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A Summary of Some Useful Plants in the Páramo of Nudo del Azuay
Jessica A. Werner Round River Conservation Studies, Cuenca, Ecuador (Department of Biology, Colby College, Waterville, ME) April, 2010
The data was gathered about the edible or useful plants in the páramo of Nudo del Azuay.
Information was gathered on 31 plant species, 24 were identified to at least family and 17 up to the species level, by compiling data from four different sources: three published books and an individual from Colepato, Ecuador. The information on well-known plants was found to be well supported in literature while information about lesser-known plants was more variable between sources.
Ethnobotany was first used as a replacement for “aboriginal botany” (Harshberger 1896
in Rios et al. 2007). The definition has evolved to refer to the interaction between people, plants,
and the variety of practical purposes for the plants (Rios et al. 2007, Kricher 1997). Traditional
aboriginal knowledge of plant use is currently being lost as younger generations do not continue
traditions (Rios 2007). Thus the study and documentation of ethnobotanical knowledge has
become increasingly important. This is particularly true in the tropics because of high bio-
diversity and high rates of endemism, as endemics have a higher tendency to go extinct (Forsyth
and Miyata 1984). It is also important because of possible future uses of the plants. Today, 25%
of medication is derived part or total from tropical flora species, which amounts to 30 billion
dollars annually (Centeno 1993, in Rios et al. 2007). The medications are derived from 95 plant
species which make up 120 plant-based prescriptions (Kricher 1997).
The study site is located in the Nudo del Azuay, formerly known as the Mazar Wildlife Reserve,
a part of southern Sangay National Park in Ecuador. The area is in Cañar province in the Eastern
Cordillera of the Andes Mountains. Páramo is a high-elevation grassland occurring between
3200 m to 4700 m above sea level from 11° north to 8° south (Cuatrecasas 1968). Páramos are
cold and wet, with uniform conditions throughout the year - the highest variations in temperature
occur between day and night. Conditions are frequently windy and cloudy or foggy with rainfalls
of 1000-2000 mm/yr. The soils are generally acidic and carbon rich. The environment supports a
characteristic and unique set of vegetation (Cuatrecasas 1968). Paramo is a fire-maintained
ecosystem, requiring regular burning to prevent shrub encroachment (S. White, pers. comm.).
The area used for this survey ranged from brushy páramo surrounding the Rumi Loma
field station, to areas burned between 5 months prior, in November 2009, to around 30 years ago
Data was gathered by during a field trip in the vicinity of the Rumi Loma field station
with a local man, Don José Ojeda (hereafter: Don José), who is known locally for his knowledge
of traditional plants. Don José lives in a nearby town, Colepato, and lived at the field station for
six years as caretaker. He led our walk and stopped whenever he found a plant that he identified
as useful. For each plant he identified, I took a small sample of each plant, recorded the
traditional use and local name according to Don José, and recorded basic information for further
identification purposes. The plant samples were later compared to other published plant
identification materials to further identify each plant.
During the survey 31 plant species were identified by Don José as being either edible or
useful. Sixteen of these plants were used for making tea, eight had edible berries or parts, three
were for washing yourself, two were for injuries, one was for decoration and one was for
firewood. Of these 31 plants, seventeen were identified to the species level and seven more were
identified to genus or family. For the remaining unidentified plants descriptions are provided.
Entries are as follows: common name in Spanish (if known), scientific name (if known), family,
description of the use according to Don José, and other sources (if available), and a description
1. Tipo or Sunfo. Clinopodium nubigenum
. This plant is picked and boiled for tea (Don José,
pers. comm., Rios et al. 2007), the tea is used for altitude sickness and a poultice is used for
headaches (Ulloa et al. 2004). Rios et al. (2007) also reports tipo being used “for the flu” and for
“medicinal tea”. From personal experience, the plant has a pungent odor while brewing or after
stepping on the live plant. Tipo is a trailing shrub that forms mats. It has reddish-brown stems
with opposite, ovate leaves up to 4 mm long. It has small white flowers, up to 7 mm long, with
four petals and a purple inside. The leaves are pubescent. Tipo is found from Columbia to Peru
in the sierra (personal observation, Ulloa et al. 2004).
2. Lancetilla. Castilleja fissifolia
. This plant is for making tea (Don José, pers. comm.). It is also
used as an ornament and used for bathing areas affected by skin disease (Rios et al. 2007),
and tea made from this plant is used to regulate the menstrual period (Ulloa et al. 2004). This
plant has bright red petal-like leaves (bracts) that grow at the apex of the herb, the other leaves
are often dark purple in color. The herb is up to 30 cm tall. The flowers are tubular, light green,
covered with pubescence and up to 2 cm long (personal observation, Ulloa et al. 2004).
