Mainstream medicine is beginning to explore the aisles of botanicas

Times Staff Writer

Drive along many boulevards in the Los Angeles area and you will see colorful botanicas, with their curious mix of candles, incense, potions, lotions, rosaries and a pantheon of Catholic and folk saints in the window. Botanicas have arrived in this metropolis along with the immigrants they serve, soaring in numbers as Latinos make up nearly 45% of the Los Angeles population.

Patrick Polk, a visiting professor at UCLA who has studied botanicas for more than a decade, believes there are more here in Southern California than anywhere else in the country, with much of the growth coming since the early 1990s.

As botanicas have become a more common sight, health officials, researchers and the general public have shown increased interest in this cultural phenomenon.

Through March 6, Fowler Museum at UCLA is presenting the exhibit “Botanica Los Angeles: Latino Popular Religious Art in the City of Angels.” It focuses on the artistic, religious and cultural aspects of botanicas. Last Thursday anthropologists, folklorists, priestesses and traditional herbalists gathered at the Fowler to discuss botanicas as sites of alternative medical practices.

“Increasingly botanicas are a critical aspect of alternative, if not mainstream, healthcare in California,” said Polk. “Three decades ago there were about three dozen in all of Southern California. Now there are about 500. That is a significant increase. We have to ask: What does that mean?”


No one can say for certain where this new interest comes from -- whether it’s Latina nannies suggesting folk remedies to parents, curious urbanites wandering into the mysterious shops or the ever-expanding influence of this country’s burgeoning Latino population.

But the public’s increased use of herbal products and folk remedies has experts looking at a relatively poorly studied area: the Latino botanicas. And in the cultural mix of Los Angeles, many people who might never set foot in a botanica are now finding products such as una de gato, an immune-stimulating herb with anti-inflammatory properties, in drugstores and health food shops.

While interest in natural herbs and supplements has grown in the last decade, there has been little research on the efficacy of Latino folk herbs. David Hayes-Bautista, director of the Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture and a professor at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine, said he hopes that will change.

Government agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health, “for some reason want to deal with very exotic Asian sorts of things -- acupuncture and ayurveda,” said Hayes-Bautista.

“When I go back to Washington I tell them, ‘There is another body of knowledge right under your nose. We need to understand more of what Latinos are doing, which may include alternative therapies and how they maintain mind-body balance. It may be pedestrian, but maybe we need to understand that too.’ ”

Despite a lack of research, there are signs that some of these herbs may be inching their way into the American mainstream.

In the last two years the Santa Monica Homeopathic Pharmacy has begun to stock a handful of Latin American herbs -- among them una de gato, holy basil and boldo, for digestive and liver disorders. Manager Steve Litvak expects the number to grow in the next few years but said the going will be slow because store personnel must test each herb and brand until they know it works.

In Texas, Dr. Victor Sierpina, a family practice doctor and a professor at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, has begun in recent years to suggest Hispanic herbal remedies to some of his patients. These are herbs he learned about from other patients, about 20% of whom are Latinos.

“A lot of my work is in alternative medicine, and it didn’t take me long to realize these people were taking herbs I had never heard of, that were not even listed in the herbal literature,” said Sierpina, who has done research on some Latino herbs for a book he is writing.

Sierpina said he expects use of these herbs to grow as the Latino population in the United States continues to increase. “I think the challenge is going to be for healthcare professionals to become as familiar with these herbs as they are with echinacea and St. John’ s wort,” he said.

The Fowler show grew out of medical field research done by Polk, the curator of the current exhibit; Michael Owen Jones, a professor in UCLA’s Department of World Arts and Cultures; and several graduate students.

The researchers used a $250,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine to study botanicas in Los Angeles.

They sought to establish what products and services botanicas provide; to learn about diagnostic techniques employed by healers in some of these botanicas and the conditions they typically treat; and to document the kinds of rituals and herbal therapies healers provide to consumers.

The researchers took a census of the city’s botanicas, first using phone books and conventional listings, then fanning out across the city in cars and on foot. They counted 435, but the number continues to change almost daily, said Jones. He has since compiled a database of more than 200 medicinal herbs employed by botanicas and healers for more than 100 common uses.

