mardi 26 janvier 2010

Yenna Bosaya Leco = Medicinal plants of the Leco community

I was lucky enough to meet and spend some time with Stefano Vanzein in La Paz and learn about his medicinal plant project with the Leco communities, he is also happy to join us in our "Herborists sans frontiers" project.
Stefano finished his thesis on the medicinal plants of the Leco people of Bolivia nine years ago. Last year he decided he wanted to do something useful with this work and so started to put together an idea that has now become a reality.
The Leco people live in the gateway to the Amazonian rainforest and have a strong cultural knowledge of the local medicinal plants. However with the inevitable contact with the modern world, this rich and important knowledge, that has always been passed on orally is getting lost.
Stefano's project consists of the creation of a workbook on their local medicinal plants for Leco school children aged between 9 and 17 years old. The book identifies these plants with detailed sketches and includes both the tribal and local names of the plants, the scientific names are not included as they mean nothing to the local people. Indications of what part of the plant is used, preperation techniques, any eventual risks ( all this is in the local dialect and in Spanish) there will also be space for the children to add their own information, interviews with their elders, notes, drawings etc.
The book will also try to introduce ideas about protecting the local environement and the possible risks to be aware of etc, this will be done with phrases by famous people about ecology, information about seed collecting,the dangers of genetically modified plants and seeds and how to collect and grow plants without damaging nature with chemicals etc. Diet will also be looked at and how these local plants can be used for other things other than medicinal uses alone.
In order to complete this project Stefano spent 6 months in Bolivia last year and returned this year to finalise things. He has been working with 5 local communities ranging in size from 100 to 1000 people. His time has been spent mostly with the elder members of the communities as they have retained the precious knowledge that he is trying preserve. The plants he collects are identified at La Paz at the countries botanical resource centre, the team here are amazingly specialized, researchers work in the forest and then catalogue the informatiion. The Bolivian governement has agreed to the project and is going to make the workbook into the official text for the schools of the region, it will also be used as a model for other communities.
I am really pleased to have met Stefano and his non-profit making project and hope that with "herborists sans frontiers" this connection will continue.

jeudi 21 janvier 2010

A tiny oasis between the sea and the desert

Amelie took us to a wonderful beach an hour's drive north of Copiapo. Hidden away, accessible only by foot, following a rocky path along the cliffside. The most interesting thing about this beach from a botanical point of view was the fact that underground springs surfaced and came down through the eroded rocks as small streams, allowing a variety of different plants to prosper and create a wonderful contrast with the desert above and the beach below.

We are presently in La Paz, the capital of Bolivia and I am making the most of being in a big city to update my blog as when we leave here, who knows when we will have an internet connection that is powerful enough to download photos etc. As usual I don't have enough time to research the plants above and find their names, this I will do on my return, I will however try and give a brief description and if anyone recognises any of these plants please let me know.

The first photo is a plant that has certain crassulacaea aspects but could well be of another family, it grows close to the ground, the stalk is about 5 to 6 cms long and the plant non-woody. The leaves are simple, rounded and look like cotyledons, they are light green with a reddish line along their margin. The flowers are solitary with a long stalk. The calyx has three large, flat, trianguler sepales flattened against the flower's tube with two small sepales situated in the interior. There are two mini leaflets (bractees in French) on the outside. The flower is very white with 5 fused petals, which are are slightly indented in the middle, the inside of the corrolla's tube is washed with red.
The second plant was growing in a mini cave in the rocks, where the spring water was running through continually, through my magnifying glass it looks very like a saxifragacaea but on looking in my books I now think it is probably a Samolus valerandi from the primulacaea family, I am rather pleased if it is as its quite rare and so protected.
The third photo is of a plant that was in abundance, growing in a huge carpet-like configuration. It's succelent leaves were coated with a thin white duvet, and were the colour of white grapes. The fived sepaled, fused calyx was the same aspect as the leaves and had a small petiole. The ovary was epigynous, the white corolla had a long tube that then opened up into fused petals with 5 stamens......anyone know it????
Fourth photo is a plant that I have never seen before, although a botanist friend in La Paz assures me grows in Europe. It was growing expansively on the rocks near the sea and looked like a crassulacaea in aspect although the stalk was woody at its base and covered with a paper-like layer of salt. It is in fcat a chenopodacaea, a salicornia known as glasswort, pickleweed or marsh samphire. A halophile plant, which means it is salt resistant. It creates a large carpet on salt marshes, beaches and in mangroves. the young tender shoots can be prepared and eaten in the same way as green beans. There are about 30 species of salicornia and they are difficult to determine, I have looked on the internet but there seem to be no leads to chilean salicones.
The stalk was succelent, green and in segments measuring 2 ot 3 cm's. the leaves were like smaller versions of the stalk but reddish at the top. Along these "leaves" were tiny flowers, "apetal", without petals, I wasn't sure if the sexual organs consisted of 2 anthers, which opened to liberate the pollen or 2 stigmas without styles.
The last plant was growing on the dry, sandy "plateau" before the actual beach. A small plant, growing very close to the ground with a layer of salt covering it. A thin, reddish, woody stalk with swollen nodes. Tiny, simple leaves with a short petiole and a well defined midrib, they had a slightly succelent aspect and were inserted around the stalk. The flowers inserted et the top of the stalks with a long, fused calyx of 5 sepals covered with short, white hairs. The calyx also had greenish/red lines along it, small "bractees" like leaves were inserted at the base of the calyx. The flowers were white with a mauvish tint, 5 fused petals with long "onglets", one long style and5 stamens with black anthers and a epigynous ovary.

