The tropical island of Sri Lanka, a small country situated off the coast of India, is home to a large number of indigenous plants, many of which have been used medicinally by native healers since ancient times.It has been estimated that there are approximately 1,414 indigenous medicinal plants in Sri Lanka. This medicinal species richness is partly due to the diverse geographical zones found in the country, including rainforest, desert, monsoon scrub-jungle, and grassland.
Alternative medicine is one of the most prevalent types of medicine practiced in the country; plant-based medicines used by Sri Lankans include cayenne, cinnamon, and turmeric.
Cayenne (Capsicum frutescens)
A familiar sight in many countries, Sri Lanka included, are large areas covered with long red cayenne for sun drying. Usually, the powdered sun-dried fruit is used medicinally, or else the fresh fruit is cut into small pieces, added to oil, and left in the sun for several days to make a therapeutic oil used to treat sore muscles and stiff joints.
The active medicinal ingredient in cayenne, called capsaicin, is both highly volatile and highly concentrated. In fact, the average cayenne pepper contains between 0.1% to 0.5% capsaicin. Capsaicin is a powerful circulatory stimulant hence its usefulness in circulatory disorders.
If rubbed on rheumatic areas or on sore muscles, it encourages blood flow to the skin. Cayenne is also key for the digestive system; it stimulates poor appetite by increasing bile flow, and can also help control gas and diarrhea.
Cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum)
The scrolled cinnamon stick, commonly used in North America to spice apple cider at Christmastime, hardly looks reminiscent of the massive, flat, sand-coloured bark of the Sri Lankan cinnamon tree. However, when the thin outer bark of the cinnamon tree is gently scraped with a fingernail, the pungent aroma of ultra-fresh cinnamon is released.
Cinnamon is commonly harvested from young cinnamon trees propagated from cuttings. These young trees are cut back to the ground, and the outer bark is scraped off the harvested shoots. The remaining inner bark is removed, rolled by hand, fermented for a short period, then dried and used.
Cinnamons characteristic smell is derived from its high (65% to 75%) cinnamaldehyde content. Cinnamaldehyde gives cinnamon its analgesic (pain relieving) properties as well as its warming characteristics. Cinnamon is one of the main ingredients in a popular Sri Lankan chest rub for respiratory conditions.
In addition to these benefits, cinnamon is employed for patients with digestive problems, such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and poor digestion. Cinnamon oil is rubbed on the skin to soothe muscle pains.
Turmeric (Curcuma longa)
A relative of ginger, turmeric is a bright orangeish-yellow, which gives dried turmeric its characteristic colour. This colour is the result of the chemical curcumin contained in the rhizome. Since curcumin acts as an effective dyeing agent, turmeric rhizomes are often used as a yellow dye in Sri Lanka for clothes and other items. Typically, the turmeric rhizomes are harvested in the winter. Harvested rhizomes are then cut into small pieces, boiled, and then dried for future use.
Traditionally, Sri Lankans use powdered turmeric as a liver remedy, especially targeting conditions involving jaundice. Turmeric also increases bile flow. Additionally, it is used for curing digestive disorders like gastritis and excessive stomach acidity.
In addition, turmeric has been traditionally used in inflammatory conditions (including psoriasis and fungal infections). Current research confirms turmerics anti-inflammatory effects, due to its circumin content. It is considered to be more powerful than hydrocortisone. Additionally, circumin is highly antibacterial, and a more potent antioxidant than Vitamin E .
What you can do
We have seen how Sri Lankans prize the warming properties of cayenne, the analgesic and digestive stimulating effects of cinnamon, and the liver detoxification properties of turmeric. These tropical plants are truly a valuable resource in the medicinal plants world.
Katie Patrick, Naturopath