The medicinal plants of the Huetar indigenous culture in Quitirrise, Costa Rica

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How many of us have taken time in our life to stop and contemplate a sunset or the simple, astounding beauty of a flower at our side. With this compilation of information about the medicinal plants used by the Huetar indigenous people, a culture that has been here in our territory for ages, we can come to appreciate the living and non-living world that surrounds us. Thanks to the spiritual teachings about the significance of medicinal plans and the beings that contribute to our physical, mental, and spiritual equilibrium our tangible and in-tangible connection becomes evident.

The importance of understanding the plants that surround us can be summarized as follows: More than 90% of the calories consumed by humans around the world come from 80 species of plants; about 4.5 billion people (80% of the world population) still use plants as their primary source of medicine; about 30% of the pharmaceutical products on the market have been developed from plants and animals (Carrillo 2003).

The cultural importance of medicinal plants is not part of the economic vision of the large pharmaceutical companies. If the conservation effort also ignores the traditional knowledge of indigenous cultures, we may manage to save our last virgin rainforests, but we would lose the valuable information about the resources protected within the forests, information that could help humanity in the fight against current and future diseases.

This document will introduce the reader, very simply, to the world of the Huetar culture in Quitirrisi, including aspects of its indigenous people’s cosmo-vision of the world that surrounds them and the balance maintained with everything that nature provides. The reader will be able to understand: the concept of a medicinal plant, the way it should be collected, the optimum times for its collection, how it should be dried, how it should be prepared, the way it should be planted, the concept of an illness, the role of numbers in the indigenous culture and their relation to healing, the curative powers of animals and insects, the Huetar’s concept of animals and insects, which animals are used in healing, the role of stones and clay in the Huetar traditional medicine, and, primarily, the reader will be able to visualize and learn about the curative properties of 45 different plant species which are distributed throughout 30 plant families.

What are medicinal plants in the Huetar Culture?

They are allies to humanity because they sacrifice themselves for the well being of men, women, children and animals.

According to Huetar indigenous belief, plants are divided into five major groups: curative medicinal plants, preventative medicinal plants, aromatic plants, edible plants, and toxic plants.

Collection Methods for the Medicinal Plants

In the indigenous culture, respect for other living beings is very much a part of their way of thinking and spiritual life. Plants have an important role in their daily life, because it is from plants that Huetar people obtain a wide variety of products. Plants provide food, materials for traditional art and ceremonies, and medicines for physical and spiritual healing.

Throughout the processes of collection, planting, and harvesting of a plant, a series of rules are followed in order to guarantee the physical and spiritual well being of the plant, which is being taken to satisfy different human needs.

There are a various ways to collect plants in order to get more of the curative substances found in the plants. It’s important to consider the solar and lunar cycles, as well as the time of day that the plant is collected.

Time of day plays an important role in the use of medicinal plants for the Huetar people. There are some plants that should be collected at night, others that should be collected in the mornings, and still others that are collected in the afternoon. It depends on the property of the plant that will be used for healing.

It’s important to emphasize the importance of the lunar phases in relation to medicinal substances and their use. According to the movements of the moon, plants store more or less medicinal substances in their tissues. Plants must be collected at the appropriate time in order to effectively treat health problems.

When curing the body internally, the medicinal plants should be collected during the waning quarter moon. Plants for external use should be collected during the new moon. Plants used to treat hair and eyesight are collected during the waxing quarter moon. Plants that treat intestinal parasites should be collects during the full moon. And, when treating animals with external parasites, not only should the plants be collected during the full moon, but the medicine should be applied the same day.

The cardinal directions of North, South, East, and West are also taken into account. Plants should be collected from the north, because north represents the earth and plants. Plants that are collected from the north should also be planted on the north side of one’s home so that they will develop better. The south represents stone; the east represents fire; and the west represents water.

The Four Parts of a Day and Their Importance for Plant Collection

For the Huetar people, the day consists of four different times of day. The time of day is an important factor when collecting plants for medicinal use.

