by Jonathon Miller Weisberger

yacuNow reaching into 20 years, the extensive gardens at Ocean Forest Ecolodge harbor hundreds of species of native and rare ethnobotanical treasures from Central and South America as well as the Asian Tropics. These include fruit trees that guests enjoy seasonally, aromatic herbs, medicinal and sacramental plants, detox bitters, emollients, and adaptogens, many of which are served in teas at lunch and dinner or supplied upon request. Our permaculture gardens produce a seasonal abundance of foods—tubers and edible greens, fruits of all types, flavors, and consistencies, natural sweeteners, vegetables, and spices.

Take a Journey Through the Senses of your Elements

Banisteriopsis caapi

Our bodies are innately savvy! That we can perceive and experience the sweet, the spicy, the salty, the sour, and the bitter flavors in foods and plants is amazing! Few realize that these flavors actually correspond to the body’s organ systems. Each flavor correlates to one of our five principal organ pairs. Sweet relates to the stomach and the spleen, spicy to the lungs and large intestines, salty to the kidneys and urinary bladder, sour to the liver and gallbladder, and bitter to the heart and small intestines as well the triple warmer and the pericardium. This wisdom has been passed down along the guidelines of the Five Elements theory, an aspect of traditional Chinese medicine.

An amazing aspect of getting to know plants is that they bring out in us so many aspects of who we are ourselves. Our bodies are vast tools and can perceive very different sensations brought upon by the plants. We not only learn about the fascinating reality of plants but how our bodies are seamlessly parts of the natural world, or how else could we have the sensual perceptions to experience them? Plants expand the awareness of who we are—they allow us an opportunity to get to know deeper aspects of ourselves! We can look at this as discovery, but it is also elevating the common body of knowledge, as Mother Nature deeply aspires for her children to return. Our devotion to upholding and teaching the living science of ethnobotany is a passion we carry deep in our hearts.

Bitterwood (Quassia amara)

As a way into the garden, let us use our senses to learn some plants. Let us follow the five basic elemental groups, in their creative cycle of expression, starting with the Earth element whose color is yellow and flavor sweet. Earth creates the Metal element whose color is white and flavor spicy. Metal in turn creates Water whose color is bluish. Blackish grey, like the color of the water of the North Sea—its flavor is salty. Then Water creates wood, whose color is green and whose flavor is sour. The Wood element in turn creates the Fire element, whose color is red. The flavor representing this element is bitter, and the cycle continues. It is the constructive cycle of the five elements, an integral part of holistic Traditional Chinese Medicine. Alongside these color and flavor categories, let me introduce you to some of our most notable leafy friends swaying in the jungle breeze in our garden.

In the Earth element, most prominent is elegant sugar cane, striped in pinks, greens, and purples—Saccharum officinarum, the grass of grasses, held sacred among many indigenous tribes from Polynesia to the Amazon. In my book, Rainforest Medicine – Preserving Indigenous Science and Biological Diversity in the Upper Amazon, I share a Kichwa creation story outlining the origin of seven plants, all of which can be met here in our garden.

pasu tree
Pasu Tree (Gustavia longifolia)

In times of old, Atacapie, the Seven-headed boa-of-disintegration- and-chaos slayed Shiu Amarun, the Glistening-silver-fertility-mother-boa-of-the-Earth. From her decomposing heart grew seven plants to aid humanity in maintaining Heaven on Earth. These include Dunduma, a sedge in the genus Cyperus used for ridding anemia; Uchu, this being Capsicum, a redhot chili pepper; Palanda, the date banana, Musa x acuminata variety Lady Finger; Ayahuasca, Banisteriopsis caapi, the sacramental entheogen; Chalipanga, this being Diplopterys cabrerana, the “kindling leaf” that brings “light” to the entheogen; an extra spicy ginger called Pajujinjibri, a small rhizome ancestral type of Zingiber officinale; and Iru, our beloved Sugar Cane. From its stems, sweet juice pours when macerated and is believed the world over to bring Heaven to Earth. Amazing to think that from this cane not just sugar, but also ethanol is produced—now that is a potent plant indeed! And there are many varieties, too, like Caña mula, a dark purple cane excellent for animal feed and for making molasses.

golden shower
Golden Shower (Cassia fistula)

