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Bush Medicine



First Published: 1994-08-01

A fascinating part of Bahamian lore and tradition is the age-old use of trees, leaves and fruits for healing. We call it Bush Medicine. Whether the leaves and branches are collected from deep in the hardwood coppice, or in a grassy patch by the side of the road, if you can make a tea or a poltice with it, it is Bush Medicine.

The old midwives and healing women know - and have told their daughters and grand daughters - about all the wonderful health benefits to be found within these mysterious wild plants of the Bahamas.

They know because not many years ago, even the people of New Providence had to survive without an abundance of professional doctors. Herbal medicine was all there was when a child had pneumonia or a labouring mother was in trouble. In many cases it was all that was needed.

Our traditional bush medicine cures are remnants of an age when all the people of the untamed world were in tune with their bodies - and with the cycles of the moon - trusting an inner knowledge when illness occured.

We can assume that this kind of knowledge was once a universal one. Hundreds of years ago, natives of North and South America sucked willow bark for relief from aching joints. Today we know that willow bark contains the sallicylate which gives aspirin its painkilling properties.

Healers of South American tribes used the bark of the cinchona tree to ease fever. Today it is known as quinine. They also used the fox-glove plant digitalis for certain ills. Today, digitalis effectively treats some kinds of heart ailment.

What led these primal peoples to “know” the mysteries of herbal medicine? Why, thousands of years ago, did that first medicine woman pick the White Bell flower, dry it, and put it in a clay pipe to smoke? How did she know it would cure her shortness of breath (asthma), or that breast milk may be used as a soothing balm for sore eyes? How did she know a tea made of Five Fingers would relieve back ache, or that the root of the Guinea Hen Bush would ease an aching head?

 Perhaps in the days when all the lands were covered in virgin forest, and people still lived in tune with the music of the universe, a magical, inborn intuition led them to the healing trees. Their ears were not filled with all the confusing noise of a modern world. Perhaps in those old days, trees and people shared a common language, and all survived together in peace and mutual caregiving. 

Today, with the whole world rediscovering the benefits of herbal teas and medicines, people in the Bahama Islands too are seeking out the old sages who can tell them which leaves to chew for their various ailments. 

Bahamians are traditionally known to distrust “doctor medicine.” The late Mrs. Leslie Higgs explains in her book, “Bush Medicine in the Bahamas”: 

“In many cases the purpose of visiting a doctor is to ‘get soun’ (have a stethescope examination) for to these folk the stethoscope is almost a magical instrument with strange curative powers. The medicine, if prescribed without ‘sounin’, if taken at all, must be used with due caution.”

Doctor-prescribed medicine is more often than not, combined with weeds and wildflowers from the back yard, with good results.

Since time (as we say), out-islanders knew to watch the eating habits of their livestock. They knew their goats and sheep would not eat poisonous plants like Oleander, Datura, Croton and Monkey Fiddle, and so neither did they.

 Even domesticated animals know what the earth provides for them when they’re ill. When we see a Bahamian ‘pot cake’ dog eating leaves of grass, we know he feels ill, and we know he’ll get better soon.

In the past several decades, a number of professional doctors have published studies that verify the scientific value of these healing herbs. 

Some resident doctors in the Bahamas have also returned to the magic of the bush for cures. A certain qualified doctor in Nassau has prescribed parched and powdered Rooster Comb with Yellow Sage for chicken pox with amazing results. 

Another Bahamian doctor reportedly sent specimens of cerasee to England for analysis some years ago. Research tests indicated the plant has great curative value in use against the common cold. Generations of Bahamians have known this for years, and its use is widespread.

It is also a fact that in 1960, the Associated Press reported that doctors in Canada and America, in separate research studies, found that crystals of Vinca derived from the common Perriwinkle flower caused an increase of red blood cells, proving highly useful in the treatment of Leukemia.

But natives who still turn to folk medicine traditions will tell you that Perriwinkle flowers and leaves also make a wonderful tea that, when consumed every day, will ‘reduce sugar in the blood.’

Stories about bush medicine cures are common among the islanders. In fact, the lore of native healing probably survived because of the rich tradition of storytelling here. Passed down through the generations this way, the use of natural medicines is still widespread, and increasing.

“I was born in Nassau and during my childhood was bossed by 'Mistress Marshall,' our cook” says Mrs Higgs in her book. “She swore by bush medicines and would slip me a ‘brew’ if I looked the least bit piqued. She gained the admiration of the entire family when, on one occasion, she insisted on treating a sister of mine with Gale-Of-Wind Bush. In this case, a persistant temperature of 105 degrees came tumbling down in short order. Mistress Marshall, by the way, lived to be 102 years old, and never visited a doctor.”

At the time of Mrs. Higgs’ landmark study, the Aloe plant was being rediscovered for its magical properties.

“Every garden in the Bahamas should boast of at least one aloe vera plant,” she said. “It was one of the most useful of the plants taken to South Florida by early settlers from the Bahamas. It was given the name of ‘Belly Ache Bush’ and it was planted in every yard for its value in releaving sunburn, mosquito bites and burns. A laxative was made by removing the gel from the inside of the leaf, mixed with water. Aloe Bitters, a tonic, originated in the Bahamas.”

Mrs. Higgs also reported the story of an American resident who suffered for years with a sinus condition, until on the advice of a “bush doctor”, cured it with a concoction of Catnip leaves. And the story of a diabetes patient who kept well for many years, foregoing insulin for a tea made of dried and parched pound-cake bush.

Bush medicine traditions reveal much about the resourceful, inventive nature of Bahamians whose lives still connect with Earth-cycles. 

“I drink a cup of sage tea every day of my life,” says bush medicine guru, Ms. Mildred Sands. “It purifies the blood.”

Ms. Sands retired last year after 21 years as Social Hostess at the Holiday Inn on Paradise Island. She turned the lobby of the hotel into the herbal headquarters of the Bahamas with daily demonstrations on how to prepare her medicines.

She prescribes Butter Cup leaves for menstrual pains, Bagerina for appetite, and Shepherd’s Needle for ‘heat in the blood.’ And she swears that Five Fingers, Madeira bark and Love Vine all make good “baths” for the sick, giving them new strength.

“I think we should not return to Mother Nature for help because the answers to all our complaints are out there among the common weeds that she produces. I hope that some day man will understand the nature of things. At that time we’ll find the answers to all of our problems.”