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Traditional painting in Mixtec style by San Miguel artisan Ferman Rodriguez

Although we saw plenty of modern walk-in farmacias in Mexico — staffed with qualified and sympathetic pharmacists who listen attentively as you describe your symptoms, then promptly sell you antibiotics or whatever your particular ailment might require — there was also a brisk trade in medicinal botanica at the public markets. Dried plant material was displayed in an assortment of open sacks, all lined up neatly with little hand-lettered cards describing uses and dosages. Snaggle-toothed epazote leaf (steeped in milk, it is given to children as a treatment for intestinal parasites).  Curled-up sprigs of estafiate, or grandmother sage (boiled in water, it makes a soothing bath for rheumatism or sprains). Pungent Mexican oregano (hot tea for coughs).  Fat bundles of yerbanis stems, used for centuries to clear up stomach ailments — and newly discovered to contain antifungal and antibacterial substances.  Nearby were dozens of tiny, colorful tincture bottles and stacks of therapeutic herbal soaps, salves and cremas.

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Curanderismo, traditional folk medicine, is as stubbornly resilient as the cactus that cling to the rocky mountainsides of central Mexico. Before the Spanish arrived, ancient Aztec civilization included hospitals that operated under a form of socialized medicine. Their healers understood the link between good public sanitation and good health. The Aztecs conducted botanical research — one garden of medicinal trees, shrubs and herbs was reported to contain nearly 2,000 species and covered seven square miles.

Sadly, the Aztec’s written records of botanical research (along with their writings on other topics, such as their astonishingly complex architectural engineering) were destroyed by Spanish priests who considered the indigenous people to be primitive savages.

Traditional herbalism remains popular today, though. Scientific studies made in Mexico in 1994 and 1999 recorded more than a thousand species of medicinal plants with recognized uses. Some are sold in the markets alongside other produce. Some are dispensed through the yerberias who pass along herbal healing traditions handed down through the generations.

Modern pharmaceutical research is finally awakening to the curative possibilities growing south of the border, and scientists at the University of Mexico — who estimate that only about 1 percent of the native flora has been studied so far — see huge potential there.  Some are pushing for a national policy that would regulate the conservation and harvesting of medicinal plants. It’s interesting to me that ancient and modern medicine are converging. I like to think that the meticulous work of those Aztec botanists, lost for 500 years, may soon be reproduced by their descendants for the benefit of the rest of the world.