Cover Image
close this bookTraditional Medicinal Plants (Dar Es Salaam University Press - Ministry of Health - Tanzania, 1991, 391 p.)
View the documentContribution to a global proposal supporting the use of medicinal plants by developing countries: The case of Guatemala
View the documentHistory and reality of medicinal plants from Ecuador
View the documentAfrican indigenous medicine: Its standardization and evaluation within the policy of primary health care
View the documentPharmacological value of plants of Rwandese traditional medicine: chemotherapeutic value of some Rwandese plants
View the documentThe experience of Burkina Faso in the area of traditional pharmacopoeia
View the documentMedicinal plants: Their production, phytotherapeuticity, uses and propagation

History and reality of medicinal plants from Ecuador


Faculty of Medicine
Museum of the History of Medicine
Quito, Ecuador


In this paper the author gives a historical background on the documentation, and traditional medicinal uses of the vascular plants of Ecuador. The paper describes the use of medicinal plants in South America, long before the advent of colonial rule, which came with Spanish invaders into the country. Amongst the many traditional medicinal plants documented and discussed are species of Cinchona, locally known as Quinah, a plant which was subsequently developed as a source of quinine, used for the treatment of malaria. The paper calls for the need to establish national reference herbaria for medicinal plants; the need for incorporating traditional medicinal plant use in modern day national health programmes; the need for promoting the conservation of national forests. lest we lose useful species of medicinal plants; the development of documentation centres for medicinal plants and traditional medicine, etc.


The survival and superior development of Man is due, to a great extent, to the benefits obtained in his progressive control of the plant Kingdom. Pre-history Man required several thousand years, and of great efforts, to discover the nourishing qualities of plants; to properly collect them and, later on, to freely cultivate them once agriculture was created. Alongside the acknowledgement of the nutritional value of the plants, experience permitted him to identify the plants, and to discover other qualities related to improving the health for the sick. Subsequently, it was possible to identify, in some plants, the advantages of using them for the treatment of a given disease, and, on the other hand the hazardous, and even the mortal effects, or the psychoactive ones.

The American indigenous medical knowledge is a collection of magical-religious empirical knowledge on the health/disease phenomena, and therapeutics is based on the use of plants to which preventive-curative effects have been historically attached. The Shama, the witch-priest-doctor of the primitive society, is the character who collects and transmits, through generations, the medical traditions of the community. He is the depository of the knowledge on herbal therapeutic uses, and is the selected one for using hallucinogenic drugs, which will change his appearance, and will allow him to know details about the disease, and the fate of the patients.

Pre-Spanic medicinal plants

The Andean Region is one of the most important domestication, adaptation, and diffusion centres of plants from the American continent. The Inca civilization emerged in this surrounding, and, by availing themselves from the ancient traditions of other aboriginal populations, shaped an empire whose life supported itself in land economy. During the Pre-Columbus time, several plants were domesticated, and it was possible to attain a good knowledge on several useful plants, for either feeding purposes, timber extraction, or for the making of dyes and medicines.

In ancient Ecuador, the Cacicazgos, or primitive lords, by following a long tradition, had, at their disposal local products which resulted from wild collection, or planting, in the Amazon region. Added to this knowledge, we see the influence of the Incas, which by the end of the 15 Century, started to go into the North. This mixture was what both the Conquistadors and the historians found. Some of them referred to the presence of these plants. According to their information, during the pre-Spanish era, at least 40 different species of medicinal plants were known. We need to say that almost all the plants used as food, had their use in the aboriginal pharmacopoeia.

