What Is Bush Medicine? A Dive Into This Traditional Practice
In my home country of Trinidad and Tobago, traditional medicine is a time-honored cultural practice. Bush medicine is still a success even with the emergence of conventional medicine.
The term bush medicine is used for traditional plant medicine in the Caribbean.
Plants with medicinal properties are used to treat a variety of medical conditions, including the common cold, coughs, kidney stones, diabetes, and even cancer (
The plants are found on uncultivated lands or grown in home gardens. They are also used to seasoning and flavor food.
There are many ways bush medicine is applied.
The parts of the plants that are dried or fresh may be used as tea, bush tea, or anthelmment.
Bush medicine has a rich history in the Caribbean, and can be used independently or in conjunction with conventional medical treatments.
A note from Healthline
Bush medicine, like other complementary and alternative medicines, has been under-researched. That means we don’t have a large body of evidence to help us determine whether these practices are safe or effective.
“The FDA doesn’t regulate the purity or quality of herbs, despite research suggesting there are health benefits. Some herbs can interact with drugs.”
Be sure to research manufacturers and check in with your prescribing doctor, as well as a qualified herbal practitioner or naturopathic doctor, before using herbs.
Although plants have long been recognized for their therapeutic benefits, bush medicine — and, by extension, herbs and traditional plant medicine — have been criticized and marginalized in the wider community, fueling fear.
The fear of herbs and plants as functional parts of health and wellbeing, along with a lack of scientific research regarding their safety and effectiveness, limits our understanding of the role and effects of bush medicine.
There is promising research.
A systematic review demonstrated that some herbal-based oral preparations improved the severity and frequency of cough symptoms in people with the common cold or upper respiratory infections (
Type 2 diabetes research using mice showed that the anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties of herbal medicine effectively improved insulin resistance and could potentially be used to treat diabetes (
And a 2021 research review explored the potential role of herbal supplements in alleviating symptoms of the novel SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19 infection (
Traditional herbal medicine has also been researched for its effect in the treatment of epilepsy and insomnia (
Despite the small pool of scientific research, these findings demonstrate the larger role bush medicine and traditional herbal medicine may play in disease management. More human clinical research is needed to determine safety (
Bush medicine has potential therapeutic roles in the management of the common cold, coughs, type 2 diabetes, COVID-19, and insomnia, but more human clinical research is needed to determine safety.
Due to colonialism, bush medicine in Trinidad and Tobago is a cultural fusion of Amerindian, or indigenous, practices and the influences of enslaved Africans, European settlers, indentured Asian Indian people, and other ethnic groups (
In addition, the close proximity to South America gives Trinidad unique natural vegetation and medicinal flora (
Bush medicine forms part of a larger ethno-medical system, similar to traditional Chinese medicine, which is based on the concept of hot and cold.
The hot and cold theory states that an imbalance between hotness and coldness in the body underlies the development of diseases. As such, restoring this balance with medicinal plants brings good health (
I remember not being enthusiastic about the practice of coolings from my childhood.
When shredded vegetables are soaked in water and refrigerated, coolings can be made. The water is drunk on an empty stomach for a few days to a week to remove heat from the body.
They may also be used to prepare the body for “cleansing,” with purges or laxative concoctions with senna pods.
Purges are usually taken after the school year ends and before the new year begins, as a sign of cleansing and preparation for a new phase.
Along with coolings, other popular bush medicine practices in Trinidad and Tobago seek to treat common colds, fever, kidney stones, afterbirth or womb infections, diabetes, cancer, and high blood pressure (
Bush medicine in Trinidad and Tobago is a fusion of pre- and post-colonial traditional medicine.
More than 900 single plant remedies were identified in a large ethnobotanical survey of bush medicine in Trinidad and Tobago (
Many of these are documented in the National Herbarium of Trinidad and Tobago, under purview of The University of the West Indies (U.W.I.), St. Augustine (9).
Here are some common herbal plants in Trinidad and Tobago and their uses (
- Zebapique (Neurolaena lobata): To treat fever, common cold, and cough, the leaves are crushed and drunk in juice or soaked in alcohol and taken as a 1-ounce (30 mL) shot.
- Fever grass (Cymbopogon citratus): Also called lemongrass, it’s used to treat fever and common colds or as a cooling. These are steeped and consumed as a tea.
- Barbadine leaves (Passiflora quadrangularis): A relative to the passion fruit, barbadine leaves are infused to treat high blood pressure. Barbadine fruit is also enjoyed in smoothies and ice cream.
- Monkey apple (Genipa americana): It is used to treat diabetes when consumed as the fruit or decoction (the product of a popular extraction method).
- Double hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis): It is used to treat “stoppage of water,” or urinary retention, due to its diuretic effect. The flowers are made into infusions or decoctions.
- Neem (Azadirachta indica): The leaves are chewed raw, or made into juice or another decoction to treat diabetes or to be used as a cooling.
- Noni (Morinda citrifolia): Also called “pain bush,” the juice of the ripe or fermented fruit is used to treat diabetes or as a cooling.
Some plants, such as “Wonder-of-the-world” (Bryophyllum pinnatum), are considered cure-alls to treat various conditions, such as asthma, diabetes, kidney stones, high blood pressure, and the common cold (
Non-oral bush medicine practices include breathing, and using a scalpel.
For example, the wild cassava leaves may be applied to the body to treat the common cold, or the African mint leaves crushed and the scent inhaled to treat fevers (
A variety of combinations of plants with similar benefits are often used to treat a single condition.
Zachebique, noni, neem, and monkey apple are some of the common plants that are used in Trinidad and Tobago bush medicine.
Conventional medicine has been developed through decades of research and is the evidence-based standard for healthcare.
Lack of research into bush medicine has led to the decline of conventional medicine.
However, this has not stopped the use of bush medicine in some communities, and traditional medicine holds high therapeutic value and may play an important cultural role in disease management (
In fact, scientific exploration of traditional medicine can positively inform the development of herbal supplements and remedies for health management (
In Trinidad and Tobago, there also exists an opportunity for harmony between conventional and bush medicines. For example, a 2018 newspaper article report on a U.W.I. survey highlighted that 60% of doctors believed in bush medicine (12).
Doctors may advise their patients to use bush medicine remedies as part of their lifestyle, if they follow medical recommendations.
With further human clinical research, bush medicine may be a supportive therapy alongside conventional medicine, when deemed safe and appropriate.
Over time, conventional medicine has marginalized bush medicine, and it is the evidence-based standard for health management. There is room for harmony between the two systems.
Bush medicine refers to traditional plant medicine practiced in the Caribbean region. It is predominately a cultural fusion of indigenous practices with African, European, and Asian Indian influences.
Bush medicine may have therapeutic roles in the management of coughs, type 2 diabetes, COVID-19, and more.
In Trinidad and Tobago, common herbal plants used to treat cold, cough, diabetes, and urinary retention are zeapique, noni, and monkey apple.
Although conventional medicine has marginalized bush medicine, there is still an opportunity for harmony between these systems after more human research has been conducted.
Just one thing
Try this today: Take a deep dive into bush medicine in Trinidad and Tobago, including common remedies, where to find some plants, and how to use them with this detailed 1994 documentary.