In the book, Traditional Medicinal Plants of St. Croix, St. Thomas and St. John, "Old Mans Beard" (Tillandsia recurvata) is described as an unusual herb that "grows into a tangle of curving stems" and "anchors itself onto surfaces." It sports delicate purple flowers and climbs on trees, shrubs and telephone wires at lower and middle elevations in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

"Old Mans Beard" was used traditionally to treat arthritis and diabetes. "Iron Root" (Ruellia tuberosa), on the other hand, is a perennial herb with "up to 18 fleshy, finger-like roots," that soothe the "joint pains, nerves and strained muscles" of our people in years gone by.

"In the past, our parents and grandparents often had to rely on the available flora for everyday remedies to strengthen the immune system, heal the sick, remove internal parasites or cast away evil spirits," says Kwame Garcia, acting director of the Cooperative Extension Service of the University of the Virgin Islands, in the foreword of Traditional Medicinal Plants of St. Croix, St. Thomas and St. John. "Indeed, recognizing and understanding the many uses of plants was once critical for their survival," adds Garcia.

My generation, for the most part, was reared on store-bought aspirin and doctors prescriptions. But cousin Nen Bea, (pictured on the home page of this site), was still anchored in that world of herbs, infusions and poultices up until the time of her death. She was fearful of being jailed for practicing her craft, however, and only shared her knowledge of herbs with people she trusted. "We have to peep and dodge," she explained.

Nen Bea distrusted the medical establishment. She also spurned coffee and cocoa and "drank bush (herbal teas) from Sunday to Sunday."

"My dear boy," she once told me with a smile, "these herbs are properly dutiful for our bodies."  

Audio Clip: Discussion about oral history that has been “archived” in songs.

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