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Pichichio is a medicinal herb used  in Costa Rica to cure sinusitisA Costa Rica real estate client asked me to write about medicinal herbs in Costa Rica, which fortunately comes pretty easy to me because my dad, together with his partner, Hendrik Stins, opened La Buena Hierba, the first real medicinal herb store in Costa Rica in 1986.

I come from a family of pharmacists and my dad changed his pharmacy & drugstore in to a spice and medicinal herb store in the 70’s, so I grew up with the smell and use of spices and medicinal plants at home. When we moved to Costa Rica, my dad first bought half the shares in Mondaisa, then Montaña del Arco Iris SA, a small factory of spices and herbal teas. Later, he started Condimentos Escazu with another partner and started the La Buena Hierba store on Paseo de Estudiantes, now in China Town.

Costa Rica used to have a strong culture for the use of medicinal herbs but over the last 20 years most of it disappeared. Hierba Buena, cuculmeca, zacate limon, cola de caballo, diente de leon, hombre grande and pichichio are some of those local medicinal herbs, you just need to know where to buy them and what they are used for. You will find three kinds of herbs in Costa Rica: Indigenous, Afro-Costarican and Caucasian, but the indigenous influence of the use of these medicinal herbs has always been the strongest. You will find that, throughout Costa Rica, over 300 different medicinal plants are used by the local population.

Where can you shop for medicinal plants and herbs?

You won’t find any medicinal plants and herbs in shopping malls. Macrobiotica or health food stores might carry some extracts, but you won’t find any fresh medicinal herbs in those stores either. For the real thing, you will either have to shop at the farmer’s markets or the central markets that most town and cities in Costa Rica have. You will find most of them around the fresh vegetable stands. Ask your Tico neighbors for instructions how to find them. If you live around San Jose, you can go to La Buena Hierba on Paseo de Estudiantes, 200 meters south of La Casa del Tornillo. Hendrik or his wife Leticia will tell you exactly what remedies to take for whatever that bothers you.

Shopping for herbs and medicinal plants in the Central Markets of Costa Rica

Shopping for herbs and medicinal plants in the Central Markets of Costa Rica

Commercial medicinal herb plantations

Very few have tried to grow large quantities of medicinal herbs and pioneers like botanist Rafael Ocampo and his wife Flor Maroto have tried hard but a lack of funds and lack of Governmental interest in many projects that were started, put a stop to all industrial growth.  The only information on medicinal herb export that I can find is that Costa Rica exported 18.2 metric tons of medicinal herbs in 1992. Only a few tea companies like Mondaisa, Manza Té and Kábata use locally grown plants like Lemon Grass, Chamomile, Hibiscus and some others for their herbal teas, which you can purchase in almost every supermarket in Costa Rica.

Rafa Ocampo and his wife, Flor Maroto, meeting with other medicinal herb connoisseurs

Rafa Ocampo and his wife, Flor Maroto (extreme right), meeting with other medicinal herb connoisseurs

Scientific interest

Rafael Ocampo is a scientist and has never sought the commercial side of medicinal herbs and plants. With scientists like Michael Ballick and others, Rafa has done some incredible investigative  work on the development of agroindustrial  products like Achiote, Ipecacuana, pepper, flor de Jamaica, curcuma and others. Unfortunately Rafa doesn’t speak any English and all his studies have been published in Spanish and as many scientists, he is not a very accessible person. He owns am investigative herb farm near the city of Limon.

The Ark Herb Farm

Tommy Thomas, a former Peace Corps volunteer and owner of Industrias Los Patitos, a leader in the local spice industry, started The Ark in the 90’s in Santa Barbara de Heredia. On this beautiful herb farm, they have over 300 species of medicinal plants from Costa Rica and from all over the world. You can tour this amazing farm and they even have bilingual guides.

Tommy Thomas doing what he likes at The Ark Herb Farm in Santa Barbara de Heredia

Tommy Thomas (on left) doing what he likes at The Ark Herb Farm in Santa Barbara de Heredia

Finca Luna Nueva

Sacred Seeds Sanctuary, a sustainable rainforest Eco lodge has a dynamic collection of medicinal plants and houses over 300 tropical medicinal plants. You can visit them on the road to La Fortuna de San Carlos.

Herbario Nacional

The National Museum has a pretty nice herb selection with great explanations on most of them in “El Herbario Nacional” located in San Jose on Calle 17, between Central and Second Avenue,right behind the Plaza de la Democracia.

Medicinal herbs for all kinds of ailments

      Medicinal herbs for all kinds of ailments

Even though Costa Rica has an incredible potential for growing medicinal herbs for the huge pharmaceutical businesses, it seems nobody has tried to hook into this important industry as far as I know.  Rafael Ocampo states in one of his many publications that the country registers the lowest demand of medicinal herbs in Central America, probably due several reasons:

1.    Costa Rica has a high level of income per person compared to the rest of Central America
2.    The country spends a lot of the public expenditure on public health
3.    The country has a much higher preventive public health system than other countries
4.    Public health politics have not legislated in favor of alternative production of pharmaceuticals
5.    Agricultural politics have not considered the support of medicinal plants as an alternative of development

Interested in shopping for medicinal herbs and plants and their use?  Talk to your local neighbors; go to the local markets like the farmer’s market and you will be able to find all the information on each herb.

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Ivo Henfling

If you are looking to buy a home in Costa Rica or invest in a condo anywhere in the central Valley, or looking for any property for sale in Escazu, you need to call me. I have been selling real estate in Escazu for over 20 years and can show you hundreds of happy buyers of real estate in Escazu and other areas. To me, a deal is not a good deal unless both buyer and seller are happy.

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