Collecting Medicinal Herbs, With Denicia Carpio

woman collecting herbs

Denicia and her children don’t go to the pharmacy or the hospital anymore. The last time the Urubamba-born mother of four step foot in a hospital was in 2018 when her then-6-year-old daughter was showing signs of leukemia. The doctors suggested that the child stay at the hospital until they could find a cure, but Denicia followed her gut and swiftly brought her daughter back home for a nature-based treatment.

 “She was so weak. Her lips and nails were purple, she was very skinny,” recalls Denicia. “For one month I fed her guinea pig broth, goat milk and endless herbal teas and baths using what was in our garden. In that month alone she was able to completely rid her body of the sickness.”

Since her recovery, Denicia’s daughter has had blood work done and she no longer shows signs of leukemia. It’s just one of the many successful experiences that Denicia has had while working with plants to heal, a reassurance of this time-tested and traditional medicine that was handed down to her by her mother.

We walk past the front door of her home and a large garden suddenly comes into view. The cross-bearing Tantanmarka Mountain guards the entire length of the garden where Denicia’s natural first-aid kit thrives along the border of a seasonal crop field.

A bit shy at first, our host kicks off the tour of medicinal herbs with a running start, the list of each plant’s properties rolling off her tongue as she pulls off leaves and stems. In the matter of a few steps we are met with ruda (rue), which can be passed over the body to ease nausea; paico for antiparasitic purposes; diente de león (dandelion), great for the liver; rocoto, whose leaves are anti-inflammatory, and prickly ortega (nettles), which can stimulate the immune system upon contact with the skin’s surface.

Soon enough, a bouquet of herbs and leaves has formed in her hands, many of which were not intentionally cultivated but rather sprung up from the fertile soil of this relatively remote area of Urubamba. A few are recognizable garden dwellers, while others, such as lengua de vaca and chupasangre, could easily be mistaken as weeds to the untrained eye.

“My mom would tell [my siblings and I] to gather herbs, and we’d run around, trying to be the first to find them,” she recalls. “Now that we’re older my siblings don’t put much importance on maintaining and sharing this knowledge of medicinal plants.”

We soon pass a laurel tree and, after plucking off a hefty handful and handing them over, Denicia notes that she uses them to make a daily tea for her mother. “We used to buy bottles of insulin for her, but we stopped when we finally saw an improvement with the laurel tea.”

As the head of her family, she tries to incorporate herbs into her daily cooking, using mainly those in the group of herbs that locals refer to as asnapa. This includes common cooking herbs such as oregano (to ease muscle aches and stomach pain), rosemary (for cough) and parsley (to regularize menstrual periods).

Denicia’s ability to recognize a tiny herb in a sea of green and remember its medicinal properties is mind-blowing, even more so when she insists that she’s never taken notes. “It’s all stored here,” she says with a grin, pointing to her head. The same memory game is played by her children, whom she is passing the plant knowledge down to. She’s aware of the importance of passing down traditional practices as the use of herbs for medicinal purposes, especially in younger generations, is slowly decreasing.

Even Denicia, who prior to the pandemic would regularly treat people at home using herbal remedies, has had to cut down the time she dedicates to such services. She currently works in housekeeping and reception in a local hotel near the center of Urubamba, and can only treat people on her rare days off.

As we make our way back to where we started, at the front door of her home, Denicia’s arms cradle a mosaic of plant cuttings. The small white flowers of Santa María (used to clear skin when brushed or rubbed over the face) dangle next to the slender stems of cola de caballo (the key ingredient to relieving urinary infections) and duraznillo (made into a tea for gut health). Admiring her collection, she notes that an occasional bath in water of mixed herbs will do the body good, especially when passing through a particularly traumatizing or life changing event, such as the loss of a family member or childbirth.

“Traditionally, when a woman has given birth, we’ll collect all the leaves we can find in the garden— from herbs to fruit trees, even the grass— and soak them in hot water. Then we add them to a fabric that can be wrapped around the woman’s waist. Leaving it on until the following day, she’ll be able to recuperate physically and feel far less pain.”

When asked if she has a spiritual relationship with her plants, she considers the question for a moment.

“Sometimes I’ll talk to the plants while I harvest some leaves or a sprig to make a tea or paste…I ask them to help my children, to heal them,” she says, giving a quick glance at her daughter who sits nearby. “And they’ve always helped me…I’m so thankful that we live in a place where these herbs grow and that I have the know-how to use them to the benefit of my family and whoever needs them.”

All photos: Erick Andia

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