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Plants of Semillas Sagradas: An Ethnomedicinal Garden in Costa Rica

Plants of Semillas Sagradas: An Ethnomedicinal Garden in Costa Rica by Rafael Ocampo and Michael Balick. Costa Rica, SA: La Nueva Extractos; 2009. Paperback; 109 pages. ISBN–13: 978-0-615-27415-7. Free PDF copy available at

Having known and admired both authors of this book for several decades and the editor for at least half a decade, it is almost a conflict for me to review this very useful volume. I have also known and enjoyed Costa Rica for more than 50 years, longer than I have known the authors. I may therefore praise Costa Rica and the Semillas Sagradas (both a garden and a concept) more than the book’s deserving editors and authors to avoid apparent conflict of interest.

The wonderful garden Semillas Sagradas (“Sacred Seeds”), devoted to saving medicinal plant germplasm, is in a beautiful corner of North-Central Costa Rica. It is within eyeshot of the overwhelmingly striking Volcan Arenal, one of the 10 most active volcanoes in the world, and nestled in a pristine rainforest that so characterizes that country.

From a small piece of ground, the garden has continued to grow and now contains over 250 species and varieties of plants used locally and internationally in healing—both in traditional healing and pharmaceuticals. This guidebook tells the story of its development on an organic and biodynamic farm known as Luna Nueva, just north of La Tigra, in Alajuela province. Some 30 species are considered in this book, with details on synonyms, local names, description, history and traditional use, pharmacology and biological activity, toxicity, and conservation status and trade. Following each treatment, which includes beautiful color images of the plants, is a detailed bibliography, should the reader want to dig further into the properties of a specific herb.

Featured as one of the herbs in this volume is the tropical cilantro (Eryngium foetidum, Apiaceae), which smells just like the temperate coriander (Coriandrum sativum, Apiaceae). I well remember this herb from my early adventures in Central America—even I smelled of cilantro after a good chicken soup! It’s almost as essential as garlic (Allium sativum, Liliacaeae), at least in Latin American cuisine. E. foetidum is a weedy species, found in both forests and fields, happy to grow almost anywhere. But this species also has significant uses in local “Tico” (native Costa Rican) traditional medicine. A boiled leaf decoction is taken to lower cholesterol, help control stomach problems, and treat anemia. In Belize, the leaf tea is used to treat indigestion, and in Honduras, it is used to treat diarrhea. Topically applied leaf extracts exhibit anti-inflammatory activity in lab mice.

Another of the many interesting herbs in Semillas Sagradas is hierba lechera, or “milk herb” (Euphorbia lancifolia, Euphorbiaceae). Technically, it is a galactagogue—a plant that can stimulate milk production in animals and humans. It was clinically shown to increase milk production in post partum women by 62.8%. Known to local farmers as an herb that can help cattle produce more milk, it is another fascinating but underappreciated gift of this area from Mother Nature.

As this book is intended as a field guide to those fortunate enough to visit the garden, there are also magnificent images of the local fauna—such as colorful frogs, birds, insects, and the resident three-toed sloth that loves to feed on the cecropia trees (Cecropia spp., Cecropiaceae). Additionally, it’s good to see photographs of those Ticos who built Semillas Sagradas, smartly interweaving horticulture and design.

Working closely with Mother Nature, the founding fathers of the garden, Luna Nueva farm manager Steven Farrell and New Chapter CEO Thomas Newmark, note that “The Sacred Seed Sanctuary is dedicated to preserving both medicinal plant species and cultural memory. Think of the garden as a living encyclopedia of ethnobotany, growing larger everyday when grandmothers come and tell us how they, in their village, work with these healing botanicals.”

This book is said to be the first in a series about other sacred seed sanctuaries that are being established elsewhere in the world, and it is a most significant statement about the importance of local plants in Central American healing and health. Come to Luna Nueva to relax and learn from Semillas Sagradas.

—James A. Duke, PhDEconomic BotanistFulton, MD