- Night is from 6:00 pm until 12:00 midnight.

The Huetar respect the night. In order to go our to do any kind of work during this time of day, a person should ask permission. The night is majestic and full of wisdom, because it brings the light, that the day cannot give, to the nocturnal animals. Also, the night gives sweet smells to flowers that the day can not give. It is during the night that the Shaman holds traditional ceremonies.

- Dawn is from 12:00 midnight until 6:00 am.

It’s during this time that the mind is organizing ideas about work for the day to come. This is a passive time, when the nocturnal animals are looking for their XX. That’s why a Huetar doesn’t walk through the forest at this time, to avoid being attacked.

- Morning is from &:00 am until 12:00 noon

This is the time when the body is recharging and active, which makes the body consume food and water. This is when the body and all its organs are working the most.

- The Afternoon is from 12:00 noon until 6:00 pm

This is a time of pasive energy. It’s a good time to collect poisonous plants, because their toxins are more concentrated. At this time birds and animals are resting, so this is a good time for hunting.

Why is this important?

Plants have different energy states, depending on the time of day in which they are collected. Medicinal plants are collected throughout the whole day, but different plants are collected at different times of the day, depending on the plant and the illness to be treated. When healing a person, his or her birthday and time of birth should also be considered when the Shaman decides what time of day to collect and prepare the medicinal plants.

Asking the Plants for Permission

Plants, like other living creatures, have a spirit, emotions, and feelings that affect their physical and spiritual well being. Before taking part of a plant, or a sapling, the Shaman asks for permission and tells the plant how he is going to use what he takes. If he doesn’t do this, the mother plant will die. The Shaman goes through a prayer ritual in order to communicate with the plant. Once he gets the plant’s permission, he also receives the plant’s energy and curative properties.

Purifying and Blessing Plants with Fire and Water

Once the permission is gained and part of the plant is taken, the Shaman continues by blessing the plants, which consists of purifying the parts of the plant that are going to be used to treat a physical or spiritual illness (leaves, flowers, roots, stem...). He puts the selected parts of the plants in a pot of water which is heated by a fire of aromatic woods, such as, ceder (Cedrela odorata), tubus and quitirri. The plants are taken in his hands and he offers a prayer.

Lord creator and shaper, you who created the earth and in it formed the plants, today I come to offer plants in your name so that you may heal the body of the child, woman, and man.<u>Don Juan Sanchez, 22-7-03

The spiritual element in the process of purifying the plants is important. The person doing the ceremony, the Shaman, offers part of his own spirit so that the plant will be able to treat the illness effectively.

Purifying Plants by Burial

Some plants, due to their medicinal characteristics, need to go through a burial process in order to extract the healing properties. For this process, the Shaman places a handful of the medicinal plant in a hole lined with other large leaves so that the medicinal plants aren’t in contact with the soil. The medicinal plants are covered by more leaves and then the holeis filled in. The next day, a liquid released from the medicinal plant is found in the bottom of the hole. This liquid is collected as the medicine. This process is primarily used to extract healing liquids for children.

Drying the Plants

Once the plants have been collected in the correct moon phase and at the right time of day, the Shaman has communicated with and gained permission from the plants, and he has conducted the appropriate purifying ceremony, the plants should then be preserved for future use. They are dried.

The plants are simply set out during the day to dry in the shade; they cannot be dried in direct sunlight. Then, the plants are left out one night to be covered with dew. This process helps the plant resist mold and mildew during storage.

Preservation and storage of the plants is particularly important because many of the medicinal plants are becoming more difficult to find. Plants that used to be found nearby, are now only found by walking far into the forest surrounding the reservation.

Three Laws of Spiritual Healing with Plants

In Huetar traditional herbal medicine, there are three basic laws to be followed. If a person doesn’t know these laws, he or she doesn’t know the spiritual importance of plants in the healing process.

