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Nature’s pharmacy: The remarkable plants of the Amazon rainforest – and what they may cure

The Amazon rainforest is the most abundant greenhouse on the planet with more than 80,000 plant species. It is also the world’s largest medicine cabinet, with around 25 per cent of all drugs used today derived from rainforest plants.

Most cruises offer the chance to take a jungle walk with a botanist or to meet a shaman (a medicine man or woman) to learn about the medicinal properties of plants used for centuries by Amazonian tribes to cure all sorts of ailments.

Here are 15 you may come across (though there are thousands more) so that you may impress fellow cruisers with your knowledge.

The Achiote

The Achiote plant’s spiky, red fruit and seeds have long been used by Amazonian indigenous groups for ritual body painting, sunscreen, insect repellent and more. The leaves are also boiled to treat fevers or heal wounds.


Ayahuasca has been administered as a tribal pick-me-up for many thousands of years. Recent scientific research suggests that it has the potential to reduce depression, anxiety and minor psychiatric symptoms.

Cat's claw

Cat’s claw attaches itself around tree trunks with tiny green thorns — hence its name. Amazonian people use its roots to cure everything from rheumatism and toothaches to cuts and bruises.

Cola de raton

Cola de raton (Rat’s tail) is the unlikely name of a plant used to help relieve indigestion. It is said to give relief to abdominal bloating, wind, acid reflux, diarrhoea and bronchitis. The root is also crushed and applied as a poultice to burns, bruises and smelly feet.


Cordoncillo is an anaesthetic. By chewing on the leaves, your mouth goes numb. Rub it on a wound for the same effect. The plant has a variety of other traditional uses, including disinfecting wounds, treating respiratory illnesses, stopping haemorrhages and treating gallstones.


Jaborandi is used by the Guarani people of Brazil to treat mouth ulcers, stave off colds and flu, and as a remedy against gonorrhoea and kidney stones.


Lapachois used in modern medicine to treat cancer, alleviate pain from chemotherapy and fight infection. Tawari tree bark also has anti-cancer properties, and is useful in treating infection, shrinking cancerous cells, tumours and inflammation. 70 per cent of plants with anti-cancer properties exist only in the Amazon, and these are just two of them.


Matico leaves are boiled and made into a tea by Amazon residents to ease muscle pain, sore throats, coughs and other common ailments.


Sodo is an aromatic plant that is alleged to cure an addiction to alcohol and cigarettes. So throw away those nicotine patches.


Canellila is often used to treat women with ovarian cysts and is also believed to be one of the medicinal plants that could increase the likelihood of conception.

Brazilian ginseng

Brazilian ginseng is an aphrodisiac, healing tonic, energiser and immune system enhancer.


Shapumvilla is reckoned to have coagulant properties that stop bleeding. Very convenient if you get any cuts while exploring the Amazon rainforest.


Curare has a poisonous bark which indigenous hunters have used for centuries as an arrow poison. In modern medicine, the alkaloid d-turbocuarine has been isolated from the deadly plant and used to treat multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease and other muscular disorders. But don’t meddle with it — curare poisoning can cause paralysis.

Sangre de Grado

Sangre de Grado comes from the tree croton lechleri. Cut the bark and a thick, red latex seeps out. Locals apply it to wounds to stem blood flow. In modern medicine, a chemical present in sangre de grado, SP-303, is used in the treatment of diarrhoea.


Quinine was the first effective medicine used to treat malaria. It was originally discovered by the Quechua tribe, who mixed the ground bark of cinchona trees with sweetened water to prevent shivering in cold weather, and the mix of bark and water became known as tonic. The bitter taste of antimalarial quinine tonic is what led British colonials to mix it with gin.

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