Sangre De Grado by Steven R King, Ph.D


Volume 9, Number 6, 2003, pp. 813B815

8 Mary Ann Liebert, Inc.

Biocultural Diversity, Phytomedicines, and Tropical

Rainforests: The Holistic Link from Practitioner to

Cultures of the Tropical Rainforest




Shaman Pharmaceuticals, South San Francisco, CA.

Left: An illustration of local people collecting Croton seedlings under a Amother@ Croton lechleri tree, which is part of

a manual on the sustainable harvesting of this plant medicine. Top right: The Croton lechleri tree, Sangre de Drago, cultivated

in a mixed agroforestry system in the Quichua Indian community of Molino, Ecuador. Bottom right: Manual

Ramirez holding latex of Croton lechleri in his hand in his backyard mixed-species house garden, part of his living

pharmacy for his family and community in the region of Iquitos, Peru. Drawing and photographs courtesy of Steven

  1. King. 8 2003.

When you recommend medicinal plants do

you ever wonder about the health of the

people who harvested the plant or the forest it

came from? These three pictures tell a story that

lives and breathes behind many of the phytomedicines

that have become part of our alternative

and complementary pharmacopoeia.

The images speak of how interconnected

we are to the people and plants of the tropical

rainforests. In this case I focus on the latex

of (or sap) of Sangre de Drago (Croton lechleri),

which is used to treat gastrointestinal problems

such as diarrhea, stomach ulcers, and several

other internal and external health problems

(Carlson et al., 2000). An extensive review of

the research conducted to date on the efficacy

and safety of this species is in this issue (Jones,

pp., 877B896). There are a number of companies

that carry and distribute this extracts and

preparations from this widespread Amazonian

tree species.

The focus of this phyto/photoessay is not the

biologic and medical importance of this species

in the North America and Europe. The narrative

that is shared focuses instead on the role

of this plant among the peoples and cultures of

the rainforest where this traditional medicine

has been used for centuries. There is a great

deal of green and fair trade marketing taking


place in the sphere of alternative and complimentary

medicine, which is often weakly linked

to the places and cultures of origin.

Let us take a closer look at how our health is

interwoven with the peoples and cultures of

the Peruvian rainforest. This beautiful pioneer

tree species, Sangre de Drago (dragon=s blood)

is found throughout the northwestern Amazon

in Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and Brazil.

It is known and used by dozens of tropical forest

peoples throughout this region. Each culture

group has its specific name for this botanical

medicine. The latex of this tree is red and

it is a common house garden medicinal. Mothers

and other healers often collect the latex for

care and treatment of their families and patients

from right outside their homes. There is

also a national trade and market for this latex

among the urban center of the Andean nations.

In fact there is rapidly growing national and international

public health focus on utilizing traditional

medicines to manage malaria and a

number of diseases and health problems. Ironically,

as more and more people utilize these

plants as part of alternative and complementary

medicines, the national and international

public health care agencies are working to incorporate

these treatments in health care systems.

The illustration of a person collecting seedlings

in the forest is part of a Spanish-language

manual on the sustainable harvesting and management

of this species (drawing at left). This

pioneer tree species (top right) is part of dynamic

human ecological cycle in secondary forest

habitats. The tree produces up to 500,000

seeds per year. The fruits have three segments

and during the Adrier@ phase of the year the

fruits explode, similar to popcorn popping, and

distribute the seeds to the forest floor. Many

seeds are eaten by birds and insects, other melt

into decaying layer of leaves and soil. A great

number, however, lie dormant in the soil awaiting

the right conditions to sprout and grow.

When people clear the secondary forest to plant

gardens or build homes, the sun heats up the

soil and the seedling (hence the name pioneer

species) quickly sprouts and begins to grow.

This species has been documented to grow up

to 1 foot per month for the first several years

of its life cycle. This tree is a common invader

of gardens after people have finished the 12- to

18- month harvesting cycle of maize, manioc,

and plantains. It is quite common for households

and communities to maintain these volunteer


living pharmacies for daily health care

needs and for collection and sale to local and

regional markets.

Taking care of the health of families in communities

of indigenous peoples is often the

managed by women. Caring for families involves

health care, nutrition, education, and

other primary necessities. Most of the communities

that I have had the privilege to work with

over the past 20 years have expressed a persistent

desire to generate income for their families

via the sale of a variety of nontimber forest

products (NTFP), artwork, textiles, and

other materials that are generated from the

forests in their environment.

The third image of this set (bottom right) is

Manuel Ramirez in his back yard agroforestry

garden in the northern rainforest of Peru. He


has been planting seedlings and allowing Avolunteer@

spontaneous Croton tree=s to fill his

house garden to treat his family and to sell latex

to the local market. He has also been providing

seedlings to regional reforestation projects

as part of a growing national interest in

the production of this species. The government

of Peru and several international development

agencies have been supporting reforestation

activities with several medicinal plants that are

part of national and international commerce.

There is an increasing emphasis on finding and

developing international markets for phytomedines

from Latin America, Africa, and regions

of the planet that are epicenters of biologic

and cultural diversity. These efforts are

important because the diversity of languages

and cultures around the planet are disappearing

at an alarming rate.

Our opportunity to treat, heal, and self-medicate

with many phytomedicines from the

Amazon rainforest such as Una de gato (Uncaria

tomentosa), Sangre de Drago, and Pau d= arco

(Tabebuia species) should ideally support the

people and cultures who first discovered the

healing properties of these rainforest botanical

medicines. This requires a certain degree of

awareness and focus on our part as we learn

about the origins of these plants and how to

honor the cultures and environments where

they have coevolved. The best way to cultivate

this awareness is to ask questions about the origins

of the phytomedicines that we use, who

collected or cultivated them, and how does this

process fit into the human ecology of the communities


that produced them. A holistic analysis

and treatment of our mind, body, and spirit

should ideally be extended to the people and

habitats of the world that discovered and produce

healing plants for practitioners and patients.


Carlson TJS, King SR. Sangre de Drago (Croton lechleri

Müell.CArg.): A phytomedicine for the treatment of diarrhea.

Health Notes 2000;7:315B320.

Address reprint requests to:

Steven R. King, Ph.D.

213 East Grand Avenue

South San Francisco, CA 94080