lundi 18 janvier 2010

Taking cuttings in Copiapo

I found myself taking cuttings of Rosemary, Lavander and Santoline from Amelies and Jose-Miguel's garden for them to take to their new home with them. They had a special area with high working table to do this on, very pratical and I will definetly creat a cuttings area at home when I get back. Hope they worked I took cuttings of the tops of the plants, which we do generally in spring in Europe, as their are no defined seasons in Copiapo, I am hoping that with care, attention and regular watering that they will take.

samedi 16 janvier 2010

Distilling garage wine!!

After bottling wine, we also put our hands to distillilling wine. Amelie had given Jose-Miguel a 10 litres alambic for his 50th birthday as one of his many hobbies is making flavoured digestive alcohols such as fig, abricot, prune, peppers, verbena to name but a few. The alambic had not yet been touched and as I had had the chance to distill plants with ELPM on a few occasions, we decided now was the time to inaugerate the new machine.
We began by distilling wine mixed with water in order to clean the alambic. We then distilled 4 litres of the wine we had previously bottled. Our first dilemma was how much of the first alcohol to pass should be discarded, we decided to do this by taste and poured off regular samples, the first alcohol had a medical aroma, which then changed to aromatic, at this point we kept what was distilled and obtained an alcohol measuring 48 degrees.

Garage wine

In Copiapo we stayed with Amelie Secretan, Jose-Miguel Cuadra and their two girls Eliza and Maitie. The family have a micro-production of vines (the most Northern vines of Chile). The expermental vines include Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Carminere annd Tammer for the reds and Sauvignon blanc and Chardonnay for the whites. The aim is an experimenation of the "terroir" and this has proved to be a success, the reds were elegant, lively and most agreable. The whites were also very enjoyable with a good balance between the minerality and the "gras" (sorry there are some words that I can't find a convenable translation for).
We didn't just taste the wines but actually got our hands into them, which made us feel very much at home. Amelie and Jose-Miguel had bought a new bottling machine and we were very pleased to help them put it into operation for the first time. Jean-Luc's lifetime of wine-making came in very handy when putting our mini production line into place and getting the machine to perform properly.
We started with the whites and then the reds, it was great to be bottling in the open air under the Chilean skys......and also to be able to pay back a bit of the incredible hospitality that this family had shown us!

Flowering desert

We are now in Copiapo, the real desert, a 10 hour drive north of Santiago and I have one great regret and that is not to be here at the moment when the desert blooms, as it is exactly here where this miracle happens!

The flowering desert occurs between the months of July and August but by no means every year, there must be enough rainfall to awaken the seeds and bulbs that have been dormant for sometimes years in the parched sands. The desert becomes green and then as the multitude of different flowers bloom, it is full with a myriad of different colours. The blooming flowers attract insects and wildlife and the desert comes to life. I hope one day I will return to the area just for this.
I did however spot the three flowers above struggling to survive in the desert heat and for me they are also miraculous. The first photo was taken in the desert surrounding Copiapo, there were no plants except this one that happened to be flowering, I don't know what it is, so here goes f0r it's description; a small hardy plant with light purple flowers, 5 fused petals and 5 fused sepales, 5 stamens, 1 style and a superier ovary. Small leaves with an edging very similar to Teucrium chamaedrys, the leaves and stalk are covered with a white "duvet" and there are longish white hairs along the edge of the leaves.
The second photo was taken in the desert of Pisqou-Elqui, where the odd shrub or cactus still survives, it looks very like a lin but as yet I haven't had enough time on Internet to check this out. The third photo was also taken around Pisqou-Elqui, I found it mentioned in my Chilean wildlife book, Adesmia purmila, a fabacaea. I was pleased to meet this single flower with its urge to survive, the only one left on its scrubby bush in the blazing heat gave me such joy.

