Cooking with Herbs

For many centuries, European and Asian societies used the concept of humoral medicine to explain health and wellness as the delicate balance between ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ spheres in the body. Disease was defined as an imbalance between these spheres, with associated excessive ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ conditions. Although modern evidence-based medicine has effectively replaced humoral medicine in the Western world, remnants of humoral medicine (pertaining to body fluids) and its practice remain alive and well in many parts of the developing world, including Trinidad.

In most instances ‘cooling’ is used traditionally as preventative medicine (prophylactic) to bring the ‘body back in balance’ in ‘hot’ conditions. ‘Hot’ diseases appear to be associated with fever, infectious skin manifestations (such as rash and ringworm) and inflammatory conditions such as hives. Traditionally, ‘hot’ states required ‘cooling’ treatments, which included medicinal plant preparations that supposedly restored the body’s balance. We hypothesized that humoral medicine was still being actively practised in rural Trinidadian communities and undertook to conduct an ethnobotanical survey to document the use of ‘cooling’ medicinal plants, as well as plants used for the treatment of fever, a ‘hot’ humoral state.

A survey was conducted in 50 rural communities to include 450 households by face-to-face interviews over the period October 2007 to July 2008. This was done as part of the larger Caribbean-wide TRAMIL (Traditional Medicine in the Islands) network. We restricted our survey to rural agrarian communities where we assumed that there would be a higher incidence of use of local herbal remedies from the garden or backyard and preservation of traditional knowledge.

A simple pilot-tested qualitative survey questionnaire was used to collect details, such as the plants being used, the part or parts being used, and forms in which remedies were made. Samples of live plant specimens were collected and placed in a plant press for preservation. These specimens were subsequently taken to the National Herbarium of Trinidad and Tobago where they were dried, identified and accessioned to be filed with the main collections. Global positioning system (GPS) coordinates were also collected at the interview sites to locate respondents and plant specimens.

Twenty households from each of the 50 communities were conveniently selected and the most knowledgeable person in the household was interviewed on the use of herbal medicines. In most instances, respondents were the eldest female in the household who was often responsible for the healthcare of the family. This is the first extensive ethnobotanical study done in Trinidad, and to our knowledge, the English-speaking Caribbean, that quantifies the extent of traditional use of medicinal plants as ‘cooling’ and for the treatment of fever in rural communities.

The survey found that 44 plant species belonging to 31 families were used for ‘cooling’ in 48 out of the 50 communities with 238 citations. Cat’s Claw, Verven, Candle Bush, Caraile and Shiny Bush accounted for a significant proportion of the citations (142 out of 238 or 40.9%). There were 109 citations for the treatment of fever from 41 out of 50 communities. A total of 28 plant species belonging to 19 families were identified, with Lemon Grass (Fever Grass) and Jackass-Bitters (sepi) accounting for 75 or 68.8 % of all citations.

These findings confirm that humoral medicine remains popular in rural communities throughout Trinidad.

The indigenous flora of Trinidad is mainly neotropical. However, during the colonial period, numerous plant species of economic and horticultural importance were introduced into the island, some of which become major plantation crops. It is therefore not surprising that almost half of the species found in this survey are also exotic species, such as Aloe vera or Citrus sp. It is uncertain to what extent the Amerindians’ use of the indigenous flora for medicine influenced the use of the indigenous species for medicine found on this survey by the transplanted population from mainly Africa and Asia. Albeit all the species are mainly common roadside weeds or forest species which are not threatened or endangered. It would be difficult to trace with certainty the routes whereby humoral medicine reached the island of Trinidad.

Although there are limited studies in humans to support the use of these plants as ‘cooling’ or any of the associated conditions, we conducted a review of published research to determine whether medicinal plants identified in our survey showed antibacterial properties and could be used to treat fever, pain and inflammation in laboratory and animal-based studies.

Although Macfedyena unguis-cati (Cat’s Claw) was the most commonly used plant for ‘cooling’ in Trinidad there is very little research done. In animal models for pain and inflammation an extract of Stachytarpheta jamaicensis (Verven) significantly reduced sensitivity to pain and experimentally-induced inflammation.

Senna alata (candlestick plant), native to tropical America, is commonly used to treat skin conditions such as fungal growth, pimples and ringworm. In Trinidad its use as ‘cooling’ in bush teas could be related to the preventative effects against skin conditions related to these ‘hot’ conditions. Human and laboratory studies support the traditional use of candlestick plant in the treatment of skin conditions caused by microbial organisms.

