the flowers are pollinated, the shrub's tubular, cylindrical corollas break loose, slide over the ovaries' long style, and fall to the ground. Below, you can see a corolla that's come loose and now hangs at the style's tip:

HAMELIA PATENS, Scarlet-Bush, corolla slipping over style

In that picture notice that the ovary is mostly " inferior," with the calyx attached to the ovary's lower half. Scarlet-Bush's leaves normally arise three to a stem node, and between the leaves there are long-pointed, somewhat triangular "stipules," as shown below:

HAMELIA PATENS, Scarlet-Bush, stipules

These features -- inferior ovaries, two or more leaves per stem node and conspicuous stipules between the leaf bases -- are field marks for members of the Coffee or Madder Family, the Rubiaceae, a big family in the world's tropics.

Back in 2008 a Maya lady who seemed to know her medicinal plants, in the little Maya village of Sabacché bit south of Mérida, told us that Scarlet-Bush was medicinal, and she told how to brew a tea with leaves of Scarlet-Bush, Pomegranate and Guava. However, this local man in Yaxunah didn't bring leaves of Pomegranate and Guava to brew with the Scarlet-Bush's leaves, but rather a foot-long leaf of Aloe Vera, called Sábila here. I was a little surprised that his Maya cure included Aloe Vera because that species is native to Africa (even Pomegranates are from Asia).

The Scarlet-Bush's leaves were cut into small pieces with a pocketknife, a little water was added, and the leaves in the bowl's bottom were crushed with his finger. Then the green jelly inside the aloe leaf was scraped into the bowl and the whole thing stirred up. The resulting runny emulsion was used to wash my friend's foot sores.

After several days of daily treatment my friend didn't see any improvement. One wonders whether if Pomegranate and Guava leaves had accompanied the Scarlet-Bush's leaves the treatment would have worked.

Whatever the case, the other day a Maya lecturer spoke to the group of US and Maya students attending the month-long ethnobotany workshop being conducted here at Yaxunah Community Center. After describing how the Maya use natural indicators to forecast the weather -- for example, how drought can be foreseen in the diminished flowering and fruiting of the Ceiba and Bec trees, and in details of the construction of the Altamira Oriole's pendulous nests -- the lecturer asked the three Maya students whether they'd been taught any of these techniques. Two students said that they'd heard nothing about them, while the third said he'd been taught some of the information, but not all.

During the following discussion of how such important knowledge is being lost, the student who'd learned a little from his family said this:

"My impression is that nowadays some of the old people in our community still know all these things. However, middle-aged people like our parents may have heard about the techniques, and sometimes try to use them, but often they get the details wrong and end up making mistakes. And then kids in our age-group don't hardly know any of the old knowledge."

That's what I've seen in the Maya communities I've stayed in, and maybe that explains why our Scarlet-Bush-leaf cure didn't produce the desired effects. Our volunteer healer had been middle-aged, so maybe he'd remembered that Scarlet-Bush leaves are good for skin sores, but never had learned the details that make the treatment work.