mardi 12 janvier 2010

Pisqou Elqui and Patricia Soto

Our Last stop-off point in the Elqui Valley was Pisqou-Elqui ( Pisqou refers to the local alcohol, made from distilled grapes), the aim being that the kids see the stars through one of the telescopes situated here, the skys being among the best in the world for star gazing. My aim was to find out if there were any herbalists around, this was begining to prove more difficult than I had expected.
We stayed at Hostel Pedro run by a guy called Santiago, who had been married to a French womam so conveniently he spoke French....the problem here, he explained was that many outsiders had settled in the region and bought with them Reiki, Shiatsu, aromatherapy etc, which they sell to tourists and the local herbal knowledge is not valorised, either by the newcomers or the locals who love tablets and modern medicines.
I accepted the fact that it I wasn't going to find anyone working directly with plants here and would have to wait until we moved on. However by chance, I wandered into a shop in front of the hotel and found Patricia Soto, my first cross-cultural herbalist.
Patricia makes soaps, body and facial creams and toilet waters from the plants she grows in the mountains 3 km's from Pisqou Elqui. She was very happy to be interviewed and the first international member of Herborists sans frontiers with The Lyonnais school of Medicinal plants!!

Patricia grows plants and runs a shop selling her organic cosmetics and other locally produced crafts. Her brand name is Elquimia, a play on words with the name of the valley and the word alchemy in spanish, which is alchimia.

Interview with Patricia
How long have you been producing plants in the region?
Not long, 5 or 6 years, I was working in the film industry in Santiago and I wanted to change my life, I bought an old farm in the mountains, read books and did some courses on plants and my project was born.
What do you grow?
My plantation is quite small, I have lavander, sauge, rosemary, oregano, roses, lemon grass, pines, ylang-ylang, jasmin, calendula, which are all grown organically and I collect wild plants as well.
You have focused on organic cosmetics, why?
I use plants medicinally with family and friends but people here do not want to buy them, the trend is for modern medicines so I concentrated on making my commercial product for the face and body.
You must have a lot of work with the plants, making the products, the shop etc, how do you manage it all?
My work is my life, I am passionate about plants, the watering, weeding etc is a natural part of my day, I do however have someone serving in the shop.
Can you describe your relation with the plants you use and plants in general?
Marvellous !! I have a very strong relation with the plants, they have taught me alot of things, the essence of one's being, the plants and the mountains are my life.
Have you a favourite plant?
Your packaging is very professional and appealing, can you tell me a bit about your products and choice of packaging?
It took me a long time to be happy with the final result, I make my products from A-Z and I wanted this to be clear in the labels as many people in the valley are making and selling products for tourists that are actually full of added chemicals, stabilisers etc. The choice of container was not easy either as there is very little choice here in Chile.
What would you be looking for in a cross cultural herbalist network?
Contact with other people who work with and love medicinal plants, a place to share information, experiences and get advice.

When I get back to the ELPM in France, we will send Patricia a contract and I hope we will be able to develop a spanish speaking section of our new project.

samedi 2 janvier 2010

Still in the Elqui valley

I can't talk about plants in Chile without mentioning the Californian Poppy (Eschscholzia californica). Throughout my travels so far here in Chile, I have seen it growing everywhere, it grows wild in abundance along roadsides or on scrubland. I don't know if it used medicinally here, it may be one of those plants that are so commom they aren't used, however in Europe its sedative and anti-spasmodic qualities are recognised.
One of the things that has surprisd us and I must say perturbed us here in Chile is the way in which wherever you go, every piece of land, be it agricultural, scrubland or mountains is fenced in. Signs marked "Private property" are everywhere and I mean absolutely everywhere, there are no means of ignoring them either. This means that family walks or plant-searching expeditions are not so easy. However thanks to the fact that Lorelei and Jean-Luc had done some work for the owner of our cabanas, they had been shown a tunnel throught a bamboo forest that lead to the arid mounatins that we can see all around us but couldn't access. I personally wanted to see if anything other than the Quisco cactus could survive the ultra arid conditions. It ia late in the season so any courageous spring flowers would be welland truly burnt to a cinder by the heat of the summer sun.
All, however was not lost, nestled in the sandy, coloured rocks in the baking sun was a pink-leaved crassulacaea (see photo above). It has a rosette of succulent leaves at its base with a long angular stem on the top of which are a group of small purple pink flowers.
In this region there is zero rainfall for the five summer months, it is amazing to think that these plants can survive. The Crassulacaea family have developed means of adapting, they have an acid metabolism callewd CAM, "which is a type of photosynthetic adaption to high light and low moiture environements. The stomates, unlike most other plants open at night to allow the accumulation of carbon-dioxide in the form of an organic acid and then the stomates close during the day when the stored carbon-dioxide is used in photosynthesis." Many of the plants in this family have developed chunky leaves or stems to reduce their surface areas relative to their volumes, other plants have dens hairs or thorns that help to reduce the rate of transpiration. The chunky leaves, stems and roots also store water of course!