Medicinal Plants in Belize

Long before modern medical practitioners developed laboratory drugs, our forefathers and foremothers, all over the world depended on herbs and weeds for their health. They used combination of the herbs and prayers to treat both the physical and spiritual ailments of their people. The pristine rainforests of Belize contain thousands of trees, plants, roots, vines and fruits that have been used traditionally for medicinal purposes. Some of these traditional medicines have been scientifically proven to even more effective than the synthetic medicines sold in pharmacies. Modern medical practitioners, however, do not want people to use the traditional medicine because they are afraid of incurring huge losses in factory drugs due to the expensive manufacturing process undergone. They thus end up promoting the use of synthetic medicine. However, traditional medicine provides a genuine source of alternative medicine with equally good results or even much better than the synthetic medicine. It is believed that over 25% of commercial medicines globally originate from chemicals based on plants from tropical rainforests. This research paper provides an insight to alternative medicine with specific emphasis on the Belizean bitters, which comprise of medicinal plants and trees found within the Belize forest.

Scientific communities originating from the western world have developed new interest in the medicinal value of the tropical plants. For instance, the National Cancer Institute started the Belize Ethnobotany Project, which has sent 2,000 species back to the NCI for study pertaining their cancer fighting characteristics. In the year 1993 the Belizean government, understanding and appreciating of the tremendous value of these plants, reserved 6,000 acres of land for the Terra Nova Medicinal Plant Reserve. It is meant for transplanting the plants that are potentially valuable from the jungle in danger of development. Just as Maya did thousands of years ago, many Belizeans continue to use rainforest plants for medicinal functions. Discussed below are some of the medicinal plants found within the Belizean forest that are well-known for their alternative medicinal value. These plants are sometimes generally referred to as the Belizean bitters, because most of them have a bitter taste.


This plant is cultivated everywhere, although it is native to Africa. The inside of the leaves of this plant and the crystalline portion that lies alongside the leaf blade contain clear gel carrying aloi. This aloi has both medicinal and cosmetic value. The clear gel effectively heals wounds and burns, hurrying the healing process and minimizing the risk of infection. The brownish part having aloin shows strong laxative properties as well as controlling short-term constipation. Aloe has emollient and scar preventing properties making it ideal for cosmetics.

The Aloe vera juice and its extracts control several conditions of the human body. Scientist say that this juice accelerates wound healing, controls antiviral activities for herpes simplex 1 and 2, treats fluid burns and works as an anaesthetic for treating stings from insects in humans. Aloe is currently one of the best known plants that is used in alternative medicine for a number of ailments and conditions.

Calabash Tree

When roasted, the fruit of the calabash tree provides sound treatment to menstrual cramps or induce childbirth. The leaves of this tree are used in tea to treat colds, headaches, diarrhoea and dysentery.
Research has revealed that the seeds of the calabash tree are effective when used as an abortive and the fruit pulp is used to force menses, birth and after delivery. However, this plant is not recommended for use by pregnant women.

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Ginger Root

Chinese Medicine has recommended the use of ginger for over 2000 years to treat a number of health problems. The immigration of the Chinese into Belize has necessitated the cultivating the ginger root there. This root is well-known to solve health problems associated with nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, motion sickness and indigestion.
Ginger provides similar effectiveness for motion sickness relief just like the prescription and non-prescription drugs. Ginger root is also taken to loosen phlegm, relieve tooth ache, relieve gas, headaches, sore throats, ulcerative colitis, some varieties of menstrual pain, fevers and aches occasioned by colds and flu as well as arthritis pain.

Gumbo Limbo (Kamalamee)

It is a large tree characterised by the red shaggy bark, which peels off in paper thin stripes. This is a common tree in the Belize forest and its bark is a well-known tropical remedy. These strips of bark are usually boiled in water and then used externally for sore skin, insect bites and stings, measles, sun burns, and rashes. Alternatively, it is drunk as a tea to treat headaches, colds, flu, fever and urinary tract conditions (Bridgewater, 2022).

This tree is a family member of the oldest medical plants of the world, the frankincense and myrrh. Apart from medicinal value, the Gumbo Limbo’s very soft and light wood is used for toy airplanes and boats, assuming the name “balsa wood” when used in this form. This tree is also called the Sunburn Tourists Tree because tourists are burned and peel just like the red peeling bark of this tree and it provides the remedy for this condition.

Jackass Bitters

This plant has garnered respect and has been widely used in the Central American traditional medicine. Its yellow flowers and bitter tasting leaves contain sesquiterpene dialdehyde, a powerful ant parasitic agent. This substance is active in fighting amoeba, Candida, giardia and other parasites of the intestines. This herb is taken internally as a tea or wine or used externally to wash wounds and other infections. In other scenarios, it is used as a hair wash to do away with lice. Jackass Bitters is thus one of the respected and widely used types of plants used in alternative medicine.

