My Mother’s Roots: The Tale of an Immigrant’s Herbal Journey by Jocelyn Perez-Blanco

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My Mother’s Roots: The Tale of an Immigrant’s Herbal Journey by Jocelyn Perez-Blanco

Originally published on American Herbalist Guild site

Whether it involved tending to houseplants or using herbs in everyday life, plants have always been an important part of my maternal family’s dynamic – the primary source of nutrition and medicine. I was raised in a household with a mother, Xinia (pronounced See-nia), who took every opportunity to share her knowledge and instill a deep appreciation for the healing that nature could bring, inspiring me to embrace food as medicine and the beauty all around us, whether found in a field of white clover or the most delicate damascus rose. This is a peek into her own journey, one that continues to bring an endless stream of remedies and horticultural advice my way.

I wanted to learn more about the herbal knowledge she had originally brought with her from Costa Rica, and the herbal allies she turned to while she grew up in the melting pot that is New York City, and the new herbs she has connected to now that she is once again in her homeland. I decided to interview her to gain a deeper understanding of her experiences and how regional practices may have influenced her herbal choices.

A pivotal moment was my grandmother’s choice to come to the United States in search of a better life leaving her children in the care of relatives. This thrusted my mother into a role that involved helping to manage a household at the tender age of 8, and it was not until a few years later, once my grandmother had settled, that she was able to  bring over my mother, 13, and her brother, 16, respectively. Upon arriving to the United States, she had to take on the responsibility of a new baby sister and learn her way around the kitchen and apothecary often turning to her own grandmother for advice, recipes, and remedies given over long phone conversations.  She heavily relied on using the few herbs that were readily available in her new home that she recognized by name, and similarly to life in Costa Rica, this new household also used herbs as the first line of defense or aid, actively using common herbal staples in day-to-day life. 

One such ally was Manzanilla (Roman Chamomile, Chamaemelum nobile L.) flowers, primarily used for any bouts of stomach upset and to ease different types of inflammation. Roman Chamomile has long been used for its antiphlogistic (anti-inflammatory), carminative, and cholagogue effects. These flowers are rich in volatile oils and terpenoids, such as alpha-bisabolol, as well as apigenin, a flavonoid, that have been studied for their anti-inflammatory benefits, while anthemic acid, a bitter glycoside, is believed to aid with digestion and overall gastrointestinal health. She was taught by her family to brew “té de Manzanilla”(Chamomile tea) by pouring a cup of boiling water over 1 – 2 teaspoons of loose dried flowers, or by using a ready-to-use teabag, and letting it steep for 15-20 minutes, at the onset of symptoms such as inflammation or stomachache, and that when needed, she could dip a rag into the tea to use as a fomentation (placed on the skin) to treat localized swelling. Another ally, Tilo (Linden, Tilia cordata L.) flowers and leaves came to the rescue during battles with colds and flus, along with being a remedy for encouraging sleep, and in the evenings when in need of slowing down, she would steep one to two teaspoons of dried Tilo (Linden flowers/leaves) for 15-20 minutes in a cup of boiling water to make a tea to be consumed for its sedative effects, often attributed to the components of its volatile oils, such as limonene and eugenol.

She continued to build upon ancestral herbal knowledge, learning from and sharing with others, and when she became a mother, she found herself once again in the role of healer for the household and devised creative ways of introducing us to herbal remedies, often combining them with allopathic treatments. I have many memories of my mother preparing infused oils, such as eucalyptus leaves in olive oil, and then mixing it with Vicks vapor rub to relieve our chest congestion, using liniments to relieve headaches as her mother did, and even cooking up healing broths loaded with herbs which she would then blend into purees or mix into sauces so that my brother and I (notoriously picky eaters) would enjoy them without complaint. Her guidance has been ever-present, and once my brother and I became adults, she followed through with her plan to return to Costa Rica upon early retirement (before 50!) and make a new life in a place she had waited almost 30 years to get back to.

Upon returning to Costa Rica, she wasted no time in getting refamiliarized with the local plants and enthusiastically tried new species recommended to her by the family. She says the availability and quality of herbs at her disposal has greatly increased since she can now simply grow them in her own backyard and pick them fresh to use whenever she needs them – in sharp contrast to the years of apartment living in the states.  She explained that she had found herself having to use her herbal staples again to aid in the transition into the new schedule and diet that came with the change of lifestyle, a callback to her acclimation as a child. To help her settle in, she looked to familiar allies -- Manzanilla and Tilo -- but the exposure to the new variety of foods led to intense gastrointestinal upset during her first few months back, that even they could not completely alleviate. So, she used common locally used remedies and began to make infusions of Mozote de caballo (Triumfetta semitriloba L.) leaves also known as Burweed, as well as Chan seeds (Hiptis Suaveolens L., syn. Mesosphaerum suaveolens L.), and Mallow (Malva sylvestris L.) leaves, all of which she described as “refreshing” to the stomach. These three herbs are all very rich in mucilage, which when taken internally are used as demulcents. To prepare these herbs, she pours near-boiling water over one to two teaspoons of either dried Mozote or Mallow leaves, or bruised (slightly crushed) Chan seeds, and lets them steep for 15 – 30 minutes, and this happens to make the water somewhat gelatinous – which is what we want! These preparations are believed to coat the inner membranes of the digestive tract, cooling the tissues and counteracting acid reflux.

While discussing my mother’s experience, I find myself once again appreciative of our ancestral knowledge, along with the joys of being a “forever student” of nature. As a child, she clung to any semblance of home and using familiar herbs, whether culinarily or medicinally, helped her hold onto that connection -- especially through taste – and as an adult she found herself able to continuously turn to familiar friends to soothe her body and mind. While she often admits she craves the familiar tastes and plants she came to love in the states that aren’t as readily available there, this nostalgia is outweighed by her excitement for adding new herbal allies to her regimen and sharing them with others. The knowledge she has amassed through decades of herbal practice has fueled her need to learn more and as a result, I learn more and more with each passing day --- waking up to in-depth recipes with specific dosages in my inbox, and, my personal favorite, videos of her making these preparations. I am eternally grateful to her, our family, and the herbs that have shaped our lives.


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