A study in humans demonstrated the effectiveness of ‘candlestick plant’ when applied directly to the skin as antifungal treatment for the flaky discoloured skin patches of pityriasis versicolor, caused by a yeast fungus. Other extracts of the bark of candlestick plant prevented the growth of the Candida albicans fungus, which causes thrush. It also prevented the growth of pus-forming bacteria responsible for triggering acne inflammation. These experiments were done in the laboratory.

In classical West Indian folkloric tradition a ‘purge’ is often given to ‘clean out the insides and purify the blood’ and to prevent the occurrence of disease which oftentimes manifest as ‘hot’ skin conditions. This purge often included bush teas which may include candlestick plant to cause diarrhea. A clinical study using people who complained of constipation for at least three days showed that a bush tea from candlestick plant produced significant relief after 24 hours.

Caraile (Momordica charantia) was also identified as a useful plant for ‘cooling’ in Trinidad and is traditionally used to treat skin conditions including rash, furuncles (boils) and hives. For skin conditions, the leaves are crushed and prepared as a poultice and applied directly to the skin; for preventative ‘cooling’ an infusion is used. Fevergrass was the most frequently cited plant in Trinidad for fever.

There is much laboratory and animal-based research to support the antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory and related biological activities for most of the plants identified for ‘cooling’ and its associated indications. However, caution must be taken as most of this research was done in using laboratory experiments or animals which do not represent the ‘real’ situation in the human body. Clinical studies in humans must be done to determine whether these remedies are in fact safe and effective.

Our survey has identified medicinal plants for traditionally labeled conditions which could be partly explained by modern medical terminology. However, the preliminary support of laboratory and animal-based studies should be used as a platform from which clinical studies in humans could be done to determine the effectiveness and safety of herbal preparations used as ‘cooling’ and for fever. It is possible that these research efforts may provide alternative and/or complementary approaches for healthcare provision in the Caribbean.

Plant Species Common Name Traditional Use Citations for
traditional use
(frequency %)
Plant part(s) used Method of preparation
Macfadyena unguis-cati (L.) Cat’s claw ‘Cooling’ 41 (17.3) Vine Bush tea
Stachytarpheta jamaicensis (L.) Vahl Verven ‘Cooling’ 38 (16.0) Leaves Bush tea
Senna alata (L.) Roxb. Ringworm bush ‘Cooling’ 25 (10.6) Leaves, flower Bush tea
Momordica charantia L. Karaile ‘Cooling’ 22 (9.2) Leaves, vine Bush tea
Peperomia pellucida (L.) Kunth Shining bush ‘Cooling’ 16 (6.7) Whole plant, leaves Bush tea
Cymbopogon citratus (DC.) Stapf Fevergrass Fever 47 (43.1) Leaves, stem & roots Bush tea
Neurolaena lobata (L.) Cass. Zebapeek Fever 28 (25.7) Leaves Bush tea


This is an edited excerpt from a report on a survey done by Dr. Yuri Clement, Department of Paraclinical Sciences, Ms. Yasmin Baksh-Comeau and Mr. Rajesh Ragoo, Department of Life Sciences of The University of the West Indies, and Dr. Compton Seaforth, Herbal Institute, The University of Trinidad and Tobago. We acknowledge Mr. P. Mark, Ms. Alicia Halls, Mr. Steve Ramsaran (who conducted interviews and collected plant specimens) and Mr. Winston Johnson and Ms. Keisha Manaure of the National Herbarium of Trinidad and Tobago assigned scientific names, sorted and vouchered collected plant specimens. The report was presented at the International Year of Biodiversity Research Poster and Paper Symposium in November 2010, which was a collaborative event of The UWI and the Ministry of Housing and the Environment.


One response

  1. What are the other local names for cat’s claw?

    Alternative Names

    Una de gato; Uncaria tomentosa

    Cat’s claw


    Named after its hook-like horns, cat’s claw (Uncaria tomentosa) is a woody vine native to the Amazon rainforest and other places in South and Central America. The bark and root have been used by South Americans for centuries to treat health problems including arthritis, stomach ulcers, inflammation, dysentery, and fevers. It was also used as a form of birth control.

    Test tube studies indicate that cat’s claw may stimulate the immune system, help relax the smooth muscles (such as the intestines), dilate blood vessels (helping lower blood pressure), and act as a diuretic (helping the body eliminate excess water).

