13 Amazing Discoveries to Come Out of the Amazon Rainforest
It's home to 40,000 classified plant species—some of which are known cures for the things that ail us.
Maranham Jaborandi (Pilocarpus microphyllus)
This rainforest understory shrub is used medicinally to treat glaucoma, thanks to an alkaloid in its leaves called pilocarpine that “stimulates the secretions of the respiratory tract, the salivary, lachrymal, gastric and other glands, weakens the heart action, [and] accelerates the pulse rate,” according to a paper put out by researchers at Purdue University—and, most vitally, can relieve pressure in the eye.
Ipecac (Psychotria ipecacuanha)
A shrubby herb that produces a compound in its roots called ematin that’s an emetic—meaning, it makes you vomit. It’s been used for decades to treat a variety of ailments, including gastrointestinal diseases, diarrhea, and intermittent fevers. “It is [also] employed as an expectorant, in bronchitis, bronchopneumonia, asthma, and mumps,” according to Purdue.
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Quinine (Cinchona pubescens)
You love it in your gin and tonic. But there’s real power in the bitter flavouring that comes from the bark of this fast-growing evergreen tree that proliferates in the Amazon: it can both prevent and treat malaria—a feat that was first recorded by Europeans in the 17th century—although it was already known to the indigenous Amazonian Quechua. So prized was the quinine tree that it was eventually cultivated in plantations, according to The Centre for Agriculture and Bioscience International (CABI).
Pareira (Chondrodendron tomentosum)
Pareira is a woody climbing vine that snakes its way some 90 feet into the rainforest canopy. But it’s probably best known by indigenous tribes for a compound from its bark that makes curare. This powerful muscle relaxant has been used as a blow-dart poison to immobilize victims; and, since the 1940s, as a muscle relaxant and surgical anesthesia, according to the New York Public Library.
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Cocoa Tree (Theobroma cacao)
Is cocoa, the plant that gives us chocolate, really a medicinal drug? Depends on whom you ask. Cocoa, which Rainforest Alliance writes probably originated in the Amazon’s lowlands, has been used as food for humans since around 600 B.C. But various studies have shown that it can lower your risk for heart disease, improve cognitive function, and make you happier. Good enough for us!
Cat’s Claw (Uncaria tomentosa)
This vine, so-named for its claw-shaped thorns, has bark that’s been used by native peoples in Brazil to treat arthritis—in fact, it’s even given out free of charge by the Brazilian Public Health System, according to a paper published in 2017 in the journal Genetics and Molecular Research. It’s been found by researchers to ease arthritis pain, as well as improve the quality of life and the recovery of those undergoing chemotherapy.
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Achiote (Bixa orellana)
This red-flowered shrub with spiky red fruits, which is also the source of the all-natural red colouring agent annatto, has “long been used by Amazonian indigenous groups for ritual body painting, sunscreen, insect repellent and more,” reports the Telegraph. It’s also a natural source of vitamin E—it’s boiled leaves are used to reduce fevers and it’s used as a spice in cooking.
Tayuya (Cayaponia tayuya)
Many people living in the Amazon depend on the rainforest for a whole host of indigenous cures—some of which have been tested by traditional researchers, some of which have not, a research paper published by Oxford University Press points out. One important curative comes from this vine, which is taken by indigenous people to remove toxins from the blood but which has also been shown, at least preliminarily, to contain extractable flavonoids that have anti-inflammatory properties.
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Ayahuasco (Banisteriopsis caapi)
When the stems of this vine are brewed together with the leaves of the chacruna plant (Psychotria viridis), you get a hallucinogenic brew called ayahuasca, used by indigenous peoples in religious ceremonies. But, as a 2016 study in Frontiers in Pharmacology discusses, it’s also been shown to have medicinal uses, most impactfully in the treatment of drug dependency and potentially PTSD—although there are quite a number of side effects associated with it, such as nausea and elevated blood pressure.
Cordoncillo (Piper aduncum)
Also known as spiked pepper, this large-leafed flowering plant can be used as an anesthetic. According to the Telegraph, its leaves have a numbing effect, which is useful for dulling the pain of wounds. Its traditional uses include “disinfecting wounds, treating respiratory illnesses, stopping hemorrhages, and treating gallstones.”
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Sangre de Grado (Croton lechleri)
From the Peruvian side of the Amazon, this tree oozes a bright red resin that is known as “dragon’s blood.” The resin is used to close up wounds, ease the itching of insect bites, and in skin-care products. It can also be brewed into a tea that cures ulcers, tumours, diarrhea, hemorrhages, and other internal ailments. Not only that, but it’s also been used for birth control, according to the Rainforest Conservation Fund.
Pãu d’arco (Tabebuia)
Derived from several species of tree in the Tabebuia genus, pãu d’arco has been found by native peoples and, subsequently, Western researchers, to have a variety of uses, like inhibiting the growth of bacteria and fungi—useful in treating a host of skin diseases, dangerous MRSA infections, and the H. pylori bacterium.
Guaraná (Paullinia cupana)
This rainforest vine originally domesticated for its caffeinated fruits that’s now a “key ingredient in various ‘sports’ and energy drinks as well as concoctions that allegedly boost one’s libido” has been used for centuries to reduce fevers, cure headaches, reduce hunger, treat migraines, and act as a diuretic, write researchers Nigel Smith and André Luiz Antroch in their paper in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. The disappearance of all these amazing plants is only one of the things that could happen if the Amazon rainforest disappeared.