The Law of Similar Form

According to this law, plants present physical characteristics similar in form to our body’s organs. The shaman, Don Juan, says that each of our organs is represented somewhere in the plant kingdom. For example, the plant named Diug has a physical structure similar to the shape of the liver, and so it is used to treat liver problems.

The Law of Equality

This law says that all plants have medicinal properties, and that no plant is more powerful than another. They are all equal.

The Law of Due Reward

According to this law, all our actions toward plants and animals will be returned to us in due form.

Cultivating the Plants

For the Huetar people, there are three ways plants can be cultivated.

1) Some are planted by The Creator

These are the plants that grow in an area after it has been cleared down to bare soil. Everything that grows in that area in the following few month is considered to be sacred and pure because it was planted by the hand of The Creator.

2) Some are planted by animals

These plants are dispersed by animals by way of their bodies and excrement. 3) Some are planted by humans

These are the plants that have been manipulated by human hands.

The most affective plants are those that are planted by The Creator. Those that are planted by human hands are considered to be less effective due to the presence of impure energy transmitted through humans.


What is an illness?

Illnesses are caused by a spirit that alters our body in different ways. For example, if someone comes across a rotting carcass, the spirit from that carcass penetrates the person’s body and makes him or her vomit.

Human beings are affected by two forms of illnesses: physical and spiritual. Physical problems are treatable with roots, leaves, stems, flowers, and oils from both plants and animals. Spiritual problems, however, are more complex and require a process of ceremonial rituals, songs and dances in order to cleans and purify the soul. These healing processes draw upon the natural elements that surround the mind and body, elements such as, fire, water, earth, and sacrificed animals.

Illnesses may also be caused by the presence of impurities that have accumulated in the body. These waste products that, for some reason, our body is not able to expel, can cause and internal imbalance. Don Juan Rivera says that it’s the spleen that collects these wastes and produces sweat to carry the impurities out of the body. If the body can’t sweat out the impurities on its own, then a plant called ‘salubre’ can be used to induce sweating. A sweatlodge, called a tapescal, is also used to purify the body. Alternatively, different plants can be used to induce vomiting to expel the impurities.

A tapescal (Sweatlodge)

For both physical and spiritual problems, different energies influence the healing process. There are varying degrees of both good and bad energies. These energies can unite to cause illnesses that makes a person reflect upon his or her life. Through the process, brought on by both positive and negative energies, the person addresses his inner problems and is able to heal his or her spirit.

Which humans are susceptible to illnesses?

All humans are born sick to some degree, because humans are born in two ways, from love and from sex. When a child is born from love, he or she enjoys better health, wisdom, and high spirits, but a child conceived by sex with out love, has more problems which should be treated by the Shaman in order to calm his or her spirit.

Numbers in Huetar indigenous medicine

Numbers are immersed in our daily lives and in our traditional medicine. Numbers play an important role in the process of healing with medicinal plants. There are five principle numbers for healing.

The number 13

Thirteen is one of the most important numbers because it represents the main thirteen points of the body. There are six parts on the left side of the body, six on the right side, and one for the head. The fundamental parts of the body are: the ankles, knees, hips, elbows, shoulders, wrists, and the head.

How are these points for healing? Energy passes through these points in our body and each point can be opened or closed. For example, if we have a problem in our arm, pressure should be applied to the wrist and elbow so that these points will close, thus stopping the flow of energy from the arm. Then the Shaman can properly treat the affected part of the arm; for stomach problems the points on the hips are closed. When back problems occur, the point for the head is closed. The body has two energies, the passive energy in the left hand and the positive energy in the right hand. These energies make contact in the morning when we wake up and start our daily activites.

The number 7

This number represents the days of the week, and each day of the week represents the possibility of new human births. The day of the week on which a person is born is the best day for a person to be treated for an illness.

The number 28

This number represents the number of days in the lunar month.

The number 5

An illness in a family can be passed on to the next generation; it may be passed on for five generations.

