Cacti as Medicine

A remarkable number of cacti are used by indigenous people of the New World for healing. Illness, injury, death, and the spirit world are intimately interrelated to many of these people, as seen in their belief that peyote and the San Pedro cactus are divine medicine. Peyote, for example, is not only a means of communication with the spirit world, it is also used as "an analgesic, anti-rheumatic, and general tonic" (Nicholson and Arzeni 1993,187). Other cacti, however, simply seem to provide some sort of curing ability, whether real or imaginary.

Bye studied the medicinal plants of the Tara-humara of Mexico. His investigations emphasized the interrelationship of the spirits and the body because "a healthy person is one whose souls are content in the body and are unharmed when they return to it. The Tarahumara health practices of perpetuating and restoring good health are based upon the condition of the souls and their relationships to the body" (Bye 1985,77). In addition to peyote, Lophophora williamsii, which they call hikuli, the Tarahumara believe that Ariocarpus fis-suratus, also called hikuli, has similar powers. They use the whole plant as a poultice for bruises, bites, and wounds, and drink the juice for rheumatism. Another hikuli is Epithelantha micro-meris, which is used not so much for actual treatment of ailments but by the shaman "to make his eyes larger and clearer and to enable him to see sorcerers" (Bye 1979a, 30). Other cacti believed to have great power like hikuli are Coryphantha compacta and Echinocereus triglochidiatus. Several other cacti are used by the Tarahumara for healing. Latex of Mammillaria heyderi is applied to the ears for both pain and deafness. A columnar cactus, probably a species of Cephalocereus, and Echinocereus are used to make the cast to cover a limb with a broken bone. The stem of another columnar cactus, Pachycereus pecten-abo-riginum, is boiled to make a tea, a good medicine for pain or as a laxative. Finally, the Tarahumara use Opuntia stems as a poultice for bites, burns, and general pain (Bye 1979a, 30-35).

Felger and Moser (1985,245-273) have recorded many uses of cacti by the Seri of northwestern Mexico for medicinal purposes. Carnegiea gigantea stem sections from which spines have been removed are heated in hot coals and used as a poultice for rheumatism. Stem sections of Pachycereus pringlei and Stenocereus thurberi are used in the same way for general aches and pains. Pieces of Ferocactus emoryi are salted and roasted to extract juices that are used to wash sore areas. Liquid extracted from stems of Mammillaria grahamii is used as ear drops. The ground and heated tuber of Peniocereus striatus is employed to reduce swellings as well as to help harden the fontanel of a baby's skull. The Seri also use species of Cylindro-

puntia for medicine. For example, roots of C. bigelovii and other plants are made into tea and drunk as a diuretic. The gum extracted from C. fulgida is a remedy for diarrhea and shortness of breath.

In addition to peyote, the San Pedro cactus, and cacti used by the Tarahumara and Seri of Mexico, there is an extensive roster of cacti used for medicinal purposes by indigenous peoples. Some additional medically related uses of cacti are discussed under Other Uses of Cacti.

Ariocarpus bravoanus subsp. hintonii and A. kotschoubeyanus. Entire plants are soaked in alcohol. The liquid is then used to treat rheumatism and other aches and pains (Charles Glass, pers. comm.).

Cylindropuntia acanthocarpa. The ash from burned stems is applied to burns by the Cahuilla, and stem portions are used for gastrointestinal problems by the Pima (Moerman 1998,365).

Cylindropuntia imbricata. The Western Keres grind up spine sheaths and make a paste to treat boils. They also use dried stem pith for ear problems (Moerman 1998,367).

Cylindropuntia tunicata. Hawaiians use the stem and root juice for constipation and to help expectant mothers (Moerman 1998,369).

Cylindropuntia whipplei. The Hopi pound and boil the root, then drink the liquid (Whiting 1966, 86), or chew the roots (Moerman 1998, 369), to treat diarrhea.

Echinocereus coccineus. The Navajo use the plant as a heart stimulant (Moerman 1998,206).

Echinopsis pachanoi. A decoction of the stem is applied topically to prevent baldness (Duke and Vasquez 1994,171).

Escobaria vivipara. Moerman (1998,228) states that the Blackfoot eat the fruits in small amounts to treat diarrhea. They also place seeds in the eye as eye medicine.

Grusonia clavata. The Western Keres place dried and ground stem joints, or joints burned and made into a powder, on open sores or bad wounds (Moerman 1998,365).

Mammillaria grahamii. The Pima, according to Moerman (1998,335), boil the plant and place the warm material in the ear for pain and other ear problems.