3. Nachig or ñachi. Bidens andicola
. An infusion of the roots of this plant is used for stomach
pain (Don José, pers. comm.). The sap is used as a tonic to refresh yourself when feeling weak
and, is made into tea to help with flu symptoms, and the petals contain a dye that is an
oxycarotene (Rios et al. 2007). According to Aguilar et al. (2009), an infusion of the plant is
used to treat bruises, for colds, as a diuretic, to treat asthma, as a dye, and for diarrhea. The
flower grows under 30 cm. The leaves are opposite and the stems are reddish-brown. The
flowers are yellow with 8 petals (personal observation, Ulloa et al. 2004).
4. Lechuga. Lactuca sativa
. This is used for stomach inflammation, and for better results can be
combined with nachig (Don José, pers. comm.). An infusion of the plant is used to cure insomnia
and kidney aliments, and the juice of the leaves is also used to cure toothaches (Rio et al. 2007).
Leaves have a pronounced midrib with white undersides; the leaves are around 3.5 cm long
5. Cola de caballo. Equisetum bogotense.
Equisetaceae. The plant is used to make tea (Don José,
pers. comm.). Plants grow up to 30 cm; the stems are thin and hollow. The leaves are small and
appear to be brown scales arranged in rings around the stems. The reproductive structure is found
at the tip of the stems; they are dark brown and up to 1.5 cm long. The spores are green (personal
6. Cardon santo. Eryngium humile
. Apiaceae. This makes a bitter tea, but it is good for your
health (Don José, pers. comm.). The flowers can also be used to regulate the menstrual period
(Ulloa et al. 2004). These plants grow up to 20 cm tall. The leaves are arranged in a basal rosette;
they are thick, glossy, up to 15 cm long and the main vein is cream colored. The margins are
spiny-serrate. The flowers are white to lilac with a black, spiky center.
7. Hypochaeris sessiliflora
. Asteraceae. The flower is for making tea, though the taste is bitter
(Don José, pers. comm.). An infusion of the plant is used for backaches, an infusion of the leaves
fortifies teeth (Ulloa et al. 2004), and the root of the plant is used to make a drink similar to
coffee (Aguilar et al. 2009). The herbs are low growing (about 5 cm tall). The leaves are
arranged in a basal rosette, elongate and narrow. The flowers are bright yellow, with many
petals. The leaves and flower stalk ooze a milky substance if broken (personal observation, Ulloa
8. Valeriana sp
. (Most likely Valeriana cernua
and Valeriana microphylla
). Valerianaceae. The
root of this plant is eaten when you are in the mountains (Don José, pers. comm.). The root is
used as a sedative for the nervous system; it is also used to regulate heart rhythm (Rios et al.
2007, Aguilar et al. 2009). This forms low shrubs with opposite and ovate leaves (personal
9. Lantang. Plantago sp
. The root of this plant is used to make tea (Don José, pers. comm.). The
plant is less than 4 cm tall, leaves are pubescent, sessile, linear with entire margins and have
three parallel veins. They are less than 2.5 cm long (personal observation).
10. Quichano. Lamiaceae sp
. This plant is used to make tea (Don José pers. comm.). Plants grow
less than 10 cm tall. The leaves are alternate and ovate with crenate margins. Flowers are less
than 3 mm long and light purple (personal observation).
11. Veravera. The stems and flowers are used to make tea that is good for your health (Don José
pers. comm.). The plants grow up to 1 m tall in wet places in the paramo. The stems and leaves
are light green to gray-blue and covered with wooly, white hairs. The flowers form an umbel, are
light yellow and less than 5 mm long (personal observation). The leaves are linear with entire
12. Pacunga. Used for tea (Don José pers. comm.). The plant has white, tubular flowers with four
teeth. The stems are pubescent, the leaves are opposite, ovate and have entire margins (personal
13. Beazroz. The plants are used for tea (Don José pers. comm.). Plants grow less than 30 cm tall
with white flowers that are about 5 mm long. The plant produces dark green-brown seed pods
that are less than 25 mm long. Leaves grow close to the base, are opposite, ovate and have
crenate margins. The leaf shape varies as the plant grows taller (personal observation).