    Cat’s claw also has antioxidant properties, helping the body eliminate particles known as free radicals that damage cells. Scientists believe free radicals to contribute to health problems, including heart disease and cancer. Antioxidants can help neutralize free radicals and may reduce, or even help prevent, some of the damage they cause.

    Some early studies suggest cat’s claw may kill tumor and cancer cells in test tubes.


    Not many scientific studies have looked at the safety and effectiveness of cat’s claw, but it has been used traditionally to treat osteoarthritis (OA). One study found that it may help relieve pain from knee OA without significant side effects.

    Rheumatoid arthritis

    Cat’s claw has been suggested as a treatment for rheumatoid arthritis (RA) because it may help reduce inflammation. One small study of people who were already taking sulfasalazine or hydroxychloroquine to treat RA found that those who also took cat’s claw had fewer painful, swollen joints than those who took a placebo (dummy pill). But although cat’s claw may help reduce inflammation, there is no evidence to show that it stops joint damage from getting worse. For that reason, RA should be treated with conventional medications, which can stop joint damage.

    Further research

    Cat’s claw is being studied for a number of other possible uses, including HIV, Crohn disease, multiple sclerosis, systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE or lupus), endometriosis, kidney problems, bladder cancer, and Alzheimer disease. More research is needed before scientists can say whether it is effective.

    Plant Description

    Cat’s claw is a thorny vine that can climb as high as 100 feet. It grows mostly in the Amazon rainforest, as well as tropical areas in South and Central America. Much of the cat’s claw sold in the United States was grown in Peru.

    Cat’s claw got its name from the curved, claw-like thorns that grow on its stem. The root and bark of cat’s claw are the parts used for medicine.

    What is It Made Of?

    Cat’s claw contains many types of plant chemicals that help reduce inflammation, such as tannins and sterols, and fight viruses, such as quinovic acid glycosides.

    Cat’s claw preparations are made from the root and bark of the cat’s claw vine. How effective the root and bark are may depend on what time of year the plant was harvested.

    Available Forms

    The bark of the cat’s claw vine can be crushed and used to make tea. Standardized root and bark extracts (containing 3% alkaloids and 15% phenols) are also available in either liquid or capsule forms.

    How to Take It


    No one has studied cat’s claw in children, so no one knows whether it is safe. DO NOT give a child cat’s claw except under your doctor’s supervision.


    Speak to your health care provider regarding dosing instructions.


    The use of herbs is a time-honored approach to strengthening the body and treating disease. Herbs, however, can trigger side effects, and can interact with other herbs, supplements, or medications. For these reasons, you should take herbs with care, under the supervision of a health care provider.

    Cat’s claw appears to have few side effects, however, there have not been enough scientific studies on cat’s claw to determine its safety. Some people have reported dizziness, nausea, and diarrhea when taking cat’s claw. The diarrhea or loose stools tend to be mild and go away with continued use of the herb.

    Pregnant or nursing women should not take cat’s claw because it may cause miscarriage.

    People with autoimmune diseases, skin grafts, tuberculosis, or those receiving organ transplants should not use cat’s claw unless specifically directed by their physician because of its possible effects on the immune system.

    People with leukemia or low blood pressure should not take cat’s claw.

    People with kidney or liver disease should not use cat’s claw without first asking their doctor.

    Possible Interactions

    If you are currently taking any of the following medications, you should not use cat’s claw without first talking to your health care provider.

    Medications that suppress the immune system: In theory, because cat’s claw may stimulate the immune system, it should not be used with medications that suppress the immune system. Those include cyclosporine or other medications prescribed following an organ transplant, or to treat an autoimmune disease.

    Blood-thinning medications: Cat’s claw may increase the risk of bleeding, especially if you also take blood thinners such as aspirin, warfarin (Coumadin), or clopidogrel (Plavix).

    Diuretics (water pills): Cat’s claw may act as a diuretic, helping the body eliminate excess fluid. If you also take diuretics, which do the same thing, you could be at risk of developing an electrolyte imbalance.

    Blood pressure medication: Cat’s claw may lower blood pressure. If you take medication for high blood pressure, taking cat’s claw may cause your blood pressure to be too low.

    Other medications: Cat’s claw may interfere with some medications that are processed by the liver. If you take any medications, check with your doctor before taking cat’s claw.

