Ethnobotanical Garden in Cotacachi Demonstrates Ecuador Biodiversity

by Linda McFarlin 

A visit to the Cotacachi Ethnobotanical Garden highlighted for me the incredible value and priceless legacy that the indigenous population has preserved for the rest of us.  The immense biodiversity of Ecuador plants is very evident in the microcosm displayed in the garden.

Peace Corp volunteer Kenji Tabery was our guide.  He shared the ethnobotanical garden’s treasures with us--its medicinal plants, heirloom vegetables and fruits and exotic flowers. 

Kenji is no longer stationed in Cotacachi, but other Peace Corp workers and local volunteers continued to serve in the garden for many years.  Editor's Note:  Sadly, the garden is now closed but this article remains on our site because of the description of the plant diversity in this area.

The Cotacachi Ethnobotanical Garden is vibrant with vitality and health.  It is a small biodiverse gem in an area fast succumbing to the nutritional degeneration of monoculture.  Thankfully, the indigenous organization UNORCAC is promoting and teaching the value of organic farming and gardening so that this legacy doesn’t die out with the next generation.

My visit to the Cotacachi Ethnobotanical Garden taught me much about the plants in Cotacachi that can bring me greater health, brighten my day with their color and fragrance and endlessly satisfy my taste buds. A veritable garden of delights, this garden is designed to give and give and give.

Pictured and described below are many of the plants in the garden and their medicinal uses:

Aloe vera is used to soothe burns and to make botanical shampoos and lotions.   Male and female aloe vera plants, known locally as sabila, are planted in two separate sections, but the medicinal properties are the same for both genders.

Escancel is from eastern and southern Africa and widely used to reduce fever. It makes an awful-tasting  infusion tea or juice.

Manzanilla, or chamomile, with its yellow and white flowers, is great for tea. It is used to treat colds, diarrhea, hemorrhoids, colic, mouth ulcers, vaginitis and wounds. It is also a sleeping aid. Some sites indicate that it can cause skin rashes and drowsiness and may possibly lead to abortion.

Granadilla is a type of passion fruit.  Exotic-looking passion fruit flowers come in a range of colors. The rounded green/yellow fruits are very juicy and have small black seeds.

Violeta, or violet, is used to make an infusion that relieves throat irritation and coughing.  The leaves are good for easing the pain of headaches.

Two kinds of salvia, or sage—one white and one deep blue, grow in the ethnobotanical garden.  Salvia originates in Asia with over 500 species in Mexico and the Americas. 

Salvia is related to mint. The plant's sticky leaves attract and capture insects.  Birds then feast on the insects.

The roots of salvia help with menstrual pain/cramps and cardiac problems. The leaves stimulate the digestive tract and alleviate throat pain when made into a soothing botanical infusion.

Tigradillo has an incredible lemon fragrance and is used to ease anxiety.

Borraja Azul, blue borage or starflower, is an herb that comes from Syria but has naturalized throughout much of the world, including South America.  It is used for food and medicine. 

The seeds are made into borage oil.  The leaves are used as an herb.

The flowers have a honey taste and are edible and the vegetables, which taste like cucumbers, are used to make a green sauce and in soups and pickles.

Borage regulates metabolism, relieves PMS and menstrual cramps, colds and respiratory problems.

Comfrey is considered by some herbalists to be the most powerful healing plant of all. Comfrey botanical ointment will heal most sores, bruises, burns and cuts.  Tea from the dried leaves is good for internal problems.

I gathered some of the leaves while I was in the Cotacachi Ethnobotanical Garden and dried them at home to use later. Recent studies have found that one element of comfrey caused cancer when given to rats in huge amounts. Do your own research into this plant before using it.

Stinging nettles are used by the indigenous to punish thieves. The guilty party is whipped with branches. Chewing the leaves helps heal cuts in the mouth. Mashed leaves are applied to exterior cuts or wounds.

Llanten or English plantain is a perennial herb, considered a weed in many countries.  It is used in herbal remedies and organic teas.

Juyanguilla, which has no English name that I could find, calms skin irritations and hives. Peel the top layer of the leaf and it sticks to the skin.

