In my home country of Trinidad and Tobago, traditional medicine — specifically bush medicine — is a time-honored cultural practice. Even with the emergence and dominance of conventional medicine, bush medicine continues to thrive in some communities.
“Bush medicine” is the colloquial term for traditional plant medicine in the Caribbean region.
Plants with medicinal properties are used to treat a variety of medical conditions, including the common cold, coughs, kidney stones, diabetes, and even cancer (
These plants are often found on uncultivated lands — hence, use of the word “bush” — or are grown in home gardens. In some instances, they are also used to season and flavor food during cooking.
There are a myriad of ways bush medicine is applied.
For example, various parts of the plants may be used fresh or dried and consumed as hot tea — called bush tea — or soaked in alcohol and used as an ointment for aches and pains.
Bush medicine has a rich history throughout many Caribbean small island nations, including Trinidad and Tobago, Grenada, and the Bahamas, and may be used independently or in conjunction with conventional medical treatments.
A note from Healthline
Bush medicine, like other complementary and alternative medicines, has been under-researched. That means we don’t have a large body of evidence to help us determine whether these practices are safe or effective.
While research suggests there are health benefits, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t monitor or regulate the purity or quality of medicinal herbs. Plus, some herbs can interact with prescribed medications.
Be sure to research manufacturers and check in with your prescribing doctor, as well as a qualified herbal practitioner or naturopathic doctor, before using herbs.
Although plants have long been recognized for their therapeutic benefits, bush medicine — and, by extension, herbs and traditional plant medicine — have been criticized and marginalized in the wider community, fueling fear.
The fear of herbs and plants as functional parts of health and wellness, coupled with a lack of scientific research regarding their safety and effectiveness, limits our understanding of the role and effects of bush medicine.
However, there is promising emerging research.
A systematic review demonstrated that some herbal-based oral preparations improved the severity and frequency of cough symptoms in people with the common cold or upper respiratory infections (
Type 2 diabetes research using mice showed that the anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties of herbal medicine effectively improved insulin resistance and could potentially be used to treat diabetes (
And a 2021 research review explored the potential role of herbal supplements in alleviating symptoms of the novel SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19 infection (
Despite the small pool of scientific research, these findings demonstrate the larger role bush medicine and traditional herbal medicine may play in disease management. More human clinical research is needed to determine safety (
Bush medicine has potential therapeutic roles in the management of the common cold, coughs, type 2 diabetes, COVID-19, epilepsy, and insomnia, but more human clinical research is needed to determine safety.
Due to colonialism, bush medicine in Trinidad and Tobago is a cultural fusion of Amerindian, or indigenous, practices and the influences of enslaved Africans, European settlers, indentured Asian Indian people, and other ethnic groups (
In addition, the close proximity to South America gives Trinidad unique natural vegetation and medicinal flora (
Bush medicine forms part of a larger ethno-medical system, similar to traditional Chinese medicine, which is based on the concept of hot and cold.
The hot and cold theory states that an imbalance between hotness and coldness in the body underlies the development of diseases. As such, restoring this balance with medicinal plants brings good health (
One example of this is the use of “coolings” — a practice I recall unenthusiastically from my childhood.
Coolings are made when bush leaves or shredded vegetables like carrots are soaked in water and refrigerated. The unsweetened infused water is drunk on an empty stomach over a few days to a week to remove “heat” from the body.
They may also be used to prepare the body for “cleansing,” with purges or laxative concoctions with senna pods.
Purges are traditionally taken after the two-month school vacation and before or right after the start of the new year as a symbol of cleansing and preparing the body for a new phase.
Along with coolings, other popular bush medicine practices in Trinidad and Tobago seek to treat common colds, fever, kidney stones, afterbirth or womb infections, diabetes, cancer, and high blood pressure (
Bush medicine in Trinidad and Tobago is a cultural fusion of pre- and post-colonial traditional medicine, forming part of the hot and cold ethno-medical belief system.
