Index | Search | Home | Table of Contents

Friedman, J., D. Bolotin, M. Rios, P. Mendosa, Y. Cohen, and M.J. Balick. 1993. A novel method for identification and domestication of indigenous useful plants in Amazonian Ecuador. p. 167-174. In: J. Janick and J.E. Simon (eds.), New crops. Wiley, New York.

A Novel Method for Identification and Domestication of Indigenous Useful Plants in Amazonian Ecuador

J. Friedman, D. Bolotin, M. Rios, P. Mendosa, Y. Cohen, and M.J. Balick*

    1. Preliminary Evaluation of Medicinal Plants
    2. Establishment of Nurseries
    1. Edible Plants
    2. Medicinal Plants
    3. Establishment of Plants in the Nurseries
  4. Table 1
  5. Table 2
  6. Table 3
  7. Table 4
  8. Fig. 1

The Amazonia: an incalculable value, an untapped emporium of germplasm for new economic plants.

Richard Evans Schultes, 1979

In the rain forests in eastern Ecuador (Oriente), a considerable number of indigenous societies still rely on plant gathering, hunting, and fishing. Our aims have been to foster cultivation of indigenous useful plants among these tribal societies to help improve their economy, to preserve knowledge about and germplasm of some of their important useful plants, and to help strengthen their cultural identity. We assumed that indigenous useful plants which are highly rated by their consumers will be sufficiently attractive to foster plant adoption and that social change, from plant gathering to plant cultivation, will follow with the least constraints if traditional societies first employ their own indigenous useful plants, prior to receiving domesticated foreign crops.

To fulfil these aims, useful indigenous plant species have been identified and botanically classified, selected and propagated in nurseries. To increase attractiveness of adoption, efforts were concentrated on identification and reproduction of the most tasteful plants as well of those considered to be the most efficacious medicinals. Nurseries have been established within the communities and, subsequently, plantlets distributed free to families willing to grow them, to be planted in their gardens.


The most common language along the Upper Napo river is Quichua. However, in each community there is always a number of people, particularly teachers, who also know Spanish. These people provided translation services for our project. Most people were acquainted with the edible plants in their surrounding forests. As information on useful plants had already disappeared, we first sought to interview and survey the few remaining highly knowledgeable people. For the identification of edible plants, we attempted to interview selected informants, including those people recommended by at least five independent people, as the best knowledgeable plantsmen in the region. However, for rating of the most popular edible plants, any person willing to cooperate were included in order to obtain the widest possible concensus.

Preliminary Evaluation of Edible Plants

During several excursions with knowledgeable guides (informants) in the rain forests in several localities, along the Upper Napo river (Campano Cocha, Santa Rosa, and Caspi Sapa, Fig. 1), a list of 41 species of common edible plants was compiled (Table 1). Since plants from different culinary categories are difficult to directly compare, plants were classified into the following three types: food plants (plantas para tomar), juicy plants (plantas para chupar), and herbs and spices. Lists in alphabetical order, of Quichua plant names were presented to each person interviewed. Forty-five people were interviewed, usually on Sundays in church. Interviewees were requested to rate the plants of each category, according to declining preference, based on their own taste. When the order of culinary grades corresponded to the alphabetical order of the plant names, data was excluded from the study. Although, each interviewee was literate, we provided a tutor for each.

Preliminary Evaluation of Medicinal Plants

To identify the most attractive medicinal plants for the indigenous communities studied, we used a quantitative ethnopharmacological method developed among Bedouins in Israel (Friedman et al. 1986). During an ethnopharmacological field survey in the Negev desert, it was noticed that informants, when independently interviewed, sometimes have different ideas as to the major purpose for which a given medicinal plant is used. Such disagreements appeared also when highly reputed informants with at least six independent recommendations, were interviewed. To analyze the efficacy of the plants which were applied to different ailments, we requested information on the major and the secondary applications of medicinal plants from each informant. However, to avoid the risk of memory failure, each informant was also requested to elaborate on the uses of each plant within a given list (Table 2).

Based on field experience, a list of 100 commonly used species of medicinal plants (Table 2) was compiled. This enabled us to detect information missed due to memory failure, as well as species unknown to individual informants.

The percentage of informants claiming the use of a certain plant for the same major purpose, also known as its Fidelity Level (FL), was calculated for each species. Thus, plants could be rated on the basis of their relative efficiency, as they appear in the eyes of their consumers. Since some plants which received high FL values were known to only a fraction of the informants, an appropriate correction factor was introduced. The Relative Popularity Level (RPL) can be calculated for each plant from the relationship between the number of informants who know of a certain plant and the average number of uses per plant (Friedman et al. 1986). The corrected fidelity level, or Rank Order Priority (ROP) of a given plant is: ROP = FL ' RPL. Therefore, the ROP value can be used to classify medicinal plants according to their efficiency as evaluated by their consumers.