Three medicinal plants had a peculiar importance in medical matters in ancient Ecuador, and they were soon incorporated into the European pharmacopoeia: the Zarzaparrilla (Smilax zarzaparilla L.); the Palo Santo or Guayaco (Guayacum officinalis) and the Cascarilla or Quinah (Cinchona sp.). The first two were applied in the treatment of buboes, the French disease, or syphilis, creating great expectations during the 16th and 17 Centuries, thus achieving great commercialization in Europe. It was later seen that their effects were either limited or nil, for the efficient treatment of this infection. At present they are still used by traditional healers, but with a different purpose. The Quinah or Cascarilla, was incorporated into the European pharmacopoeia at the beginning of the 17th Century, creating a real revolution, since it was found to be the first medicine of plant origin, having real curative effects against tercianas, malaria or paludism. The Quinah is the biggest contribution America has done to universal pharmacopoeia, thus saving millions of lives.

Starting with the Spanish conquest, a group of alien plants were added to the native ones, which soon got their naturalization documents, and which were included in the national folklore. Under the influence of Spanish popular medicine, primitive medicine reorganized its knowledge, transforming itself into a practice aimed at the treatment of health problems of the aboriginal population, as well as of the lowest urban strata. Scientific medicine, which came together with the Spaniards, had a slow progress, alongside the three centuries of colonial domination, which based its therapeutics in plant applications. This situation did not change until mid-19th Century, already the Republican Period of the history of Ecuador.

Tradition in the study of medicinal plants

The concern over the study of medicinal plants from different perspectives, has a long tradition in our country. The historical and geographical documents, written by the Spanish authorities, have a vast information on the use of the plants by our native population. Regrettably, there is no systematic work of the ethnic-historical knowledge, which is to be fundamental to the assessment of the evolution of the application of each plant that is useful for medicine. Also, as we have noted, during the 16th Century, new species of plants were introduced, which needed to be differentiated from the native ones, and which had to be studied also, taking into consideration their impact on the therapeutics, and their incorporation into traditional medicine. We must stress that in this century, two native plants have rapidly been incorporated into European pharmacopoeia, by virtue of their curative potency for the treatment of syphilis, rheumatism, and fever in general. Here we are referring to "guayacan" or "palo santo" (Guyacum officinialis) and "zarzaparrilla" (Smilax sp.). In the 17th Century, Quinah (Cinchona sp.) was introduced into the therapeutics, of paludism, this being a major contribution to universal pharmacopoeia. During this time, several historians and some colonial officials, wrote valuable reports on common plants used for food and medicinal practices by the aborigines. Alongside, 18th century scientific studies were started on the American plants. In Ecuador, the arrival of a French geodesy mission, was witnessed in 1735. The historian, Juan de Velasco, wrote a book at the end of that century, titled "The History of the Quito Kingdom". The document contained the first list of medicinal plants.

The arrival of the French geodesy mission, whose task was to measure a section of the Earth meridian, set, as of 1736, an important landmark on the development of knowledge on the botany of Ecuador. La Condomine, and the botanist Jussieau, wrote the first scientific memoirs on Cascarilla, or Quinah de Loja, which later on were used by Linnaeus to establish the genus Cinchona in 1742. All along the 18th Century, the Spanish Crown was very much concerned with the extraction, the transportation, and commercialization of this plant.

At the end of the 18th Century, the historian, Juan de Velasco, in his work, the "History of the Kingdom of Quito", presented a list of 60 medicinal plants from the country, giving their uses and modes of application. Also at that time, the natural sciences flourished in America, with the sending, from Spain, of three botanical expeditions: one to Peru (1777-1788), the second one to Nueva Granada (1783-1816), and the third to Nueva Espana (Mexico), from 1737 to 1803. These expeditions introduced the Linnaean system of naming the medicinal plants. Regarding Ecuador, the botanists Juan Tafalla and Juan Augstin Manzanilla, members of the botanical expedition to Peru, studied, for nine years the tropical and Andean flora, and carried out (in Loja) the most important research work on Quinas, describing 32 different species. These works were incorporated in one book, "Flora Huayaquilensis", which remained unpublished until 1989. Several medicinal plants are part of this "Flora". Francisco Jose de Caldas, a member of the botanical expedition to Nueva Granada, visited the country between 1801 and 1805, and also discovered several species of medicinal plants. Humboldt and Bonpland, who arrived in the country in 1802, also carried out outstanding studies on the natural history of Eduardor. Finally, the native botanist, Jose Mejia Laquerica, between 1802 and 1806, wrote the first Ecuadorian botanical study, "Plantas Quitenas", in which he listed several species used in biomedicine.