Other sweet Earthen goodness mamas that exist in the garden are, of course, varieties of Mangos, Mangifera indica of the Anacardiaceae family, this being the family of Cashews as well as the Poisonous Ivy that I actually call Pretty-oak; that’s a whole other story. Among my most favorite is the classic Mango-criollo, this being the native or wild mango. Its round fruit is not the best for eating given the hairy fibers, and it doesn’t look all that fancy given the black splotches on its peel, but when made into juice, my, my—the richness of its fl avor surpasses that of any other mango. Another variety, with a citrus tangy tinge, is the rare Mangopapa, the smallest of all mangos, that in juice is just as good. These mango varieties are highly medicinal as well. The young red leaf shoots are simmered in milk for lung ailments, in particular chest cough, and the bark heals sprains and bruises. Also, when speaking of mangos, with highest honor I am obliged to mention the all-time-classic Mango-zapata, which has a larger oblong fruit that when ripe actually stays green, thus going unseen by ravishing monkeys! Inside she is richly golden in color and variety, has somewhat of a tangy relish, and is mango at its purest and most fabulously finest! I might add a new addition to the garden, the Dika mango, Irvingia gabonensis, from Africa and a source of a highly nutritious and oily nut, the ogbono nut. And there’s Yuplon, Sponias dulcis, another sweet yellow fruit. And let us not pass Earth element without mentioning our cherished and adored Cacao, Theobroma cacao, food of the gods, of which we have many varieties and wild relatives growing such as Cupusassú, Theobroma grandiflorum, and Pataxte, Theobroma bicolor, all classified as pertaining to the Malvaceae family. When looking at plants with yellow flowers, a most prominent species is Cassia fistula of the Fabaceae, the bean family. At the beginning of the dry season these trees are covered in golden yellow flowers, which is why they are also known as golden shower. The bark is a powerful purge used only by skilled herbalist.


Let us follow the constructive cycle of the five-element theory. Sweet and the color yellow that is the Earth element makes the Metal element, whose color is white and flavor spicy. Here, of course, first and foremost are the numerous varieties of chili peppers, pertaining to the genus Capsicum of the mysterious Nightshade family, the Solanaceae. We have many types growing. A particularly impressive variety is the one called Panameño, which has a curled rounded green to orange to red fruit. It is spicy—just enough and loaded with an aromatic, richly complex flavor. Few people associate garlic with the tropics, but indeed, we have here our own version. It is the Garlic Vine, Mansoa alliacea, a most peculiar vine pertaining to Bignoniaceae that is the family of the infamous Pau d’arco, known locally as Roble Savana, Tabebuia rosea, with highly medicinal bark used as an adaptogen. The garlic vines’ lushly abundant purple flowers reveal themselves only every three years, emitting a pungently-sweet and velvety-deep aroma. The balm drifts thickly through the air and reaches all regions of the campus. The bark of this vine is rasped in water to emit a juice with a flavor pretty much spot on like garlic! And the leaves are used for steaming fish, filling the meal with its rich garlic flavor. This vine also has many medicinal uses. Similar to garlic, it is antibacterial and antiviral. In the Amazon, the deep forest Waorani call her Wigagen and believe when it is grown around the house, it wards off snakes and jaguars. When menacing creatures come near, it makes their teeth tingle unpleasantly, which annoys them, and they retreat. More commonly known as Ajo Sacha, the vine is used for dieting, to learn to heal, and its spirit is believed to be that of two brilliantly green parakeets. Another plant characteristic of the color white is Yuca, Manihot esculenta of the Euphorbiaceae. Her starchy white roots are a staple of the people and are what aun is made from, the Secoya flatbread and farina, a type of yuca granola, consumed throughout the Amazon.

Plantain (Musa spp.)

The Metal element creates the Water Element, associated to the color black, and the flavor is salty. Possibly what most represents the salty flavor even though it’s not really that salty, despite growing in salty ocean side sand, is the all-time Coconut palm, Cocos nucifera, a true Arecaceae, and of these we have many types. The Filipitas is a smaller green coconut with the best drinking water, and there is a golden Filipita variety as well. Our native beach Criollos grow very tall, and the oily, meaty kernel is used for extracting coconut oil. Fifty-five Criollo-coconuts peeled at the time of mid tide dropping, and grated and soaked the next day, also at the time of mid tide dropping, makes one gallon of oil. We keep this regularly on hand! Another interesting variety is the Chocuano. This large and robust Coconut palm has immense round nuts. They are used in folk medicine made into syrup to treat bronchitis and as an extract for ridding all types of parasites. The husk of all Coconut varieties is drunk in tea to aid the prostrate and prevent inflammation. The Coconut indeed is a sacred plant. Polynesian folk myth relates a time of drought and famine when, Creator sank into the earth, and from his crown grew the Coconut palm to quench the thirst and hunger of his people—thus the song line, “Palm tree in Jah sun, giving life to everyone.” Another plant that might align to this category is the curious Noni, Morinda citrifolia of the ubiquitous Rubiaceae. This fruit is actually white when ripe, but when prepared, by crushing the ripe fruits in a mesh bag and hanging in the sun, a jet-black ink drips out that is drunk, classic of the water element. Noni is revered as a holy medicine and valued as a general tonic. Also from its bark is produced a brownish purple dye.