    Supporting Research

    Aquino R, De Feo V, De Simone F, et al. New compounds and anti-inflammatory activity of Uncaria tomentosa. J Nat Prod. 1991;54:453-459.

    de Fatima Fernandes Vattimo M, da Silva NO. Uncaria tomentosa and acute ischemic kidney injury in rats. Rev Esc Enferm USP. 2011;45(1):194-8.

    Gonzales GF, Valerio LG. Medicinal plants from Peru: a review of plants as potential agents against cancer. Anticancer Agents Med Chem. 2006;6(5):429-44.

    Hardin SR. Cat’s claw: an Amazonian vine decreases inflammation in osteoarthritis. Complement Ther Clin Pract. 2007 Feb;13(1):25-8.

    Kaiser S, Dietrich F, de Resende PE, et al. Cat’s claw oxindole alkaloid isomerization induced by cell incubation and cytotoxic activity against T24 and RT4 human bladder cancer cell lines. Planta Med. 2013;79(15):1413-20.

    Keplinger K, Laus G, Wurm M, et al. Uncaria tomentosa (Willd.) Dethnomedicinal use and new pharmacological, toxicological and botanical results. J Ethnopharmacol. 1999;64:23-34.

    Miller MJ, Mehta K, Kunte S, Raut V, Gala J, et al. Early relief of osteoarthritis symptoms with a natural mineral supplement and a herbomineral combination: a randomized controlled trial [ISRCTN38432711]. J Inflamm (Lond). 2005 Oct 21;2:11.

    Mur E, Hartig F, Eibl G, et al. Randomized double blind trial of an extract from the pentacyclic alkaloid-chemotype of uncaria tomentosa for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis. J Rheumatol. 2002 Apr;29(4):678-81.

    Nogueira N, Coelho TM, Aguiar GC, et al. Experimental endometriosis reduction in rats treated with Uncaria tomentosa (cat’s claw) extract. Eur J Obstet Gynecol Reprod Biol. 2011;154(2):205-8.

    Pilarski R, Zielinski H, Ciesiolka D, et al. Antioxidant activity of ethanolic and aqueous extracts of Uncaria tomentosa (Willd.) DC. J Ethnopharmacol. 2006 Mar 8;104(1-2):18-23.

    Piscoya J, Rodriguez Z, Bustamante SA, et al. Efficacy and safety of freeze-dried cat’s claw in osteoarthritis of the knee: mechanisms of action of the species Uncaria guianensis. Inflamm Res. 2001;50(9):442-448.

    Quilez AM, Saenz MT, Garcia MD. Uncaria tomentosa (Willd. ex. Roem. & Schult.) DC. and Eucalyptus globulus Labill. interactions when administered with diazepam. Phytother Res. 2012;26(3):458-61.

    Rizzi R, Re F, Bianchi A, et al. Mutagenic and antimutagenic activities of Uncaria tomentosa and its extracts. J Ethnopharmacol. 1993;38(1):63-77.

    Rosenbaum CC, O’Mathúna DP, Chavez M, Shields K. Antioxidants and antiinflammatory dietary supplements for osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Altern Ther Health Med. 2010 Mar-Apr;16(2):32-40. Review.

    Sandoval M, Charbonnet RM, Okuhama NN, et al. Cat’s claw inhibits TNFalpha production and scavenges free radicals: role in cytoprotection. Free Radic Biol Med. 2000;29(1):71-78.

    Setty AR, Sigal LH. Herbal medications commonly used in the practice of rheumatology: mechanisms of action, efficacy, and side effects. Semin Arthritis Rheum. 2005 Jun;34(6):773-84. Review.

    Sheng Y, et al. Induction of apoptosis and inhibition of proliferation in human tumor cells treated with extracts of Uncaria tomentosa. Anticancer Res. 1998;18:3,363-3,368.

    Sheng Y, Pero RW, Wagner H. Treatment of chemotherapy-induced leukopenia in a rat model with aqueous extract from Uncaria tomentosa. Phytomedicine. 2000;7(2):137-143.

    Spelman K, Burns J, Nichols D, et al. Modulation of cytokine expression by traditional medicines: a review of herbal immunomodulators. Altern Med Rev. 2006 Jun;11(2):128-50. Review.

    Steinberg PN. Cat’s claw: medicinal properties of this Amazon vine. Nutrition Science News. 1995.

    Cat’s Claw
    Version Info

    Last reviewed on 6/22/2015
    Steven D. Ehrlich, NMD, Solutions Acupuncture, a private practice specializing in complementary and alternative medicine, Phoenix, AZ. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network.

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