“Uña de gato,” the shaman said as he pointed into the jungle. I peered into the dripping greenery. His son, Pedro, one of our interpreters on this walk said "gato," then “cat," then made meowing sounds and waved his hand towards me in a claw shape. As Francisco repeated uña de gato, I saw it. I had seen this plant before but only as thin slabs of wood and twig pieces as I readied to grind them down to extraction size.
Uña de gato was not much to look at; in fact, except for the barely visible claw-shaped thorns amongst the greenery, this vine was ordinary, its roots somewhere unseen and the growing end winding somewhere into the distant forest top. However, to see this plant, I had to travel south to Belize, to hike along a little-used path and stumble along animal trails in the hot and humid rainforest, soaked by a tropical rain that stopped as suddenly as it started. The other botanists and agronomists on this medicinal walk provided useful facts like how the tropical rainforests have the greatest genetic and biological diversity of all terrestrial populations. I was certain of this as we walked with the ever-present clouds of hungry mosquitoes and vigilant for venomous spiders, ants, and snakes not seen in our Canadian forests.
The claw-shaped thorns give the name Cat’s claw or uña de gato (Uncaria tomentosa) to this vine. The leaves are no greener nor is the bark darker brown than other plants in that tropical rainforest. Yet it is a special plant because some time in the distant past someone made a medicine from it. Today, this plant is still used traditionally by the indigenous peoples of the Central and South Americas. Francisco, the local healer, the shaman that the Que'chi Maya of the Toledo District in Belize turn to first for their health needs, uses this vine to treat arthritis, digestive problems and women’s hormonal imbalance. Around the world, where no one has ever seen the actual living plant, the plant extract is used to boost the immune system to fight a cold and to alleviate arthritic pain. Early studies suggest that this plant may aid in the fight against cancer.
That afternoon, looking at uña de gato dripping with the last raindrops in the tropical sun, I connected with the Mayan past. Through the shaman and his tradition, the phytochemist (me), and our science, we build upon knowledge to develop medicines for our time.
Valerie Assinewe, PhD, learned about herbal medicines from her grandmothers, in her graduate studies, and in her jobs with the federal government and as a consultant. She is now a retired civil servant.