The Water element creates the Wood element, whose flavor is sour and color is green. In this group we must not overlook the Membrillo, Averroha bilimbi, a Sourgrass and Star-fruit relative, member of the Oxalidaceae family. The pickle shaped spring-green colored fruits of this treelet are so sour that they are actually used by locals to bleach clothing! And does it keep those shirts white! We always add a few fruits into chili sauce, and they are also employed in the treatment of rheumatism, skin irritations, inflammation, and to control obesity. Another sour plant is Caña agria, “sour cane.” We have two types—a cane in the genus Costus, pertaining to the Zingiberaceae, the ginger family and a lanky, cane-like vine that also goes by this same common name. This Caña agria, known in English as Pink fringe and in the Nahuatl language as Xocoyoli, is a Melastome, Arthrostemma ciliatum. Sour in flavor, it is used effectively to treat lower back pains, kidney disorders, and as a diuretic.

As the Wood element creates the Fire element, whose flavor is bitter and color red, I am obliged to ask you the following. Have you ever nibbled on a leaf of Gavilana? This bushy herb, Neuroleana trilobata, a relative of the Sunflower or Asteraceae family has an extremely bitter juice that is used as a liver tonic, an antiparasitic, a decongestant, and is anti-catarrhal. Most people when they taste this have never experienced something so bitter. Bitters tonify the liver and the heart and promote circulation and decongestion. Now, if Gavilana ain’t bitter enough, well then, let’s nibble on some Hombre Grande, Quassia amara, Bitterwood. It is a native understory woody tree, member of the Simaroubaceae family that is well known for its outstanding healing virtues. Employed in the treatment of diabetes, malaria, and ulcers, it is anti-leukemic and treats scalp issues and more. Hombre Grande is so bitter that it’s hard to fathom a flavor this bitter can actually exist! Two more important bitter plants in this family, both being wild local species, are Simaruba amara known locally as Aceituno and Simaba cedron, called here Cedrón. Aceituno’s bitter bark is used to rid parasites and for dysentery, diarrhea, and to lower malarial fevers. Its bark, interestingly enough, is the preferred breeding ground for the unusual lantern-bug. The large intensely bitter seeds of the Cedrón are used to reduce fever and as a cure for snake bite. Great care needs to be employed when using this remedy since an excessive dose can be fatal.

Of course, when mentioning plants with the color red, there a few that must not be left unmentioned. Along the beach we have the Tropical almond tree, Terminalia catappa of the Combretaceae family. This tree is a favorite food of the Scarlet Macaw, a flashy red bird with long red tail feathers. In March, the peak of the dry season, the tree’s leaves turn bright red, and then they fall. This signature of the tree has allowed indigenous peoples to determine its use in lowering high blood pressure. The Doctrine of Signatures is a phenomenon that has been around since the old days and was a method of investigation and discovery understood by Dioscorides, Galen, and Paracelsus.

Then for plants with red we have the almighty Achiote, Bixa orellana of the Bixaceae family. Achiote, known as Annato, is a remarkably useful woody treelet, known as Fire Wood, and there are many varieties. Achiote has a bright red furry fruit, but the criollo variety, a variety we are particularly fond of, has a green hairless fruit. Both are capsule-like with abundant small seeds covered in a bright red, oily paste. The tree is highly medicinal and useful. The peeled bark is boiled and drunk to alleviate hemorrhage. A leaf tea is used to stop vomiting. An eyewash from the tea of the young leaves is highly effective for red eye and reducing inflammation. The oil from the seeds heals stomach ulcers and gastritis, the red pigment is used as a ceremonial body paint, and from the dried wood and branches, the Waorani make their fire boards, hence Fire Wood.

I want to leave you with one last tree, of the so many here present, ones we love so very much. They are in their third year of ripening here. A tree symbolic of the rainforest, these are the Pasu trees, Gustavia longifolia a Brazil nut relative, in the Lecythidaceae family. Pasu can be described somewhat like the cross between an orange, avocado, and a pumpkin. Native to the Amazon, oily and delicious, it is considered a sacred tree among the deep forest Waorani, who refer to her as Nönginka. Her white, tinged in pink flowers are amazingly large, up to 8 inches in diameter! Voluptuous, velvety rich is their aroma, and they are fragile and literally drop apart in your hands. This tree represents the fragile and precious gift that is the rainforest and biological diversity, and that with care we must love and protect her.

At Ocean Forest Ecolodge, given the size of the property, space is limited. For this reason we have been expanding the garden up the hill a ways, where we have been planting an even larger Permaculture garden. A project called Cocoterra Rainforest Permaculture, we are restoring eight hectares of abandoned pasture land and aiming to create a Permaculture school that can serve as a model to the local villagers and international participants and volunteers—and as a place to connect with nature. To learn more please visit www.rainforestpermaculture.org. You can join us by signing up to our mailing list. Stay posted on upcoming Permaculture workshops and Ethnobotanical immersions. I look forward to meeting you here in the garden and invite you to join us as a guest or volunteer. For more info, also visit http://www.oceanforest.org/ volunteering/

Jonathon Miller Weisberger is an Ethnobotanist and the Steward of Ocean Forest Ecolodge in Costa Rica.