Aliso rojo is an important native tree. It fixates nitrogen in the soil, stabilizes soil nutrients and regulates underground water.  The falling leaves decompose into a great natural fertilizer. Several of these trees grow in the ethnobotanical garden.

This is opposite the effect of eucalyptus, which sucks water from the soil.  Eucalyptus leaves are toxic, killing other trees around them.

Lechero is used as a wind breaker. School children used to use its sticky white sap for glue.  It also heals gastritis.

Matico, or common boneset, is a disinfectant plant with large oily leaves. It is an evergreen tree/shrub that can reach 7 meters in height, native to Ecuador and most of South America.  It has been used to treat hemorrhoids, diarrhea, ulcers, dysentery, respiratory and digestive disorders and vomiting.

The fruits are used as a peppery spice.  Because it can grow prolifically, in some places it is considered a weed.  Matico makes a nice cream. A standard dosage is to drink 2-3 cups daily of an infusion of the leaves.  When applied to a wound, the leaves will also stop bleeding.

Ruda, or Ruta graveolens, also called common rue, is an evergreen shrub with  bitter leaves and small yellow flowers. It is a medicinal plant that originated in the Mediterranean and Asia.  Rich in antioxidants, flavinoids and vitamin C, rue has many therapeutic uses.

It is used to soothe  eyestrain, to repel insects, regulate menstruation and as a sedative.  The oil and leaves can cause blisters when exposed to the sun.

Fresh leaves rubbed on the body will relieve the pain of headaches and sciatica. Rue oil can cause vomiting, stomach pain and even be fatal.

It grows profusely in the Cotacachi Ethnobotanical Garden and in medicinal gardens all over the area. It's a staple herb for healing in many home gardens.

Churo yuyu (Quichua) reduces headaches.

Lamb’s Ear, or bunny ears, has many names.  It is known as heal-all, self-heal, wound-wort and hedge nettle. The plant has furry, grey-green large leaves and is a remedy for coughs.

Romero, or rosemary, was introduced to Ecuador by the Catholics and originates in the Mediterranean.  It’s woody, needle-shaped leaves grow on fragrant evergreen shrubs and are used to spice meats and vegetable dishes.

It contains antioxidants and studies have shown that rosemary may protect the brain from free radicals and reduce the risk of stroke. Some people react to it with allergic skin conditions.  Once thought to repel witches, it is also believed to attract lovers and improve memory.

Cedron is lemon verbena.  It is a perennial shrub native to South America.  It gives a lemony flavor to fish and poultry, salad dressings, jams and desserts. It makes a delicious herbal tea and sorbet. It has been used to treat candida.

After moving to Cotacachi, cedron became one of my favorite teas.  A local lady used to bring me big branches of it from her garden and I’d strip the leaves and dry them.

Place 3-4 leaves in a cup of boiling water, steep a while and enjoy.  The tea has a delicate, naturally sweet taste, so I often drink it without sweetener.

Carrizo is a kind of reed traditionally grown in rows  to serve as windbreaks.  Carisso increases oxygen in the air.

Those big, gaudy Canna lilies that probably grew in your grandmother’s garden are native to South America, supposedly cultivated in Peru for 4500 years. The leaves of canna, known as achira, (achera in Ecuador) are used for humitas (similar to corn tamales) or quimbolitos, the sweet version of humitas.  The leaves are wrapped around them and steamed.

The leaves are also used for making paper and as a jute substitute. They repel insects when burned. The seeds make a purple dye and the plants are good for removing contaminants from wetland  soil.

Canna achira is the term used in South America for cannas that have been bred for agricultural use.  The starchy roots leaves and seeds are used for food. Achira was once a staple crop in Ecuador.

Parteras, or birth mothers (mid-wives), heat about 30 leaves in a bath with natural oils to calm menstrual cramps or to relieve abdominal pains during childbirth.

The canna growing in the ethnobotanical garden has flowers in several colors. What I mistook as an ornamental plant, I now know to be an important staple for many areas of life in Ecuador.

