Doctor Ina Vandebroek is happy because she and her team just received a grant worth $100,000, for her work in the field of urban botany. She catalogs the variety of names used by Latino and Caribbean communities to describe medicinal plants and pairs the colloquial names with their botanical identities (the Latin name used for taxonomy), so that their properties and components can be properly studied.
In the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx there is a plant the Dominican community that they call insulina, frequently used to treat diabetes. Insulina belongs to the Genus costus, it comes from the Costaceae family. Dominicans also use the guanábana fruit (also known as soursop in English), classified scientifically as Annona muricata. The leaves are often prepared as a tea for respiratory tract problems, it is also used for trouble sleeping, nerves and hypertension, not to mention as a tasty ingredient in smoothies.
The higüero (calabash tree), or Crescentia cujete, is used in the Dominican community to clean the female reproductive system after childbirth. Jamaicans, however, bake it and mix it with castor bean oil (Ricinus communis) to treat back pain. The roots of the agave plant (Agave americana), the same plant used to make tequila, are used by Caribbean communities to treat vaginal infections and sexually transmitted diseases.
For communities coming from parts of Latin American, the Amazon and the Caribbean, cultural beliefs and plant-based remedies are often the only healthcare resource. Dr. Vandebroek and her team are training medical students and physicians, developing a virtual herbarium and have created a Spanish-language manual to act as a resource that patients can take to the doctor during the clinical consultation, with plans to develop an English-language version for physicians.
Laura Calçada reports from the Bronx on the importance of bridging the gap between culturally-derived health remedies and the medical research world.
Doctor Ina Vandebroek is an ethnomedical researcher at the New York Botanical Garden. She studies how immigrant communities in New York City use medicinal plants for health care. She got her undergraduate degree in Biology and her PhD in Neuropsycho-Pharmacology in Ghent University, Belgium (where she is from). She then wanted to combine both Biology and her broader interest in medicine and Ethnomedicine answered her call. She went to Bolívia, to work with traditional healers in a farmer’s community in the Andes, and she also has worked with Indigenous communities in the Amazon. Currently, she combines the job at the Botanical Gardens with trips to Jamaica, among other regions, to continue her research and catalogation of the use of plants for health care.
Doctor David Perez is an internist by background, and also received training in geriatrics, he studied at the Medical College of Virginia, at Loyola University Stritch School of Medicine and got his postgraduate degree at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation. Currently, he works for the global health service company CIGNA, as a Market Medical Executive for the Tri-state area.