Lemon Grass

Lemon grass originated from Sri Lanka and South India but currently it is widely grown and cultivated in tropical regions of America and Asia. This grass is used in alternative medicine to treat different conditions. Lemon grass oil is used as a culinary flavouring, as medicine and as a scent. This grass is taken as tea to address digestive problems, stomach ache and diarrhoea. It relaxes stomach muscles and oesophagus, reduces cramping pain and flatulence and is particularly recommended for children.

In Belize, this grass is considered to be particularly effective in reducing fever. Usually, people apply it externally as a diluted essential oil or as a poultice to alleviate pain and arthritis.

Snake Plant (Sansevieria trifasciata)

It is very difficult to get rid of this plant once it starts growing. This characteristic gave it its name of “Mother in Law’s Tongue” in Bahamas. This plant has no stem and the colour pattern resembles that of the snake’s skin. This plant is used as a medicine for snake bites. The leaves of this plant are boiled in water and then one can bathe in this water to get rid of rashes and skin sores. The juice extracted from the leaves of this plant is added to water and given to chicken to prevent a number of diseases (AmbergrisCaye Forum, 2018).

Soursop / Guyabano (Annona muricata Linnaeus)

Soursop has attracted interest from scientists all over the world with its cancer treating properties. Tea made from soursop leaves is taken to alleviate fever or at times the leaves are added to bathing water. The tea is also taken as a wet compress on feet that are swollen and on other inflammations. A person with skin eruptions can crush the leaves and apply to the skin as well. A poultice made from young leaves and applied to the skin reduces rheumatism and other skin infections such as eczema. One can drink the juice of the fruit as a remedy for haematuria, urethriris and liver complications.

In addition, a thick tea of soursop leaves is used to kill bedbugs and lice in human hair. Pulverizing soursop seeds can be mixed with soap and water and used as a powerful spray for armyworms, leafhoppers and caterpillars on plants.

The Graviola tree

Graviola, the tree that contains soursop, is called a natural cancer cell killer in Brazil, 10, 000 times stronger than chemo. Though effective in a number of ways, the anti-tumour effect of this plant is of special interest.

Research on this tree reveals that soursop has a potential to:

  • Attack cancer in a safe and effective manner with an all-natural therapy without causing nausea, hair loss and weight loss
  • Protect immune system and prevent adverse infections
  • Make a person feel healthier and stronger during medication
  • Boost ones energy and improve their outlook

Research from one of the America’s leading drug manufacturer shows that in over 20 laboratory tests, the extracts from Graviola plant were able to:

  • Effectively target and kill malignant cells in 12 types of cancer (colon, breast, lung, prostate and cancer of the pancreas)
  • Tree compounds proved 10, 000 times stronger in reducing the growth rate of cancer cells than Adriamycin, a common chemotherapeutic drug
  • Select and kill cancerous cells without interfering with the healthy cells as during the common treatment with chemotherapy (Consejo belize, 2018)

The Graviola tree has numerous medicinal uses as an alternative medicine. What makes it even more interesting is that this tree occurs naturally and thus no one has permission to patent it. It is advised that everyone has at least one plant of this tree at home for its immense value in the field of medicine.

Wild Yam (Dioscorea villosa)

For several years, women in Mexico have been using the wild yam for birth control. Research has also revealed that the tuber of Dioscorea (wild yam) contains steroids that were developed and are also used in the manufacture birth control pills.

Wild yam finds wide use for alleviating menstrual cramps and discomfort, stomach cramps and pains caused by gallstones, rheumatoid arthritis. Wild yam, therefore, is another example of Belizean bitter that is widely used as an alternative medicine.

St. John’s Wort (Hypericum Species)

The Belizean St John’s Wort is dominant in the savannah areas and common at the Belize Zoo. This plant can grow in dry and disturbed soil and it is well-known for growing quickly and surviving savannah fires. Scientific research proves that specific species of this plant are effective antidepressants during treatment of mild and moderate depression. This herb therefore also effectively acts as an alternative medicine.

From the examples given above, it is clear that Belizean bitters have found tremendous use in the medicinal field. These plants provide alternative medicine to treating various ailments as discussed above. Unlike the manufactured drugs, these traditional drugs have the advantage of occurring naturally, hence are obtained freely. In addition, the use of these medicines is not linked to any side effects that may result later. It is worth saying that the tropical forests provide a superb alternative to manufactured medicines at no cost. Present day scientists and medical practitioners need to educate and encourage people on the importance and use of these plants.

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