14. Rosé. The flowers are used to make tea (Don José pers. comm.). The plant is climbing and
generally grows within bushes or cushion plants in moist to wet areas of the paramo. The leaves
are ovate, less than 2 cm long, have serrated margins and some have pink spots on the underside.
The stem is brown, woody and covered in small (about 1 mm) thorns. Flowers are pink to purple,
less than 15 mm long and have yellow inflorescence (personal observation).
15. White pastispina. Poaceae. The leaves and inflorescence are used to make tea for when you
have a cold (Don José pers. comm.). Plants grow less than 9 cm tall and have bright green leaves
with a pronounced mid-rib. The inflorescence is 3-7 mm long (personal observation).
16. Alverhia. Fabaceae. The flowers are used to make tea that tastes good (Don José pers.
comm.). Plants are climbing and have curling tendrils. The leaves are about 15 mm long, linear
with pinnate venation and entire margins. Flowers are violet with white centers and less than 2
cm long. The plant looks similar to vetch (Vicia)
1. Puya. Puya clava-herculis
. Bromeliaceae. The insides of the leaves and bottom of flower stalk
can be eaten, either raw or boiled. They are harvested after the flower stalk has bloomed (Don
José pers. comm.). Puya can grow up to 1 m in diameter. The leaves have red tips, are arranged
in a basal rosette and have margins with large, black, curved spines. The inflorescence is
generally over 1 m tall and covered with white, wooly hairs. The flowers are aquamarine and up
to 2 cm long, they form encapsulated fruits that open when dried (personal observation, Ulloa et
2. Disterigma empetrifolium
. Ericaceae. The seeds of the plant are edible (Don José pers. comm.,
Ulloa et al. 2004). The entire plant is crushed and put on the forehead for a fever (Rios et al.
2007). It grows in small shrubs or as trailing plants that form cushions. The leaves are 1 cm long,
alternate, stiff and waxy. The flowers are pink, up to 10 mm long, and vase shaped with four
small teeth. The fruits, or seeds, mirror the shape of the flowers and are light green and can be up
to 12 mm long. This range of this plant extends from Venezuela to Peru (personal observation,
3. Pernettya prostrata
. Ericaceae. The fruit of this plant is edible (Don José, pers. comm.), are
used to treat hypertension (Alguilar et al. 2009) and conversely, may be poisonous (Ulloa et al.
2004). The fruits of this plant are often confused with the Andean blueberry; they are up to 10
mm long and dark purple. The tops of the fruits have caps with triangular points that connect
them with the shrub, the fruits on blueberries have caps that are circular, and the blueberries are
also more oval in shape. The shrubs the fruits grow on are up to 30 cm tall with alternate,
lanceolate leaves. The flowers are white to pink and vase shaped with small teeth (personal
4. Vaccinium floribundum
. Andean blueberry. Ericaceae. The fruit of this plant is edible (Don
José pers. comm., Alguilar et al. 2009, Rios et al. 2007, Ulloa et al. 2004). This is a dwarf shrub
and grows up to 30 cm tall. The leaves are alternate, lanceolate, around 2 cm long, stiff, waxy,
and have serrated margins. The flowers are white to pink, up to 8 mm long; they have a
cylindrical corolla with 4-5 teeth. The fruits are oval, fleshy and dark blue. The insides of the
fruit are light green with visible seeds (personal observation, Ulloa et al. 2004).
5. Manzanita. The seeds are edible and sweet (Don José pers. comm.). It is a trailing shrub that
forms mats, leaves are ovate, less than 1.5 cm long, and alternate with spiny margins. The fruits
are fleshy and dark purple (personal observation).
6. Mora. Rubus sp
. Rosaceae. (possibly Rubus adenotrichos
, Rubus floribundus
). The fruit is for eating and for making marmalade (Don José pers. comm., Rios et al.
2007, Ulloa et al. 2004). The plant forms trailing and climbing prickly subshrubs. The stems are
reddish; leaves are alternate, ovate, leathery and have serrate margins. The fruit is an aggregate
of many smaller fruits; it is the size and general shape of a raspberry. Note: There were two fruits
we picked that Don José called Mora, the first, the one I believe the other references refer to, has
a dark red to black berry. The other has a bright red shiny berry. The fruits are approximately the
same size (personal observation, Ulloa et al. 2004).
7. Yanosara. The seeds are edible (Don José pers. comm.). Leaves are orbicular, pubescent with
a reddish-brown, pronounced mid-rib; they are less than 2 cm long. Inflorescence is arranged in a
raceme. Flowers have 5 segments and are reddish-purple to orange (personal observation).