The number 3

Three represents the trinity of birth, life, and death.

Monday 28/7/3, A Lunar Day for the White God “Jakatagua”.

The Curative Powers of Animals and Insects in the Traditional Medicine of the Huetar People

What do insects and animals represent for the Huetar people?

They are beings that have greater wisdom than humans. They perceive and communicate with God in a way that allows them to see and feel the things around them. They have a unique and heightened spiritual connection. Animals and insects represent a school from which humans can learn.

How are animals and insects employed in their traditional medicine?

These beings have substances and energies in their bodies that help cure and prevent illnesses, both physical and spiritual illnesses. Animals and insects play an important role in ceremonies as well.

Almost all animals have important healing properties, but there are some animals that are more important than others, due to the ease at which they can be obtained.


This animal, for the indigenous society, represents everything, and according to Don Juan Sanchez, it should be made the national bird for indigenous people.

It is used in daily life for meat and eggs, and its body and feathers are used in ceremonies.

For example, the feathers are used in ceremonies to transport messages to the supreme beings. The feathers are thrown into the air as prayers are said. The body is considered to be an element of purification when the body is sacrificed. As the dying animal flaps its wings, the Shaman, holding it by the feet, passes the bird over and around the body of the person he is healing in order to initiate the cleansing process. Additionally, the eggs play an important role in the detection of illnesses.

Don Juan also mentioned a tradition that the non-indigenous people of the central valley have with eggs. On June 24th some people put an egg in a glass of water overnight, and the next day they can look at the egg and read what the year to come has to offer.

Some other parts of the chicken are also symbolic. For example, chicken feet are used in the ceremony that promotes good business decisions, because chickens use their feet to dig through the litter looking for food. They leave trash and useless material behind as they discover and utilize the good material.

One type of hen, in particular, is used for different medicinal purposes. This dark hen is called Lempa. Lard from this hen, called Indundia, is used to treat fevers and asthma, to reduce inflammation where babies lose their umbilical cords, and to help woman who have problems while giving birth.

Chicken’s social behavior is well observed by indigenous people, because chickens demonstrate a social spirituality with complex forms of communication that hold the social nucleus together. During the dry season, the wet season, and the different lunar phases, chickens demonstrate interesting behavior. During the waning crescent moon, chickens take roost at night in the lowest branches of trees, and during the waxing moon they move further up the tree to roost. It’s said they do this because they know in which lunar phase they are more likely to be preyed upon.

Chickens also help by telling time. During the day, they tell us when it’s 6 a.m. and 12 p.m., and at night they announce each hour from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. It’s also said that their crow keeps bad spirits away at night.

Chickens are considered to be communal breeders because, in addition to her own eggs, a hen will take care of eggs from ducks, turkeys, and Cornish hens. But for the Huetar, it’s better if she just cares for her own young. The Huetar also influence the sex of the chicks by conducting a ceremony related to lunar movements.


Cockroaches are considered to be an ancient insect, adapted throughout all ages. They are used to treat epilepsy and asthma. Ten cockroaches are steeped in boiling water for five minutes. Then, the water is consumed. Thereafter, a teaspoon is taken in the mornings before eating, and at night before bed.


Of the many species of ants, the Huetar use two species to treat lung problems. Handfuls of the ants are boiled and passed through a sieve; half a cup of the liquid is drunk three times per day.

Ants' Nest

The Ants in the Cecropia Trees

This ant specie, that lives throughout the core of the cecropia tree, is used to treat asthma. Part of the nest is boiled in three liters of water, which is passed through a sieve. Half a cup is drunk in the mornings before eating.

Cornizuelo Ants

These ants are used to treat pain and herpes. The water boiled with the ants is drunk one or two times per day.


Wasps also play an important role in curing illnesses. For example, the white winged wasps that make nests in Laurel trees are used to treat fevers. It’s the vemom that’s used; a person is allowed to be stung by the wasp.