At Botanica El Congo Manuel in Hollywood, Charles Guelperin from Argentina, a practitioner of Santeria, mayombe and espiritismo, provides services to everyone from recent immigrants to employees of nearby Paramount Studios.

Located in a mini-mall between a pizza joint and a pupuseria, the small store is filled with candles, herbs and Catholic and Afro-Cuban sacred icons. In the back is a room for personal counseling, which is what many people come for. The store sells herbs but does not offer medical advice.

The Million Dollar Pharmacy, on Broadway in downtown Los Angeles, is a bit different. Run by Dick Blitz, a businessman who grew up in Boyle Heights, the store has windows jammed with statues of San Simon and the Virgin of Guadalupe.

Inside, atop a glass display case, is a makeshift altar to Jesus and Mary, full of flickering candles with prayers taped to their bases.

Every morning people come in, buy candles, light them and leave them, said Blitz. “People are hurting. This gives them spiritual solace.”

But this is more of a 21st century botanica.

While the store stocks perfumes for good luck and for bringing a straying husband back in line, and voodoo dolls to cast spells, it also has a prescription pharmacy. There is no “healer” here -- just a pharmacist. Clients are left to themselves to pick up some herbs while they wait for their prescriptions to be filled.

Rosemary Gutierrez, the store manager, says the botanica’s mostly Latino customers typically come in with a recipe and know what they want. They have grown up with folk remedies and know what to buy for various maladies.

Increasingly doctors and public health officials are taking notice of botanicas, as well as the Latino herbs and folk remedies that are often sold in places like these.

Dr. Bonnie Taub, a professor at UCLA’s School of Public Health and a participant in last week’s roundtable, studies the traditional medicine of several indigenous groups who live near Oaxaca, Mexico. She has spoken to various health experts to help them understand how these groups approach medicine, so practitioners can better serve them.

She said doctors need to understand that for many indigenous people, “there is this parallel healthcare belief system and set of practitioners that they utilize,” with its own set of traditions that have existed for thousands of years.

“A lot of the people who use traditional medicine or go to healers for more psychic or psychospiritual problems would not reveal that to a Western doctor,” she said.

“One big difference is they are more inclusive and eclectic in their care. They go to local healers but also seek care from Westernized clinics or doctors when they need it.”

Jones said herbal remedies are often part of a larger treatment regimen that involves prayers, counseling and limpias, or spiritual cleansing. But, he said, people do use botanicas for ailments such as digestive disorders, vaginal infections, diabetes and chronic conditions like arthritis and respiratory infections.

“In the best of times the number of city, state and federally funded programs and facilities for those without health insurance or documentation of their legal status falls short of needs,” wrote Jones in a report on botanicas and healers. “Economic downturns force a large percentage of these facilities to close their doors, leaving few health care options ... rendering faith-based and herbal healing even more important to them. Policymakers and practitioners should recognize the cultural role of faith healers and herbal therapies, and perhaps even open lines of communication with botanicas, lest the country’s largest ethnic population continue to be its most underserved.”



For sale at your local botanica

See below a sampling of herbs (with their Spanish names) that might be found in a botanica, and their traditional uses.

Arnica (arnica): used for bruises, internal bleeding; fruit can be used for constipation or urinary tract infection.

Basil (albahaca): used to treat digestive disorders, dysentery, nervousness, menstrual cramps or stomach gas. Usually drunk as tea.

Cumin ( comino): used to combat flatulence, colic and dyspepsia. Can be eaten as a fruit.

Rue (ruda): can be used for menstrual problems, appetite, circulation, arthritis, or topically as an insect repellent.

Spearmint (hierbabuena): used for digestive disorders, flatulence, nausea, sore throat, diarrhea, colds, headaches, cramps.

Wormseed (epazote): used to treat intestinal disorders, parasites and gas. Drunk as tea.

Sources: Dr. Victor Sierpina of the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, and Michael Owen Jones and Patrick Polk of UCLA.