8. Chiwila. The seeds are edible (Don José pers. comm.). This seed came from a forest patch
near the paramo. The plant was not actually seen by the researcher, just the seed. The seed is less
than 6 cm long, brown and has a triangular cross-section (personal observation).
1. Cacho de venado. Halenia serpyllifilia (weddelliana).
Gentianaceae. An infusion of the
flowers is used to wash with (Don José pers. comm.) and used to treat children’s diarrhea (Ulloa
et al. 2004). It is also used as decoction for rheumatism (Alguilar et al. 2009, Rios et al. 2007).
The plants grow less than 10 cm tall. The leaves are lanceolate, up to 1 cm long and are arranged
in a basal rosette. The flowers have four distinctive horn-like extensions off the back; they are
light greenish-yellow and up to 10 mm long (personal observation, Ulloa et al. 2004).
2. Morella sp
. Morella parviflora
(Bremer pers. comm.). Myricaceae. The plant is boiled in
water and the water is used to wash with, it is similar to soap (Don José pers. comm.). Morella
grows as a woody shrub, up to 2 m tall. Leave are less than 1.5 cm long, alternate and have
serrated margins (personal observation, Lafleur pers. comm.).
3. Pentacalia vacciniodes
. Asteraceae. This plant is used to wash with (Don José pers. comm.).
The shrubs are up to 2 m tall with profuse branching. The leaves are pointed, alternate, tinged
pink on the tip and are silvery green. The flowers are yellow with up to 8 flowers in each bunch,
tubular, up to 8 mm long with 5 teeth and a crown of silky white hairs (personal observation,
1. Lachemilla orbiculata
. Rosaceae. Crushed stems and leaves are put on cuts to make them heal
better (Don José pers. comm.). Ulloa et al. (2004) writes that infusion of the leaves is used to
wash wounds and the dried leaves are used to heal wounds the plant forms mats at the ground
level. The leaves form a basal rosette, are orbicular-kidney shaped with dentate margins. The
petiole is elongated and reddish. Flowers are yellow green and up to 4 mm long (personal
2. Yiepo. This plant is put on scrapes (Don José pers. comm.). This plant grows up to 10 cm tall.
The leaves are less than 5 cm long, pubescent with an elongated petiole, dentate margins and
deltoid in shape (personal observation).
. Gynoxys chicochensis and Gynoxys miniphylla. (Bremer pers. comm.).
The brush is good for firewood (Don José pers. comm. and Ulloa et al. 2004). G.miniphylla
forms shrubs that are up to 2 m tall covered with dense white hairs. The tops of the leaves are
shiny and bright green, they are opposite, ovate and up to 1.5 cm long. The shrub had tubular,
yellow flowers with five teeth; they are up to 4 mm long (personal observation, Ulloa et al.
2004). G. chicochensis
grows up to 5 m tall and is covered with dense white hairs. The leaves are
opposite, lanceolate and up to 10 cm long. Flowers are yellow, strap-shaped and up to 13 mm
long or internal and tubular with 5 teeth (personal observation, Ulloa et al. 2004).
2. Lycopodium sp
. Lycopodiaceae. The moss is used for decoration (Don José pers. comm.). This
is a vasucular, flowerless, terrestrial plant. It has simple, needle-like leaves arranged in a
The data show a variety of known uses for many of the different plants. This study relied
on a single individual to communicate the known uses, two identification guides, and Useful
Plants in Ecuador
(Rios et al. 2007), a compilation of ethnobotanical data, to supplement the
information from Don José. Philips and Gentry (1993) have formed guidelines for estimating the
breadth of ethnobotanical information using the age of the source as an indicator. Don José´s
age, 58, gives him larger than average knowledge of the edible, valuable and medicinal plants
according to these guidelines. However, they also found that knowledge among individuals of
the same age can vary dramatically. So by relying on one individual we receive a skewed version
Knowledge of edible plants (as opposed to medicinal, for example) is gained early in life
(Philips and Gentry 1993), thus, it makes sense that the data gathered from Don José about the
edible plants, mora and Andean blueberries, has the most corroborating sources (e.g., Aguilar et
al. 2009 and Ulloa et al. 2004). However, Pernettya prostrate
was said to be edible by Don José
and possibly poisonous by Ulloa et al. (2004). Unless the fruit is taken to a laboratory and tested
for poisonous compounds, local knowledge and personal experience will have to suffice.