During the 19th Century, botanists Jameson and Sodiro, developed their botanical research work to such a significant level that this period is known in history as, "the golden age of Ecuadorian botany".

Jameson, a German national, lived in Ecuador from 1822 until 1873, and published his book, "Synopsis Plantarum Aequatoriensium", in which he cited medicinal applications of plants. Sodiro, an Italian botanist, arrived in the country in 1870, and carried out several valuable taxonomic studies on the plants of the country, and also initiated the development of the first national herbarium. He published several books.

Luis Cordero, a distinguished researcher in botany, sent in 1889, a collection of medicinal plants to the Universal Exhibit in Paris, obtaining a silver medal for that. In 1890, this study was published, and in it, indications are given on the uses and effects of the plants. Later on he published his great work, "Enumeracion Botanica", a reference book, which is a must for those working on Ecuadorian plants. Also around those same years, a physician from Quito, Jose Maria Troya, published his work "Vocabulario de Medicina Domestica", which is the first book giving medical information, published in the country, with a scientific perspective. In it, formulae and techniques in the handling of the remedies which are of plant origin are presented.

At the First Medical Congress held in Guayaquil in 1915, Dr. Marco Tulio Varea pre sented a paper under the title "Botanica Medica Nacional, published in 1922 as a book, which later on, became the most valuable piece of work done in this field. During the last decades, valuable botanical, anthropological, phytochemical, and pharmacological research was carried out. Miguel Acosta Solis, Alfredo Paredes, and Plutarco Naranjo merit to be named in these areas due to their valuable contributions.

Medicinal plants and the present medical practice in Ecuador

At present Ecuadorian medical practice might be classified into two big categories: (a) official or scientific practice, and (b) traditional practice. Regarding the latter, some research has been done lately, which Justifies its recognition as "knowledge", widely used by the population. Traditional medicine represents an ideological and empirical answer on the part of the population to its own health needs. It has been preserved, thanks to tradition, and it is used by the vast majority of the population in the rural areas (50 per cent of the 10,000,000 inhabitants), especially by indigenous peasants. It is also used in the urban-marginal neighborhoods of the cities. The concepts and practices used by this medicine, are rational, and are in accordance with the definitions of nature, Man and the society of which the peasant population is a part. These definitions are determined by the functions implemented by this social group in the production process of the country, thus explaining the degree of acquisition of a dominant ideology, especially of the schemes of the catholic religion, and of the survival of ancient ideas and beliefs. There are theoretical as well as empirical elements of great importance regarding traditional medicine we could name: the broad concept of health and disease; the systematization or classification of diseases and their treatment according to the concept of chance, the therapeutic use of the values of the community, the successful application of several psychological resources, the empirical treatment based on the knowledge of medicinal properties of the different plants, animal and mineral products, learning through practice, and the acceptance of tradition. The healers of the aboriginal medical practices are classified as follows: (a) the witchdoctor, (b) the healer by horror, (c) the herbalist, (d) the masseur and (e) the midwife.

Traditional medicine is a lively element in the Ecuadorian medical practice. It is true that in recent years the rendering of medical care by the state medical services, has increased outstandingly, both in the urban as well as in the rural areas. Nevertheless, due to the communication problems derived from the unavoidable cultural problems and the high price of the drugs, a large part of the population still use exclusively or perhaps in combination with the drugs from the Western medicine, medicinal plants. On the other hand, the mobility structures felt by the population, basically composed of temporary small ailments, always offers possibilities to simplify the therapies.

Lately, the historical continuity of the use of plants has come to being part and parcel of the self-identity of the Ecuadorean citizen, thus requiring a study, recuperation and diffusion process of the value of medicinal plants, so as to prevent its disappearance in the hard struggle witnessed in our countries, between what is modern and tradition.

