The border region of Ecuador and Peru is one of the Earth's most biologically diverse areas, and thus a "hotspot of biodiversity" par excellence. Low passes in the Andean chain allow an easy exchange between the floras and faunas of the Amazon Basin and the Pacific lowlands. Additionally, the region shows a very fast transition between the humid mountain forests of the northern Andes and the dry, deciduous forests of the northern Peruvian lowlands.
Traditional methods of healing have been beneficial in many countries with or without access to conventional allopathic medicine. In the United States, these traditional practices are increasingly being sought after for illnesses that cannot be easily treated by allopathic medicine. More and more people are becoming interested in the knowledge maintained by traditional healers and in the diversity of medicinal plants that flourish in areas like Northern Peru. While scientific studies of medicinal plants are underway, concern has arisen over the preservation of both the large diversity of medicinal plants and the traditional knowledge of healing methods that accompanies them. To promote further conservation work, this study attempted to document the sources of the most popular and rarest medicinal plants sold in the markets of Trujillo and Chiclayo, as well as to create an inventory of the plants sold in these markets, which will serve as a basis for comparison with future inventories. Individual markets and market stalls were subjected to cluster analysis based on the diversity of the medicinal plants they carry.
Since 2002, students travel to Trujillo and Chiclayo, Peru to conduct ethnobotanical research. The students work at the National University of Trujillo and the University UPAO Trujillo. In addition to their individual research projects, students on the MHIRT (Minority Health and Health Disparities International Research and Training) project in Peru are trained to:
- collect plants in the field and local markets;
- dry and prepare herbarium specimens;
- identify the plants scientifically;
- develop systematic databases;
- develop anti-bacterial assays under field conditions.
For the surveys of traditional plant uses, detailed questionnaires, including questions about plant origin, vernacular name, illness category, recipe formulation, pricing and quantities sold have been developed. The authors decided to maintain traditional illness categories given by the informants, rather than trying to revert to the western biomedical system. Surveys are conducted in Spanish by fluent speakers. Surveyors would approach healers and market vendors and explain the premise for the study, including the goal of conservation of medicinal plants in the area. Healers and market venders (both male and female) are interviewed in Peru, after explaining the scope of the study and obtaining prior informed consent.
Once medicinal plants have been identified and collected, phytochemical bioassays are conducted to determine whether the plants display any anti-bacterial activity.
The floristic composition as well as the complex phytochemistry of traditional herbal mixtures remain woefully under-studied. This is the more surprising as traditional one-plant single-compound based drug discovery efforts have yielded very little results in the last decades, and might in fact be an explanation as to why so many plant species that have been documented for a certain use, are “inefficient” or “toxic” when introduced to clinical trials. Traditional herbal mixtures, with their wealth of compound fragments and new compounds originating in the preparation process, could well yield new clues to the treatment of a wide variety of disease. Further studies to compare the compound composition of these preparations versus single plant extracts, as well as investigations comparing efficacy and toxicity of herbal preparations versus their single plant ingredients are in progress.