Plants identified by Don José as being used “for tea” frequently had more specific uses
for the tea in other sources. For example, many of the plants that Don José said were for tea and
are also prepared as infusions in the other sources these include: Clinopodium nubigenum,
Castilleja fissifolia, Bidens andicola, Lactuca sativa, Eryngium humile, Hypochaeris sessiliflora
and the Valeriana sp.
The infusion of Hypochaeris sessiliflora,
was described by Don José as
just for making tea while Ulloa et al. (2004) said it was used for backaches. Don José described
two of these plants, Bidens andicola
and Lactuca sativa,
more specifically, saying they were for
an enflamed stomach. Other sources (such as) identify these plants as remedies for the flu and for
kidneys problems. Although Don José´s accounts of these plants are not as specific, both of these
conditions can cause stomach discomfort. So the two reports are not contradictory.
Don José said that Valeriana
was good for when you are in the mountains and the other
accounts say that it is good for regulating heart rate and as a sedative for your nervous system.
Dexamethasone, a drug used to treat altitude sickness is also used to regulate nervous system
disorders (The Internet Drug Index, retrieved 2010) and Acetazolamide, also used for altitude
sickness, is used to control heart problems. Valarian, Valeriana officinalis
, a plant in the same
genus, is used commercially as a sedative and as an anti-anxiety medication (Medline Plus,
published 2006, retrieved 2010). This information suggests that although the sources seem
different at first they may actually support each other.
One of the problems encountered with this study was communication with Don José.
Much of his vocabulary is Kichwa and he speaks rapidly and in a manner regarded as “unclear”
by this researcher. I employed a translator, but he found similar limitations. Had I been able to
communicate better with Don José I may have been able to receive more specific information.
The majority of plants for tea were described to us as “para aguita”, but it is possible that the
infusion was then used for specific purposes that we were unable to understand or ask about.
Another limitation was that the study was undertaken over the course of a single day and covered
a relatively small area, restricting the number of plants that were discussed.
Recommendations to future researchers include spending more time in the páramo, more
time gathering the plants over a larger area, possibly including the nearby forests, and working
with more than one individual. It would also be beneficial to have a more comprehensive field
guide to plants in the area, including keys to identification.
Many of the sources identify different and even contradictory uses for the plants. It is
supposed that when more different sources agree, the more likely it is to be accurate. Therefore, I
presume that accounts of plants that are widely known and widely used for the same purpose,
especially edible plants, have a greater chance of being accurate. Tipo, mora and the Andean
blueberry are possibly among the best known. From personal experience these plants are widely
identified, not only by these sources, but also by the many people who live in or near the páramo.
All plants, especially those with contradictory reports, should be used with discretion at least
until adverse effects are shown to be negligible.
I would like to thank Hannah Lafleur for helping me to identify and describe some of the
samples, especially the woody shrubs, Seth Adams for taking pictures of the samples and
Hannah Lafleur, Ryan Gillard, Seth Adams, Jesse Lewis and Arthur Zahor for accompanying my
walk with Don José and helping me to understand what he said. Additionally, I would like to
thank Catherine Schloegel for lending me her book, Useful Plants of Ecuador, which was
1. Aguilar, Z., C. Ulloa y P. Hidalgo. 2009. Plantas Utiles de los Páramos de Zuleta, Ecuador.
Proyecto do Manejo y Aprovechamiento Sustentable do Alpacas in los Páramos do Zuleta. PPA-EcoCiencia. Quito.
2. Cuatrecasas, J. 1968. Geo-Ecology. pp 163-185. 3. Forsyth, A., Miyata, K. 1984. Tropical Nature. Touchstone. New York. 4. Kricher, J. 1997. A Neotropical Companion. Princeton University Press. pp. 144-167. 5. Medline Plus. Valarian (Valeriana officinalis L.) http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/
druginfo/ natural/patient-valerian.html. Retrieved: April, 2010.
6. Phillips, O., Gentry, A. 1993. The Useful Plants of Tambopata, Peru: II. Additional
Hypothesis Testing in Quantitative Ethnobotany. Economic Botany 47(1) pp. 33-43.
7. Rios, M., M.J. Koziol, H. Borgtoft Pedersen & G. Granda (Eds.). 2007. Useful Plants of
Ecuador: Applications, Challenges and Perspectives. Ediciones Abya-Yala. Quito, Ecuador.
8. RxList The Internet Drug Index http://www.rxlist.com/decadron-drug.htm Retrieved: April,
9. Ulloa, C., Jørgensen, P. 2004. One hundred wild plants from the páramo. Parque National
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