Wasps' Nest

Mud builder wasps are characterized by building tunnels from a mixture of mud and saliva. These tunnels can be ground, and the powder used to heal burns and treat fungus problems.

The Jogoto

This is a white, C-shaped beetle larva. There are two types, those found in soil and those found in wood. A black secretion, removed from the posterior end of the larva is used externally to treat mumps. The secretion jogoto that lives in wood is also used for skin problems.


The Huetar recognize two types of armadillo: the yellow armadillo and the black one that they call zopilote, or the vulture armadillo. Lard from the armadillo is used externally to treat malaria and bronchitis. The black armadillo is used for skin problems, such as cracked skin. The meat of the yellow armadillo is consumed, but the black one is not eaten.

Armadillo Skins: left is the yellow armadillo, right is the zopilote armadillo.

The Chicken Possum

This marsupial is used for bronchial infections; the lard is rubbed in externally. The lard is ingested to relieve fevers.

The Bécquer Snake

The lard from this non-venomous snake is applied locally to treat skin ulcers.

A Bécquer Snake's Skin

River Crab

A yellow substance taken from under the river crab’s shell heals skin problems associated with the lips.

The role of stones and clay in traditional Huetar medicine

Traditional medicine incorporates the concept that all things that surround us are beings which contain energy. This energy, which can be used to heal, is available to people who understand it and know how to use it.

In these few pages we’ve seen many different natural elements the the Huetar people use to cure afflictions, and the role of stones and clay cannot go unmentioned because in them we can find new concepts of spirituality for our health.


The stone is a symbol of power because it represents water and the past, present, and future. In ceremonies, stones take on various meaning. For example, some stones called grandparent stones represent the ancestors. These stones are porous and are located by ritual. And stones called the children stones are used to see the future.

With respect to healing, stones are powerful agents against stomach cancer. The stones are placed in a glass of water for a day. Then the stones are rubbed together until they release a liquid, which is then drunk to treat problems associated with the stomach and the ovaries.

Stones of the Grandmothers and Grandfathers


The process for finding these stones should begin during the waxing crescent moon. A hole is dug along a river, ten kernels of purple corn are placed in the hole and left until the following new moon; returning to the hole, under each kernel, one should dig and find a sacred stone. Then the stones are heated in an intense fire until they glow red from the high temperatures. It’s at this point that the stones lose their own material and the spirits enter them.

A Healing Stone in Its Material Form

A Stone at the Beginning of the Spiritual Process

A Stone That Has Transformed From Its Material State to Its Spiritual State

More Healing with Stones

The chili peppers are used with the stones to treat migraines and head aches. A dried pepper is placed on a fire hot stone and the smoke released is inhaled, provoking sneezing, watery eyes, and a runny nose. Honey, instead of peppers, is used to treat asthma.

In a similar process aromatic herbs such as eucalyptus, or any other plant use for venereal problems, cancer or vaginal secretions, are heated over the stones. The patient stands over the smoke, allowing it to pass over his or her private parts.

Healing Stones with Eucalyptus Bark and Honey

Sacred Stones

Some sacred stones are passed down from generation to generation. These stones symbolize different abilities and knowledge of a healer, like diplomas or certificates. There are many different sacred stones: for killing the devil, for calling upon the creator, for stopping thunder, for stopping time, for stopping wind, for killing snakes, for overcoming enemies, for personal protection, etc. The name of the spirit in these stones is Jax. When a healer dies, his most sacred stone is placed in his mouth.


For the Huetar, there are two types of curative clays, white clay and black clay. The white clay is known as sour clay, and is used to remove the bitter flavor of some things, as well as to treat stomach cancer. A teaspoon of the dry clay is ground, passed through a sieve, and mixed in a glass of water to drink. The black clay, called blue earth, is used to treat stomach cancer and as a laxative. Another clay, red clay, has healing properties for the skin.

Red clay

Black clay

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