More than 900 single plant remedies were identified in a large ethnobotanical survey of bush medicine in Trinidad and Tobago (
Many of these are documented in the National Herbarium of Trinidad and Tobago, under purview of The University of the West Indies (U.W.I.), St. Augustine (9).
Here are some common herbal plants in Trinidad and Tobago and their uses (
- Zebapique (Neurolaena lobata): To treat fever, common cold, and cough, the leaves are crushed and drunk in juice or soaked in alcohol and taken as a 1-ounce (30 mL) shot.
- Fever grass (Cymbopogon citratus): Also called lemongrass, it’s used to treat fever and common colds or as a cooling. These are steeped and consumed as a tea.
- Barbadine leaves (Passiflora quadrangularis): A relative to the passion fruit, barbadine leaves are infused to treat high blood pressure. Barbadine fruit is also enjoyed in smoothies and ice cream.
- Monkey apple (Genipa americana): It is used to treat diabetes when consumed as the fruit or decoction (the product of a popular extraction method).
- Double hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis): It is used to treat “stoppage of water,” or urinary retention, due to its diuretic effect. The flowers are made into infusions or decoctions.
- Neem (Azadirachta indica): The leaves are chewed raw, or made into juice or another decoction to treat diabetes or to be used as a cooling.
- Noni (Morinda citrifolia): Also called “pain bush,” the juice of the ripe or fermented fruit is used to treat diabetes or as a cooling.
Some plants, such as “Wonder-of-the-world” (Bryophyllum pinnatum), are considered cure-alls to treat various conditions, such as asthma, diabetes, kidney stones, high blood pressure, and the common cold (
Furthermore, non-oral bush medicine practices are common, and include topical, inhalation, or “steaming” methods.
For example, the wild cassava leaves may be applied to the body to treat the common cold, or the African mint leaves crushed and the scent inhaled to treat fevers (
In addition to single remedies, various combinations or concoctions of plants with similar benefits are often used to treat a single condition.
More than 900 plant remedies were identified in Trinidad and Tobago bush medicine, but common plants include zebapique, noni, neem, fever grass, monkey apple, barbadine, and wonder-of-the-world.
Conventional medicine has been developed through decades of research and is the evidence-based standard for healthcare.
Over time, conventional medicine has marginalized bush medicine, primarily due to lack of research into the latter.
However, this has not stopped the use of bush medicine in some communities, and traditional medicine holds high therapeutic value and may play an important cultural role in disease management (
In fact, scientific exploration of traditional medicine can positively inform the development of herbal supplements and remedies for health management (
In Trinidad and Tobago, there also exists an opportunity for harmony between conventional and bush medicines. For example, a 2018 newspaper article report on a U.W.I. survey highlighted that 60% of doctors believed in bush medicine (12).
This means that, along with medical recommendations, these doctors may advise their patients use various bush medicine remedies as a part of their lifestyle.
With further human clinical research, bush medicine may be a supportive therapy alongside conventional medicine, when deemed safe and appropriate.
Conventional medicine is the evidence-based standard for health management, and over time, it has marginalized bush medicine. However, there is room for harmony between these two systems, when deemed safe and appropriate.
Bush medicine refers to traditional plant medicine practiced in the Caribbean region. It is predominately a cultural fusion of indigenous practices with African, European, and Asian Indian influences.
The pool of scientific research remains small, but bush medicine may have potential therapeutic roles in the management of coughs, type 2 diabetes, COVID-19, epilepsy, insomnia, and more.
Zebapique, noni, neem, fever grass, monkey apple, barbadine, and wonder-of-the-world are among common herbal plants used in Trinidad and Tobago to treat common cold, coughs, diabetes, urinary retention, and fever to name a few.
Although conventional medicine has marginalized bush medicine, there remains the opportunity for harmony between these systems, when deemed safe and appropriate and after more human research has been conducted.
Just one thing
Try this today: Take a deep dive into bush medicine in Trinidad and Tobago, including common remedies, where to find some plants, and how to use them with this detailed 1994 documentary.