Establishment of Nurseries

Nurseries were established within the communities, usually in the vicinity of a school, or near the house of a family that showed interest in maintaining the nursery. With the help of the local people, 10 x 20 m plots were cleared and black polyethylene sheets were stretched across the plats to prevent weeds. A germinating box (5.0 x 1.5 x 0.4 m) filled with sand from the river bank floored on the polyethylene. Usually seeds were planted, but, if plants of interest were encountered at a season when no seeds were available, cuttings were inserted after disinfection. In some cases, standard plant hormones (NAA) at 2,000 and 4,000 ppm were applied to enhance rooting

Two to three weeks after emergence, young plantlets were transplanted into 25 x 30 cm plastic bags filled with sand. Some fast germinating seeds were planted directly in plastic bags. A black polyethylene shading net, which intercepts 30% of the sunlight was stretched above the plants.


Six informants from disparate localities were selected for interviews, and provided information on 191 species. Despite occasional difficulties in ascertaining whether a particular plant grows mainly in nature and gathered form the wild, or is cultivated, our data suggest that of 59 edible plants, 41 species are gathered and the other 18 are sporadically cultivated. We found that 132 species were used for medicinal purposes.

Edible Plants

The eight most popular species obtained within a strip of 100 km, between Misahaulli and Coca, in the Upper Napo river region, are presented in Table 3. From the eight plants with the highest culinary grade, five were found to be already cultivated by tribal societies, although on a very small scale and only in a few home gardens. These include: Bactris gasipaes, Theobroma bicolor, Pouruma cecropiaefolia, Passiflora sp. (maracuya), and Matisia cordata. The major herbs and spices were amongst the uncultivated plants, perhaps because only small quantities of these plants are consumed and they could be easily gathered. Although the relative culinary level among the plants in each of the three locales was different, the same species listed in Table 1 were at the top of the list in each locality. A survey of the literature suggests that some of the highly regarded edible plants in various Latin American states are already at different stages of domestication, e.g. Bactris gasipaes (chontaduro, pejibaye), (Popenoe and Jimenez 1921; Johnanessen 1966; Balick 1985; Clement and Arkcoll 1989), or Pourouma cecropiaefolia (National Academy of Sciences 1975).

In the same area, we found one plant with only a single squash like fruit. Locally it is called Ucsha in Quichua and the plant has not yet been botanically identified. Two old people claimed that it is very tasty when cooked and so Ucsha was included in our list. Nevertheless, most of those interviewed were young and were not acquainted with this plant and thus, it obtained a very low culinary grade. Only older people, who liked it very much were familiar with this species. A search for more plants or fruits for propagation was unsuccessful, possibly because villagers who were unaware of its possibilities for propagation had overexploited the disappearing species. The seeds of this one and only fruit were planted and the resultant seedlings grew extremely fast. At present, a few hundred plants are being cultivated. Other highly regarded species, unknown to the majority of the interviewees may also have been overlooked and not included among our top quality edible plants. Interviewing a considerable number of young people who can read, may provide in a rather short time, a concensus on the culinary level of common edible plants. However, we feel that those who are educated may be the least knowledgeable about native plants. Thus, plants that were once commonly used and eventually disappeared in part due to over exploitation will be unknown and ignored. The transition from wandering communities of food gatherers in the rainforest into settled communities that preserve the habits of plant gathering, imposed increasing constrains on those highly regarded edible plants. Highly-exploited species which were not adopted for cultivation in their home gardens, were gradually eliminated from around the village. Special efforts must be directed to detect such species and propagate them in large numbers. In order to uncover these valuable species, which are at the point of extinction, special efforts to work with wandering communities of food gatherers, as well as with highly knowledgeable informants should be made. We recommend that the eight species identified in this study should be given top priority for further propagation and distribution.

