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Untapped Resources in Plants – How Many are Out There?

While staying at the Reserva Amazónica Lodge on the Madre de Dios River, several people in our tour group were able to experience a "fun" aspect of a native plant – a natural pigment dye that is often used for temporary tattoos from the huito fruit (Genipa americana). The juice of the immature fruit is clear, but when it comes into contact with human skin, a chemical reaction takes place and a dark blue tattoo results. In fact, at a 2003 cosmetics trade fair in Paris, huito was introduced as a black colorant from the Peruvian company, Ecopro.

But while there may never be a double-blind, placebo, controlled trial conducted on huito, the fruit does have many therapeutic uses in the Peruvian Amazon. When green, the fruit is wrapped in banana leaves, toasted over a fire and applied to the skin. While this dyes the skin a nice dark color, it also helps repel mosquitoes. A brewed tea from the fruit is taken as a bronchitis remedy and is also good for coughs and sore throats. Dr. Jim Duke says that the ripe fruit is used to treat arthritis when taken with aguardiente (sugar can rum). Don Antonio, the Amazonian shaman who accompanied us, claims that the strained fruit juice is good for uterine cancer. Other inner parts of the fruit are used to help pull rotten teeth. In Brazil, the fruit juice is used to treat jaundice; and in the Caribbean, it is used to treat tumors, anemia, diarrhea, and gonorrhea. Juice from the unripened fruit is a treatment for stomach ulcers. The seeds of the fruit can be used as a rapid emetic.

The huito tree grows very quickly producing fruit within three years and will even grow in heavily flooded fields. Besides the aforementioned ethnomedicinal properties, the fruit is eaten raw or made into a dessert with brown sugar and aguardiente. The fruit can be fermented into a liquor known as guacamote and made into a jam. The dye is not only used for skin, but also for dying clothes. The wood is good for carving. Because the tree and its fruit are so easily grown and multifunctional, the potential as a crop has many possibilities. I know these questions have been asked before on numerous occasions, but if this is just one example of a plant with multiple medicinal uses, how many more are out there and what needs to be done to facilitate the exploration, confirmation, and production of these natural, renewable resources?

Lori Glenn, Coordinator