Adventures in Peru, Chapter 12

Cinchona Bark and Yerba Maté

Indian Poisons and Medicinal Plants, Part 3

The leaf of the wild banana is almost as fine a specific for boils and tumours as the castor oil plant. Another most valuable shrub is the papaw tree. It yields a succus, or milk, which is very useful in cases of diphtheria, ulcerated throat, etc. The leaves help to keep horses in good health. A solution of papiene, painted on a boil, or abscess, is better than a poultice. Natives all over South America use the milk as a remedy for rheumatism. In Zululand it is steadily relegating the old Zulu specific, viz. cow dung, to the background. The papaw fruit is beneficial to dyspeptics and folk who have kidney trouble. Natives of Trinidad say that the leaf, applied as a poultice, takes away lumbago, sciatica, or gouty pains in a single night. One of its virtues is much appreciated by housewives, for the leaf, rubbed into a piece of tough meat overnight, renders it quite nice and juicy by the next morning.

In the course of my wanderings in South America I came across two varieties of chuno. The black sort I have already described; the white is made as follows: put whole potatoes in a cobble-stone well, under the surface of some stream or pool. Cover with cobble stones and leave for six days; then proceed as when making black chuno. White chuno was what the Kaiser wanted to get at, in case he thought proper, one fine day, to send his soldiers to the Andes.

Father Francisco’s narrative of how quinine first began to be used by the educated classes, interested me not a little. It seemed that the wife of the Conde de Cinchoa (the first Viceroy of Peru) lay very sick of malarial fever at Lima. The news of her serious illness reached the ears of the Corregidor of Coja, a town in Ecuador, about 150 leagues from Quito. So he sent the Conde’s physician some of the bark of the cinchona tree. Part of the bark was reduced to powder, and part was intact.

It appears that the Corregidor, when riding through the forest near Pancarbamba (this signifies “a flowery plain” in the Quichua dialect), met Indians some leagues from Coja carrying pieces of bark in their water calabashes. He asked them why they did so. They replied, “Padrone, we always take it with us when working or walking in the forest. This bark wards off the fever occasioned by the damp atmosphere.” As a matter of fact I myself have often seen Indians carrying this stick and bottle arrangement, indeed, I rarely met any who failed to include it in their outfit.

Well, the Conde’s physician used the bark with satisfactory results. When the Countess was convalescent she went to Europe for a change. She didn’t forget to take with her a supply of the wonderful remedy. Its remarkable properties were soon recognized by the Court physicians, and they named it, after the country where it originated, Peruvian Bark. This disposes of the claim set up by a Jesuit missionary about eighty years later. He sent home some of the bark, making out that he had discovered it, in consequence it was for a long time called Jesuit Bark, almost as frequently as Peruvian. The Jesuits first came to Paraguay in 1620, and remained there till they were expelled in 1767. During that period they converted 140,000 heathens to Christianity.

Among the many customs they found prevalent with the Indians was that of drinking tea every morning. This concoction differs a lot in appearance and flavour from China or Indian teas. The liquor is lemon-coloured and has a slightly greasy, earthy taste, but it is more sustaining than ordinary tea. The Jesuits soon recognized the possibilities that were attached to it, and made a big business of the manufacture of what they called Jesuit Tea.

It is the product of a wild bush called Yerba, which is found growing up the Nasca valley and in many other parts of South America, though I believe it originated in Paraguay. Its full name is Yerba maté. The process of manufacture is as follows: the twigs of the bush are cut and placed on flat stones. Other flat stones are put on top. The twigs remain in this primitive press for three days; then they are exposed to the sun’s rays on mats, and after undergoing sufficient curing, are chopped up fine, packed in bales and sold at so much a kilo.

Yerba maté is infused like ordinary tea. I used to drink little else up in the Andes when it was procurable. Many folk esteem it more highly than ordinary tea or coffee. and there is no doubt it is more stimulating and invigorating than those popular beverages. The Indians all over the Atlantic side of the Andes swear by it. I have travelled on the snow line of the Andes for months at a stretch, in the Provinces of Mendoza, San Juan or Rioja, trading among Indians and accompanied by Indian muleteers, and I never once saw them without it. My old muleteer, Simon Cruz, used to take a pinch of maté out of his bag and put it in an infuser. This he placed in a bright copper bowl, adding sugar to taste. Boiling water was then poured over it. The tea was now ready for use, and the bowl was passed round so that each member of the company in turn could dip the infuser in and place it in his mouth. Of course the infuser was kept scrupulously clean—very often it was fashioned of silver.


One thought on “Cinchona Bark and Yerba Maté

  1. I have linked to the Mountain Pawpaw, from the Andes, rather than the better-known tropical pawpaw or papaya, as it seems likely that Prodgers is referring here to the former.

    The original typesetting does refer to Pancarbamba, but this is probably a typographical error for Paucarbamba; a handwritten u and n could look similar.

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