Medicinal Plants

Although conventional medicines are gradually expanding into the rainforests either through missionary activities or through small scale trading, most people continue to use traditional systems of health care including medicinal plants alone or in combination with modern pharmaceuticals. Nevertheless, it was a difficult task to interview highly reputed informants, who were independently recommended by different people as very knowledgeable. Those few authorities who still practice traditional healing usually join small remote communities and arrive only intermittently in more crowded settlements. During the first year of our activities, we approached six informants (Table 4). Interviews were conducted only after a period of acquaintance after residing for a few nights in the community, sharing food and carefully explaining our aims. Because of the numerous medicinal plants in the region, and the practical limits of time for an interview, each interview was combined with a field excursion for identification and collection of specimens. Verification of plant names was maintained through field excursions, but when rainstorms occurred, we used colored pictures. Since objects shown in pictures appear at a smaller scale and are two-dimensional, interviewees must be given time to interpret these illustrations. In general, pictures were found to be more efficient for verification of edible than of medicinal plants, perhaps because these were more widely and commonly known.

It became apparent that, maximum information was obtained from any informant, when interviews were repeated at three to four different times. Only on the third meeting, could we present our arbitrary list of 100 species of medicinal plants and enquire specifically about each plant.

The limited number of informants employed in this part of the study did not allow us to draw concrete conclusions as to the rank order priority (ROP) or the relative efficiency of the medicinal plants. However, these informants were very carefully selected and their authenticity was high. Some of these species have already been noted as important medicinal plants of the Northwestern Amazonian region, e.g. Maytenus krukowii, Potalia amara, Paullinia sp., and Mansoa standleyi (Schultes and Raffauf 1990). Therefore, the list in Table 2 must be considered a preliminary guide-line for selection of so-called "attractive" indigenous medicinal plants for cultivation.

Establishment of Plants in the Nurseries

Three nurseries were established in the Upper Napo river, in Campano Cocha, Santa Rosa, and in Caspi Sapa, among Quichuas, and a fourth one in Tonianpari on the Curary river amongst Waorhanis. During 1990-1991, the nurseries included about 4,000 plants comprising about 50 species of which half were edible and half were medicinals. After germination or rooting, growth rate was rapid and the response to slow release nitrogen articles was good. About 600 propagates were distributed to local people. Prior to distribution, detailed instructions for planting and plant care were provided. Each distribution was followed with a detailed registration in order to follow the level of plant adoption, and to study ways to encourage cultivation. Those receiving planting material appeared to be enthusiastic.

These findings, which were obtained during a period of two years work has led to increased documentation of traditional knowledge of plant utilization and enhancement of plant cultivation of little known useful plants. The third year of the project will be dedicated to enlarging the scale of production and following the rates of plant adoption. During this period we hope, to ensure that the original owners maintain intellectual property rights over these plants so that they will be the first to benefit from their heritage. We are concerned however that additional effort requiring at least three to five years, will minimally be needed to ensure the success of this program.


*The authors are indebted to Dr. Naranjo Plutarcho, Health Minister of Ecuador for his encouragement and help, to Prof. Laura Arcos and Dr. Roberto Padilla, Dept. of Biological Sciences, Pontificia Catholic University, Ecuador. Thanks also to US-A.I.D. (CDR) for financial support of this project during 1989-1992 Grant C8-159; DHR-5544-G-SS-9064-0.
Table 1. A list of edible plants from upper Napo river (Eastern Ecaudor).

Plant catagory
Family Species Plant part consumedz Way of consumption
Food plants
Araceae Colocasia esculenta T Fresh
Arecaceae Bactris gasipaes F,S Fermented or cooked for chicha
Arecaceae Jessenia bataua F Cooked
Arecaceae Mauritia flexusa F Fresh
Convolvulaceae Ipomoea batatas T Cooked or fermented for chicha
Cucurbitaceae Ucsha (species unknown) F Fresh/cooked
Dioscoraceae Dioscorea trifida T Cooked
Euphorbiaceae Caryodendron orinocense S Fresh/dried
Euphorbiaceae Plukenetia volubilis S Cooked
Fabaceae Phaseolus vulgaris S Cooked
Lecythidaceae Grias neuberthii F Fresh/cooked
Mimosaceae Inga sp. (Ilta) F,S Fresh/cooked
Phytolaccaceae Phytolacca rivinoides L Fresh/cooked
Sapotaceae Chrysophyllum venezuelanense F Cooked/fried
Sapotaceae Pouteria sp. F Fresh
Sterculiaceae Herrania sp. S Cooked
Sterculiaceae Theobroma bicolor S Cooked fried
unknown Butum; Butio n.d. n.d.
unknown Garabatu yuyu n.d. n.d.
unknown Sani papa T Cooked
unknown Shimbi n.d n.d.
Juicy plants
Annonaceae Annona cherimolia F Fresh
Apocynaceae Tabernaemontana sananho F Fresh
Bombacaceae Matisia cordata F Fresh
Cecropiaceae Pourouma cecropiaefolia F Fresh
Malpighiaceae Bunchosia sp. F Fresh
Mimosaceae Inga edulis F Fresh
Mimosaceae Inga sp. (Machitona) F Fresh
Passifloraceae Passiflora sp. (Maracuya) F Fresh
Passifloraceae Passiflora sp. (Granadilla) F Fresh
Sapotaceae Pouteria caimito F Fresh
Solanaceae Solanum quitoense F For juice
Sterculiaceae Herrania nitida F Fresh
Theophrastaceae Calvija harlingii F Fresh
Herbs and spices
Apiaceae Eryngium foetidum L Fresh for salad or soup (similar to coriander)
Bignoniaceae Mansoa standleyi L Fresh/dried, soup
Bixaceae Bixa orellana S Fried/soup
Lamiaceae Ocimum basilicum L Fresh/soup or salad
Lauraceae Ocotea quixos L, Calyx Fresh/dried
Liliaceae Allium sp. L Fresh/salad or soup (similar to chives)
Moraceae Brosimum uleti Latex Fresh
zF = fruit; L = leaf; n.d. = no documentation; R = root; S = seed; St = stem: T = tuber.

