Rosita Arvigo has just one thing to say to doctors in this country: "You have forgotten your roots." And not only your roots, she adds, but also your leaves, twigs, flowers and stems. A native of Chicago, Arvigo has spent most of the past 10 years in the Central American jungles of Belize studying medicinal plants and traditional healing. She has been doing so under the tutelage of one of the last surviving Mayan medicine men, Elijio Panti, a 97-year-old healer who has instructed Arvigo in the use of rose petals to stop hemorrhages, wild yams to treat rheumatism, gumbolimbo tree bark for rashes, jackass bitters for parasites, and wormseed tea for flatulence and hangovers.
Arvigo, 52, was in Washington last week to celebrate publication of her book Sastun (HarperSanFrancisco, 1994), coauthored with local writer and artist Nadine Epstein. The book describes Arvigo's experiences as Don Elijio's sole student -- a '90s redux of Carlos Castaneda's famed apprenticeship with Don Juan three decades ago, but with the focus on healing instead of hallucination. During her brief visit in the District she talked about the untapped therapeutic potential of plants, the growing appreciation of traditional medicines by scientists and drug companies, and the need to preserve native ecosystems for their pharmaceutical potential. She also pointed out a handful of medicinal plants that grow in the Washington area. Her approach, of course, is at odds with that of most doctors in this country and should not be followed casually. "Self-medication with herbs can be an extremely dangerous activity," said Michael Balick, a specialist in medicinal plants at the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx and coauthor with Arvigo of "Rainforest Remedies: 100 Healing Herbs of Belize" (Lotus Press, Twin Lakes, Wisc., 1993). "Even traditional healers agree that many of the plants they use should be used only under the care of either a traditional practioner or a medical doctor." But with that caveat in mind, Arvigo said, during a stroll around the District's botanical garden, there is much North Americans could learn from their neighbors to the south, where traditional remedies are the rule instead of the countercultural exception. "In America, people feel they have to call the doctor for every ache, pain, hiccup and sneeze. But we should be treating common household illnesses with common household remedies. You don't need a cannonball to kill a fly." The solution is often close at hand, Arvigo said. "Plants and people evolved together, and if there's a disease in an area, there is likely to be a plant in the area to treat that disease. If someone tells me they have a problem, most of the time I can go in the backyard and find something that will help them. People are stepping over these remedies all the time." In an effort to protect such plants in the botanically rich country of Belize, Arvigo helped establish the Terra Nova Medicinal Plant Reserve. The 6,000-acre, old-growth tropical forest is the world's first sustainable medicinal plant preserve. Its vegetation is available to local healers, scientists and others wishing to harvest reasonable quantities. Here in Washington, medicinal plants can still be found by those with a trained eye, Arvigo said. But the local penchant for weed-free gardens and manicured lawns has left many neighborhoods with a somewhat anemic repertoire. "It's like gentrification, but with plants," she said, gazing over a uniform expanse of perfectly mowed lawns. "Now the only places medicinal plants are allowed to grow are in botanical gardens, which are like plant museums." Arvigo pointed to a begonia in bloom: "This is medicine," she said. The root, when eaten, is a muscle relaxer and a painkiller. When mashed into a wet poultice and applied to the dried and cracked skin of the foot, it moisturizes the callused tissues and promotes healing. So soppy is the begonia root, Arvigo said, that it has defied all her attempts to dry it for storage. "One day we put it on the hood of the car and drove 60 miles an hour in 110 degree heat and it just stayed a bag of globby goo. We could not dry that root." For a cold or flu, Arvigo recommends another local blossom: the dandelion, soaked in a little bit of honey. The flowers and stems are rich in vitamins A and C, she said. And the roots can be roasted and brewed into a delicious beverage like decaffeinated coffee. Another local lawn weed with medicinal properties is the broadleafed plantain. Its leaves, mashed into a poultice, will stop bleeding from cuts and bug bites, Arvigo said. She plucked a leaf and pointed to the long green thread that hung from the severed stem. "Nature's suture," she said. "Wound-healing plants often have these threads." And the plantain's seeds, she added, which are rich in mucilage and bulk, can be soaked in water and eaten as a treatment for constipation. By an hibiscus plant inside the sweltering greenhouse, Arvigo looked furtively over her shoulder and tore off part of a leaf. "I'll probably get arrested for this," she said, "but feel this." Rubbed between two fingers, the leaf feels gluey. "Red hibiscus is the midwife's most important remedy for postpartum bleeding. Five open flowers, four closed flowers and nine of these leaves in a cup of water. Boil it for five minutes, let it cool and drink it. But the flowers have to be red. The other colors don't work." Why only red? Might this just be some myth linked to the color of blood? Perhaps. But red pigments in plants generally contain iron, Arvigo said, and it's plausible that iron-rich pigments might work better for disorders of the blood -- which, after all, is itself red because of the iron in hemoglobin. Arvigo hopes that the establishment of Terra Nova, where researchers and healers can meet together, will speed the discovery of answers to these and other questions. "I've always hoped for an integration of natural healing and (Western) medicine," she said. "By encouraging contact between healers and scientists, I hope we can cross the breach."