“Everything was bush, bush, bush in those days. Even in washing clothes they had special bushes they washed clothes with.” – Samuel Ebanks (Cayman Islands National Archive Memory Bank Interview).
Words and photography by Hannah Reid.
Not too long ago, before the financial industry found its footing and before tourists discovered its white sand shores, the Cayman Islands were three lonely little islands, crowded with tangled wilderness and visited only by hurricanes.
In those days, people lived on what they could harvest from the land and sea. There were few imported goods and what was available was expensive. Early Caymanians learned what could harm them, what could heal them, what could nourish them, and what could shelter them. They roofed their houses with silver thatch, framed their walls with sturdy ironwood and wove wattle from flexible cabbage and strawberry. They washed their clothes with washwood. They cured their ills with plants like leaf of life, fevergrass and mulberry. Indeed, bush medicine played a unique role in the survival of early Caymanians at a time when doctors were few and far between.
As Cayman changed, growing increasingly connected to the world beyond our shores, our way of life has become distanced from our forefathers’. When we have a headache, we reach for ibuprofen tablets instead of headache bush. This is not to say that modern medicine should be eschewed for naturopathic remedies, only to point out that the plants we now pass along the roadside without so much as a second glance may once have been the difference between life and death. And that is something I find quite amazing.
Once you begin to understand the bush, recognise the plants you see every day and know their names, you see each roadside, piece of grass and patch of forest with new eyes. Some of the best places to get to know Cayman’s native flora include the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park, the Mastic Trail, the Cayman Brac Parrot Reserve, the Little Cayman Nature Trail, and the Crystal Caves.
Common name: Headache Bush
Scientific name: Capparis cynophallophora
Medicinal uses: Tea made from the young leaves was used to treat headaches. Chopped leaves were used as smelling salts or applied externally to treat toothaches. Look for leaves that are glossy emerald on top and silvery beneath, and have a spicy aroma, like horseradish or wasabi, when crushed. When they are new, the leaves are folded tightly in half and nibbling insects end up creating symmetrical designs similar to Rorschach inkblots when the leaves later unfold.
Common name: Rosemary
Scientific name: Croton linearis
Medicinal uses: Tea made from the leaves and stems was used to treat diabetes, and alongside other medicinal plants after giving birth. It was smoked to treat asthma and burned to keep mosquitoes away. The tea was also added to baths to soothe irritated skin. This twiggy shrub grows all over our islands, sprouting up everywhere from rocky pastures to the mottled depths of the old-growth forests. It has dark, glossy leaves with silvery undersides and white blossoms that look like tiny starbursts.
Common name: Pepper Cinnamon
Scientific name: Canella winterana
Medicinal uses: The inner bark is used in a tea to treat fever, indigestion, sore throats, and aches and pains. Be warned, however, the outer bark is toxic. With its dark, glossy leaves and scarlet berries, pepper cinnamon is a striking tree that is also critically endangered in the Cayman Islands. Try breaking a leaf and pressing the edge against your tongue – it has quite a kick to it!
Common name: Christmas Blossom
Scientific name: Vernonia divaricata (Syn. Vernonia aborescens)
Medicinal uses: A 2014 article published in the West Indian Medical Journal found this plant effective against several types of cancer. The best time to look for Christmas Blossom is in November and December, when the cooler weather brings out its white or purple flowers as a sure sign of the holidays, earning it its local name.
Common name: Black Sage, Blood Berry, Butterfly Bush
Scientific name: Cordia globosa var. humilis
Medicinal uses: Used alongside rosemary and tamarind leaves in medicinal baths for general health. Look out for a trailing shrub with alternate leaves, white flowers and red berries.
This article is for informational purposes only. It does not purport to be, nor is it intended to be, any kind of recommendation or guide on the use of plants for medicinal or edible purposes.
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