Justification for the development of studies on medicinal plants

As we have been stating, there have been, in the country, an important concern for the study of medicinal plants. But these works have not been systematized and most of them are not known at all. Any research work which will allow the systematization of ethnobotanical, and historical information, and which places in time and space the importance of each plant, would undoubtedly represent a contribution to the knowledge of the important field of medicine. On the other hand, if these investigations would concentrate themselves in the phytochemical and pharmacological studies developed in recent decades, they would provide for objective and scientific backing to the popular knowledge, regarding the beneficial effects of the plants. Finally, if these research scientists were able to collect, by means of epidemiological and anthropological methods, data on the prevalence of the present use of medicinal plants, we would obtain extraordinarily useful information.

Given the situation of national medical practice and the need for training health professionals, it is necessary to start implementing the useful national information on medicinal plants. The professionals graduating from the Faculties of medicine, and who have to complete a year learning about rural medicine, face a serious problem of communication with the population in the countryside, and they are not able to handle situations related to traditional medicinal practice. A technically drafted manual, giving an elaboration on herbal medicine, will be of tremendous help in solving these problems. Also, by doing so, we will start a real process of integrating medical practice.

The population needs to have at its disposal a serious scientific information on the value of medicinal plants, because if, it does not, the people will continue to base their beliefs on information permeated with magic and witchcraft. It is also possible that a more scientifically based application of the plants, might help in solving the health problems of the population.

The Amazon Region is one of the few regions in the world which still holds an extraordinarily rich botanical heritage, which has not been fully studied. The phenomena derived from the impact of modern agro-industry are fostering a speedy deforestation of the virgin vegetation of the Amazon, and it is necessary to take proper measures to ensure its protection; and the country's researchers should undertake botanical, anthropological, clinical, and phytochemical studies, in order to determine the nutritional and medicinal values of the plants in this region.

The conservation of the culture of Third World countries can be effected in several fields. One of these is the recognition and evaluation of all that the population has been able to accumulate as knowledge on the use of the elements of nature, in order to satisfy their needs, and for the solution of their problems. This necessitates that we involve politicians and administrators in the execution of research and the dissemination of information regarding medicinal plants.

Summary and conclusion

The information presented above indicates the following areas of priority with respect to the medicinal plants of Ecuador:

· Ethnohistorical studies on medicinal plants which will allow one to systematize and objectively place, in time and space, information compiled by scientists to date.

· Epidemiological studies on the use of medicinal plants in different ecological and socio-cultural strata.

· Botanical, anthropological, and biochemical research on the plants from the Amazon Region.

· Systematization of the information on the biochemical, pharmacological, and clinical studies undertaken in the country.

· Diffusion of the results of whatever is known, up until now.

· Drafting of manuals, catalogues, brochures, videos, etc.

· Promotion of conservationist policies.

· Incorporation of traditional medicine and medicinal plants in the National Health Programme.

· Development of herbaria of medicinal plants.

· Development of a Documentation Center on Traditional Medicine and Medicine Plants.

· Development of joint regional programmes amongst the countries from the Andean Region.

· Exchange of information and documentation.


Acosta, S. (1971). Los bosques del Ecuador y sus products. (The forests in Ecuador and their products) Ed. Ecuador, Quito

Arcos, G. (1933). Evolucion de la Medicina en el Ecuador. (Evolution of Medicine in Ecuador). Imprenta Fernandez, Quito.

Caldas, F.J. (1968). Cartas. (Letters) Imprenta Nac. Bogota.

Cordero, L. (1980). "Plantas Medicinales" (Medicinal Plants) Revista Cientifico-Literaria de la Corporacion Universitaria del Azuay 1(1): 19-25.

Cordero, L. (1950). Enumeracion Botanica. (Botanical Enumeration) Afrodisio Aguado, Madrid, (II Edic.)

Engel, Frederic. (1966). Geografia Humana Prehistorica y Agricultura Pre-Colombina en la Quebrada de Chilca. (Pre-history Human Geography and Pre-Columbus Agriculture in Quebrada de Chilca) Ed.Universidad Agraria, Lima.