The cultivation of Quinoa, the most important crop of the Incas, is being lost in Cotacachi.  This wonderfully healthy plant (it’s not really a grain, grass or cereal but is really related to beets and spinach) is rich in iron, vitamins, minerals, calcium.

In the ethnobotanical garden it has a prominent place to grow.

Native to the Andes where it has been grown for 6000 years, it is considered a holy plant.  It grown well in high altitudes and requires little care. Even the leaves can be eaten, but they are not readily available. It loses out as a cash crop to grains such as wheat, barley and rice.

Amaranth is gorgeous, with its feathery stalks and many colorful shades. It was an Aztec staple and eaten ceremoniously, so the Spanish conquistadors forbade its cultivation.

Not really a grain, it is an annual herb related to pigweed or lambs’quarters and  the red, furry cockscomb, another flower from my grandmother’s garden. It is easy to grow, high in protein, with  3 times more fiber than wheat.

Miso (Mirabilis expansa), which is not the same as miso used in Japanese soup, regenerates intestinal flora when the leaves and stems are eaten.  The juice lessens the effects of drugs, alcohol and tobacco. 

It is on the verge of extinction in Ecuador's Andean region, but it may be prevalent in other Andean regions. It is native to the South American Andes.

Jicama, also known as yacon in Ecuador, earth apple in other countries, is an edible tuber. Jicama in Ecuador is quite different from jicama I've had in Mexico or the U. S., with a yellower, sweeter, more juicy flesh.

The plant has huge leaves and small orange flowers.  Its delightful crispy taste is similar to apple, raw potato or pear. It is about 90% water and high in carbohydrates.

Belladonna, Angel's trumpet, floating trumpet, floripondio are all names for that elegant but deadly flower that smells so intoxicating at night.  But watch out, chewing it can result in paralysis or even death.  

Plant it around the edges of your garden to prevent plagues.  It is a hallucinogenic used in shamanic rituals.  The hallucinogenic part is the green bulb of the flower.

If you visit the ethnobotanical garden, steer clear of the Angel's trumpet if you have children with you. The flowers are enticing but the plant can be deadly.

Agave, or Blue Penco, is a large succulent with very large leaves used at celebrations such as weddings, christenings. It is made into a traditional fermented liquor that locals call, "Charwarmishki" which means, "sweet liquor."

It comes from Mexico but has spread throughout South America. It is related to the lily and amaryllis family.

Zapallo is a large squash-like pumpkin that is a delicious vegetable for soups.  It also makes a sweet paste or can be sweetened with panella, (cane sugar) for a sticky-sweet dessert.

Uvilla, (Spanish for ‘little grape’) also known as cape gooseberry, ground cherry or Inca berry, is native to the Andes, with more vitamin C than a whole orange.  The plant has large fuzzy leaves and yellow or orange flowers.

Related to the tomato and tomatillo, it is a small round bright yellow-orange waxy fruit with a tart taste.  The thin, papery dry covering is peeled off before eating. In the ethnobotanical garden, the ulillas grow on bushes.

Uvilla purifies the blood and fortifies the optic nerve

Babaco is also native to Ecuador. It is a hybrid related to and resembling a papaya, with a yellow and green skin. The fruit is eaten raw or juiced and tastes similar to a kiwi.

Chihualcan (Carica spp.) is like babaco but with smaller fruits that grow in clumps.  An Ecuador native.

Taxo is called banana passionfruit in English and is a genus of passion flower or passiflora.  It is a vine that is native to the Andes and found throughout South America.

In the ethnobotanical garden the fruited vines of taxo hangs enticingly from arbors.  The yellow-skinned fruit is long like a banana and is made into juice, usually with sugar added because the fruit is sour.

Despite it's tartness and seediness, many people like to eat it raw, seeds and all.

Taxo has anxiety-relieving properties.

Chinchin – nitrogen fixer tree with small yellow flowers.

Horsetail reed – kids make small flutes from it.  My son Scott says it’s high in silica and can be cut up and boiled for a good tea.

These are only a portion of the many valuable and exotic plants in UNORCAC's Ethnobiotanical Garden.

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