Stevenson Swanson is the Science Media Manager at The New York Botanical Garden.
The Cigna Foundation and the Ghetto Film School recently teamed up to host a competition among the school’s young filmmakers, who were challenged to use their video storytelling skills to highlight how some of the Foundation’s New York City-based World of Difference non-profit grant partners, including The New York Botanical Garden, are creating a positive impact on the health and well-being of local residents.
Taking second place was Bridging the Gap, by Kecia Romiel, who focused on the Botanical Garden’s innovative research led by Ina Vandebroek, Ph.D., Matthew Calbraith Perry Assistant Curator of Economic Botany and Caribbean Program Director in the Garden’s Institute of Economic Botany. Dr. Vandebroek’s project seeks to improve health care for New York’s immigrant Latino and Caribbean communities by studying the plants they use in their traditional medical practices and raising awareness of these practices among healthcare professionals.
Stevenson Swanson is the Science Media Manager at The New York Botanical Garden.
In a new podcast from health insurer Cigna, Ina Vandebroek, Ph.D.—the Matthew Calbraith Perry Assistant Curator of Economic Botany and Caribbean Program Director at The New York Botanical Garden—discusses how she studies the ways in which Caribbean and Latino immigrants in New York use medicinal plants in their health care.
As part of her research, she delves into the traditional knowledge, beliefs, and practices of the Dominican and Jamaican communities and also carries out field research in the Dominican Republic and Jamaica.
Dr. Vandebroek talks about cultural beliefs about specific illnesses and herbal therapies that are recognized in these communities but unfamiliar in mainstream medicine, such as “evil eye.”
Putting her voluminous research to practical use, she has developed training activities with health care professionals to help them understand the traditional beliefs and health care practices of their Latino and Caribbean patients. Her aim is to give doctors and other providers the information and understanding they need to build trusting relationships with their immigrant patients—with fully informed, improved care as the ultimate goal.
When Ina Vandebroek, Ph.D., started to study how immigrant Caribbean communities use traditional plant-based medicines in their health care, she soon realized that her subjects often did not tell their doctors about the various remedies they are using.
To help bridge this gap, Dr. Vandebroek, the Matthew Calbraith Perry Assistant Curator of Economic Botany and the director of the Caribbean Program at the Institute of Economic Botany of The New York Botanical Garden, has held nearly 50 training sessions for 740 medical students and practicing physicians.
The goal of these sessions is to raise awareness among health-care practitioners about traditional plant-based medicines so they can communicate better with their patients, build trust, and identify potentially harmful drug interactions between mainstream pharmaceuticals and the active chemicals in traditional remedies.
After initially focusing on immigrants from the Dominican Republic, Dr. Vandebroek has now expanded her research project to include Jamaican immigrants. Her research is supported in part by a World of Difference grant from the Cigna Foundation, which announced last week that it was renewing the grant for a second year.
Dr. Vandebroek recently wrote about the importance of understanding immigrant health care practices for “The Doctor’s Tablet,” a blog at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, where Dr. Vandebroek has held several training sessions for its health care professionals. You can read her post here.
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.