Table 2. A list of medicinal plants from the upper Napo river (Eastern Ecuador).

Family Species or Quichua name Plant partz Major use
Acanthaceae Quihui yuyu (species unknown) L,P Sprain
Apocynaceae Himatanthus lancifolius La Anemia, strengthening
Apocynaceae Tabernaemontana sananho B,L Stomachache
Aquifoliaceae Ilex guayuosa L Stimulant
Araceae Colocasia sp. Rh Cuts
Arecacea Supai chunda (species unknown) Apex Tonic, strengthening
Asteraceae Clibaduim asperum L,St Fish poisoning
Asteraceae Spilanthes cf. L Cuts
Bignoniaceae Mansoa standleyi L Grippe
Boraginaceae Corida nodosa L Gangrens from snakebite
Brassicaceae Amarun uchu (species unknown) P Skin problems (granos)
Caesalpiniaceae Senna ruiziana
Capparidaceae Capparis sola B Skin problems (granos)
Cecropiaceae Cecropia sp. B Strengthening
Celastraceae Maytenus krukovii B Rheumatism, body pains
Commelinaceae Commelina erecta B Blood pressure
Crassulaceae Bryophyllum ginnatum L,St Cuts, wounds
Cyclanthaceae Carludovica palmata Rheumatism, swelling
Erythroxylaceae Erythroxylum gracilipes L Tranquilliar, rheumatism
Euphorbiaceae Croton lechleri La Panacea, gingivitis
Fabaceae Lonchocarpus nicou St Fish poison
Fabaceae Myroxylon balsamum B Grippe, fever
Fabaceae Swarzia simplex B Strengthening
Flacourtiaceae Neosprucea sp. B Tuberculosis
Gesneriaceae Columnea archidonae L Menstruation set up
Lamiaceae Hyptis pectinata L Kidney disorder
Lauraceae Persea americana S Contraceptive
Lecythidaceae Grias neuberthii B Vomiting, diarrhea
Loganiaceae Potalia amara L Snakebite
Malpighiaceae Banisteriopsis caapi B Hallucinogen, "insight drug"
Melastomaceae Blackea cf. rosea L Cuts, wounds
Melastomaceae Cana agria (unknown species) St Cuts
Meliaceae Flor del sielo (unknown species) L, Fl Rabies
Meliaceae Guarea cinnamomea B Asthma
Mimosaceae Piptademia pteroclada B Diarrhea, vomiting
Moraceae Brosimum utile La Purgative for children
Ochnaceae Ouratea sp. B Diarrhea, stomachache
Orchidaceae Rayu palanda (unknown species) L Skin problems (granos)
Piperaceae Piper veneralense L Diarrhea
Piperaceae Piper sp. L Gingivitis
Polypodiaceae Asplenium sp. L Nervous disorders
Polypodiaceae Lomariopsis sp. L Diarrhea, vomiting
Rubiaceae Duroia hirsuta B Diarreha, stomachache
Rubiaceae Simira sp. B Contraceptive, menstruation set up
Sapindaceae Paullinia sp. St, (Sap) Intestinal parasites
Smilaceae Smilax sp. R Skin problems (acne)
Solanaceae Brugmansia arborea L Hallucinogen
Solanaceae Brunfelsia chiricaspi R Body pains, grippe
Solanaceae Brunfelsia grandiflora R Body pains, grippe
Solanaceae Solanum mamosum F Skin parasites in chicken
Theophrastaceae Clavija harlingii R Grippe
Urticaceae Urera caracasana L,St Pains, rheumatism
Verbenaceae Verbena brasiliansis L Stomach disorders
Zingiberaceae Zingiber officinale R Grippe
unknown Accha huasca B Antibaldness
unknown Amiruca panga L Hallucinogen, "insight drug"
unknown Andia paju (caspi) B Diarrhea with blood
unknown Armangui L Chicken parasites
unknown Ayacara B Stomachache
unknown Bujiu panga L Aphrodiatsiac
unknown Chiri panga L,St Clean the body from evil spirits
unknown Chunchu B Skin problems (granos)
unknown Cucu tsicta L Hair parasits
unknown Cuilichi lulu L, La Wounds
unknown Dumduma T Snakebite
unknown Flur huasca St Syphylis, diarrhea
unknown Gallu caspi B Skin problems
unknown Huagra huanduj St Rheumatism
unknown Huarangayura B Stomachache, diarrhea
unknown Huiqui huasca La Stomachache
unkown Icsa nanai yura B Stomachache
unknown Ilia huanga lumu Rheumatism
unknown Isla vapa yura Resin Skin problems
unknown Lustunda F,B Tuberculosis
unknown Luta luta P Sprains
unknown Machacui caparina Snakebite
unknown Machacui mandi T Snakebite
unknown Machacui mishu T Snakebite
unknown Machi manga Cancer
unknown Mati muyu caspi B Grippe
unknown Munu chupa L,R Diarrhea
unknown Pala panga L Gential cancer
unknown Pinsha caliu P Bleeding
unknown Piri piri panga L Aphrodisiac
unknown Puma yuyu Mer, L Hallucinogen, strengthening
unknown Pupa huasca St Grippe
unknown Puru panga L Menstruation set up
unknown Quihuin ambi L,St Fish poison
unknown Rayu paju Skin-problems (granos)
unknown Sacha huanduj L Rheumatism
unknown Sacha limon F,L Grippe
unknown Santa maria panga L Bleeding
unknown Sarsiliu B Tuberculosis
unknown Shia huasca R,B Diarrhea, stomachache
unknown Shiu panga L Diarrhea, stomachache strengthening
unknown Sirlu panga L Heart disorders
unknown Sitimu panga L Diarrhea
unknown Sucuva La Skin tumors
unknown Supai caspi Hernia
unknown Suru panga L Clean the body from evil spirits
unknown Yacami panga L Strengthening children
B = bark; F = fruit; Fl = flower; L = leaf; La = latex; Mer = meristem; P = plant; R = root; Rh = rhizom; S = seed; T = tuber. "Insight drug"--taken by witch doctor for a better diagnosis.