Estrella, Eduardo. (1977). Medicina Aborigen. (Aborigine Medicine) Ed. Epoca, Quito.

Estrella, Eduardo. (1980). Medicina y Estructura Socio-Economica. (Medicine and Socio-Economic Structure). Ed. Belen, Quito.

Estrella, Eduardo. (1986). El Pan de America. (Bread from America) CSIC, Madrid.

Estrella, Eduardo. (1989). "Introduccion". En: Flora Huayaquilensis. (Introduction in Flora Huayaquilensis) ICONA, Madrid.

Gonzalez Suares, Federico. (1905). Memoria historica sobre Mutis y la Expedicion Botanica de Bogota. (Historic Memory on Mutis and the Bogota Botanical Expedition). Imprenta del Clero, Quite, (II Ed.)

Gonzalez Suares, Federico. (1968). Historia General del Ecuador. (General History of Ecuador). Ed. Casa de la Cultura, Quito. T. III.

Humboldt, Alexander. (1978) Sitios de las Cordilleras. (Places in the Mountain Flange). Imprenta y Libreria Gaspar. Madrid.

Jameson, Julielmo. (1965). Synopsis Plantarum Aequatoriensium. Typis Joannis Pauli Sanz, Quito. 2 Vols.

Jimenez de la Espada, Marcos. (1965). Relaciones Geograficas de India. Peru. (Indies Geographical Relations. Peru) Ed. Atlas, Madrid. 3 Vols.

Juan, Jorge y Ulloa, Antonio. (1978). Relacion Historica del Viaje a la America Meridional. (Historical Relation of the Trip to Southern America). Ed. Fundacion Univ. Espanola, Madrid.

Munoz, Jose E. (1952). Apuntes para la Historia de la Farmacia en el Ecuador (Notes for the History of Pharmacy in Ecuador) Ed. Ruminahui, Quito.

Naranjo, Plutarco. (1979). Bibliografia. (Bibliography) Revista Ecuatoriana de Medicina y Ciencias Biologicas (Quito), 15 (2): 469-486.

Paredes, Alfredo. (1952). "Plantas usadas por neustros Aborigenes". (Plants used by our aborigines) Boletin de Informacion Cientifica Nacional (Quito), 47: 817-822.

Paredes, Alfredo. (1970). Propseccion fitoquimica de las plantas economicas del Ecuador. (Phytochemical prospection of plants with an economic value in Ecuador). Politecnica (Quito), 2(1): 4557-499.

Paredes Borja, Virgilio. (1947). La contribucion del Ecuador a la Materia Medica: La Quinah. (Ecuador's contribution to Medicine: Quina). Ed. Casa de la Cultura Ecuatoriana, Quito.

Sodiro, Luis: Most of his works are published in the history of Central University. Anales de la Univ. Central Quito) from 1995 to 1910.

Solano, Vicente. (1971). Obras Escogidas. (Selected Works) Offsetec, Quito, (Col.Ariel-70).

Thomson, William. (1981). Las Plantas Medicinales. (Medicinal Plants) Ed. Blume, Barcelona: 8-10.

Troya, Jose Maria. (1898). Vocabulario de Medicina Domestica. (Vocabulary of Domestic Medicine). Tipografia Artes y Oficios, Quoto.

Varea, Marco Tulio. (1922). Botanica Medica Nacional. (National Medical Botany) Tipografia Vicente Leon, Latacunga.

Valasco, Juan de. (1946). Historia del Reino de Quito en la America Meridional. (History of the Quito Kingdom in Southern America). Historia Natural, Ed. El Comercio, Quito, T.I.

Yacofleff, Eugenio y herrera, Fortunate. (1934). "El Mundo Vegetal de los Antiguos Peruanos". (Plant World of Ancient Peruvians Revista Museo Nac. (Lima), 3(3): 243-332; 4(1): 31-102.