Opuntia basilaris. The Shoshoni make a poultice from the inner part of the stem and apply it to cuts and wounds for pain (Moerman 1998,365).

Opuntia cochenillifera. Grenand et al. (1987) report that this species is widely used in Mexico and Central America as an antifungal agent.

Opuntia dillenii. One of the most widely spread cacti, people throughout Asia employ it for a variety of purposes. In India, for example, it is used to treat sores, pimples, even syphilis (Jain and Tarafder 1970, 260). The hill tribes of northern Thailand use the stem joints, eaten raw, as a poultice, or for a tea for stomachache, excess gas, and liver and spleen problems. It is also believed to be an important plant to deter evil spirits around households (Anderson 1993,236).

Opuntia engelmannii. Curtin (1949, 60) reports that the Pima apply the heated stem segment to a new mother's breasts to stimulate the flow of milk.

Opuntia fragilis. The Okanagan-Colville and the Shuswap make a poultice from the stem and use it to treat sores, including sore throat. They Opuntia dillenii in Akha also eat the stems as a diuretic (Moerman 1998, tribal village, northern


366). According to Gunther (1973, 41), Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest mash up and soak the stem joints of a species of Opuntia, probably O.fragilis, in salt water; the liquid is drunk to facilitate childbirth.

Opuntia humifusa. Widely used by the Plains tribes (Moerman 1998,366), the Dakota and Pawnee place peeled stems on wounds, the Lakota use the same material to treat snakebites, and the Nanticoke use it to treat warts.

Opuntia macrorhiza. The Navajo and Ramah use the spines to lance skin infections, and they roast stem segments for a lubricant used in childbirth (Moerman 1998,367).

Opuntia phaeacantha. As with O. engelmannii, the Pima place heated stem joints on a new mother's breasts to make her milk flow (Curtin 1949,61).

Opuntia polyacantha. The people of the Black-foot tribe remove warts by cutting the stem joints and then rubbing in the "fuzz" (glochids?) of the cactus. They even practice a form of acupuncture by sticking spines into the "offending" part of the body and then lighting them. "The lighted spines that sputtered and sparked the most were thought to have done the most good" (Johnston 1970, 316). They also bind peeled stem joints to wounds as dressings (Johnston 1970,316)/

Opuntia spp. Moore (1989,89-91) reports that various western U.S. species are used as drawing poultices, for gum infections and mouth sores, as an analgesic for such problems as painful urination, even that prickly pear juice reduces the discomfort of honeymoon cystitis. There are also reports that some species are effective in reducing the adverse consequences of adult-onset or insulin-independent diabetes. This may result from the presence of saponins in these cacti (Cruse 1973, 212). Dried flowers, which apparently are rich in flavonoids other than anthocyanins, are useful in treating ailments characterized by inflamed mucous membranes such as chronic colitis, asthma, vaginitis, and diverticulosis (Moore 1989,91). Other reports that prickly pears are effective in treating rheumatism and cancer are probably unfounded (Nobel 1994, 65) though Cruse (1973,213) reports that extracts of O. ficus-indica (as O. maxima) were effective in treating a form of abdominal cancer. Meyer and McLaugh lin (1981,109) summarize the numerous medicinal uses of 14 species of Opuntia that have been reported in the literature. In addition to the other maladies, Opuntia has been used to treat warts, pimples, moles, measles, corns, and constipation.

Pachycereus pecten-aboriginum. Extracts have been reported as effective in treating a form of abdominal cancer (Cruse 1973,213).

Pachycereus pringlei. The early Jesuits reported that the indigenous people would heat a piece of cardon stem and apply it to an aching tooth. Apparently it brought immediate relief, "but it does cause the teeth to fall out" (Ashmann 1966,51).

Peniocereus greggii. The Shoshone call the plant "pain in the heart"; they use the roots and stems as a cardiac stimulant as well as for chest pain and shortness of breath. Moerman (1998, 382) also reports the same use by the Nevada tribe. It is not like digitalis in its effects (Moore 1989,80). It has been claimed to cure diabetes by the Papago (Curtin 1949, 55), who also use it on sores (Moerman 1998,382).

Selenicereus grandiflorus. Used in tropical America for treating dropsy and as a cardiac remedy (unesco 1960,50), Barthlott (1979,8) comments that it is extensively cultivated by the pharmaceutical industry as a source of substances similar to digitalis for treatment of heart problems. An unidentified species of Selenicereus is used by the Machiguenga of eastern Peru for treating sore muscles. Possibly it contains an antiinflammatory compound (Ethan Russo, pers. comm.).

Continue reading here: Ceremonial and Religious Uses of Cacti

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