Ina Vandebroek, Ph.D., is the Matthew Calbraith Perry Assistant Curator of Economic Botany and Director of the Caribbean Program at The New York Botanical Garden. An ethnomedical research specialist, she studies people’s cultural knowledge, beliefs, and practices related to traditional medicine.
It was my last interview during one of my ethnobotanical field trips to a farming community in the lush northeast parish of Portland in Jamaica. I sat on the porch of the home of Faye, a female farmer, while the sun was setting behind the beautiful John Crow Mountains that surround the community. We looked at a set of pictures on my laptop. They were photos of plants growing in and around the community. For each one, I asked Faye if she knew the plant’s local name (or names) and its cultural uses, especially for healthcare. In rural Jamaica, people still rely greatly on wild plants (or, as they say in Jamaican patois, “bush”). They use many of these plants to treat ill health or enjoy them as a cup of tea in the morning to stay strong and energized.
Interviewing people is a standard method in ethnobotanical research. Through individual interviews with several people in the community who self-medicate with “bush medicines,” I am hoping to develop a database of locally useful plants and to understand the myriad of ways in which these plants are used. I am also trying to find out which bush plants people know best, and who is especially knowledgeable about them. These data can be used to compare culturally important plants and popularly known medicinal uses for them across several Caribbean countries. The ultimate goal is to give back that information to the community, so that these precious oral traditions do not disappear.
En Tu Comunidad is a public affairs program on the Spanish-language network Unimas that serves the New York City metropolitan area. The show is hosted by Enrique Teuteló.
Enrique invited me on the show to talk about my research in ethnomedicine—specifically, the use of medicinal plants in Latino and Caribbean communities in New York City, especially within the community from the Dominican Republic—and how this research can help physicians establish a better relationship with their Spanish-speaking patients.
Read on for a short English summary of our conversation, plus the full video of the interview in Spanish.
Ina Vandebroek, Ph.D., is an ethnomedical research specialist at The New York Botanical Garden‘s Institute of Economic Botany. One of her research interests is studying how immigrant populations in New York City use traditional plant-based remedies in their health care.
The science of ethnobiology studies the relationships among peoples, nature, and culture. It is a multidisciplinary field that uses methods from the social and natural sciences, including botany, ecology, agriculture, medicine, zoology, anthropology, archaeology and others. Ethnobiologists have diverse research interests, and an international conference presents a great opportunity to learn from specialists.
People often ask me if I try the home remedies that I document in my research as an ethnobotanist. My standard answer is that I do not.
Plants, after all, are not always innocuous. Some, like food-grade castor oil from Ricinus communis, require extensive processing to remove toxic substances. Others, like Aloe vera, can provoke unintended side-effects when taken with over-the-counter or prescription medicines. Still others, like rue (Ruta chalepensis and Ruta graveolens), are so toxic they should never be taken internally. Therefore, it is advisable to never take a plant remedy if you do not know it well.
But here’s a recipe that consists solely of food plants and spices that are commonly consumed by many people and are widely available in local supermarkets. I learned this recipe during my research among the Dominican community in New York City and have prepared it several times.
Callaloo is one of the most popular green leafy vegetables in Jamaica. The young leaves of this (semi-)domesticated species are chopped and steamed with onions, scallions and salt to make the popular dish of the same name. Amaranthus viridis is commonly known as garden callaloo in Jamaica, but other species include Amaranthus dubius (Spanish callaloo) and Amaranthus spinosus.