Table 3. Preferred edible plants in the Upper Napo river, Ecuador. The primary eight of 41 species in each of three culinary categories arranged according to their culinary grades.

Plant category Preliminary idenfication Quichua name Collected (CO) or Cultivated (Cu) Culinary gradez ±SD
Food plants Caryodendron orinocense, Euphorbiaceae Achansu Co 9.4±0.7
Bactris gasipaes, Arecaceae Chontaduro CoCu 7.3±3.1
Theobroma bicolor, Sterculiaceae Patas CoCu 6.9±3.4
Juicy fruit Purouma cecropiaefolia, Cecropiaceae Uvilla CoCu 8.7±1.1
Passiflora sp., Passifloraceae Maracuya CoCu 8.1±1.6
Matisia cordata, Bombacaceae Sapote CoCu 8.1±1.7
Herbs & spices Ocotea quixos, Lauraceae Ishpingo Co 8.3±1.8
Eryngium foetidum, Apiaceae Culantro Co 7.8±2.8
zAn average of 30 informants, 0 = least tasty, 10 = most tasty.

Table 4. Most preferable medicinal plants and their major therapeutical uses in the Upper Napo River region together with their relative grades (0 = the least, 100 = the highest efficiency).

Preliminary identification Quichua name Therapeutical uses Fidelity level (FL)z
Maytenus krukowii, Celestraceae Chu chu huasu Anemia, rehumatism, grippe, headache 100
Potalia amara, Loganiaceae Curarina Snakebite 100
Species not identified Machaqui mandi Snake or scorpion bites 100
Paullinia sp., Sapindaceae Pacai huasca Intestinal parasites diarrhea 76
Mansoa standlevi Sacha aju (Bignoniaceae) Grippe, fever, headache 76
Ourateae sp., Ochnaceae Tacu caspi or Amaron caspi Diarrhea 61
zAverage of 6 selected informants.

Fig. 1. Map of Ecuador and area under investigation.

Last update September 9, 1997 aw