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Learning the power of tropical flowers in Costa Rica

Fri Feb 19th, 2016

Tropical Flower essences used for emotional healing in Costa Rica. Photo by Arvolyn Hill 

For the past year I have been studying herbalism at Twin Star Connecticut’s School of Herbal and Energetic studies. I have always loved gardening, hiking and being outside but didn’t know much about the plants I was surrounded by. At Twin Star, Clinical Herbalist and Flower Essence practitioner Lupo Passero taught about the abundance of medicinal plants that I often just thought were just weeds from Mugwort to Mullein. After finishing the foundations of Herbalism course, I decided to take my herbalist education to the next level by enrolling in a Flower Essence practitioner training program in Costa Rica. The eight-day intensive plant camp was hosted at Centro Ashé a medicinal plant center in Manzanillo, Costa Rica a small town bordering the Caribbean Ocean.

The Caribbean Sea in Manzanillo, Costa Rica

I left cold NYC late in the night flying first to El Salvador for a quick connection to San Jose, Costa Rica. Suddenly the grey cement world I was used to became a warm lush mountainous landscape. Our group of eight plant enthusiastic women met at the airport. We all piled into a small van with Lupo and started our 6-hour journey to Manzanillo.

Three toed sloth hangs upside down from a Noni tree.

Manzanillo is a small town on the edge of the jungle and next to the Caribbean Sea everyone in the town knows each other and in some way seems related. The Caribbean side is predominantly Afro Caribbean, due to its history of being apart of the African slave trade. In adittion many people came to Costa Rica from Jamaica, Barbados and China for work to build the railroad, Molly Brown told us. Molly, a Maryland native, is the owner of Centro Ashé herbs and plant center. She fell in love with the tropical plants and her husband Javier in Costa Rica. Molly showed us the brand new open classroom that was just added to Centro Ashé. With no walls you could learn and admire hummingbirds zipping from one hibiscus flower to another. It was paradise.  We met Alda and Luba our cooks and teachers who would spoil us rotten with delicious traditional Afro Caribbean Costa Rican food. The sisters grew up in Manzanillo and have lived there their whole life knowing the plants better than anyone.

Alda and Luba sisters and Manzanillo natives were our cooks and teachers.

Lupo, as the guest teacher, led the classes. She told us that Flower Essences are herbal infusions or decoctions made from the flowering part of the plant that uniquely address emotional and mental aspects of wellness. British Physician Dr. Edward Bach first discovered Flower Essences in the 1930s. Bach formulated the first 38 flower remedies. Each flower is believed to be of help to us in different ways helping us to better cope with mental and emotional imbalances. Although Bach didn’t have the chance to study tropical flowers. Lupo told us that we can use a method called Doctrine of Signatures to identify a plant’s potential healing properties. Doctrine of Signatures involves studying a plant’s physical form, color, shape, smell and habitat to decipher its uses.

A Banana flower during our plant walk with Omar Cook.

Alda took us on a medicinal bush medicine plant walk. She showed us that the plants that line the side of the road have been used by the people for generations. Such as Noni trees which produce fruit that is used to make jam and loved by the sloths. As a flower essence Noni helps with the ability to stay confident and listen to your inner voice. Dormilona, a bush herb is adored by kids because it closes when you touch it opening again in minutes. As an herb Dormilona is a sedative; as an essence it’s used to help people be more flexible in life. My favorite plant we worked with was the Ylang Ylang tree. Ylang Ylang is well known for its wonderful scent used in Chanel No.5 perfumes. The Ylang Ylang tree in Manzanillo sits on the side of a dirty road its scent so strong it can be smelled down the street. It has long hanging branches like a willow tree with beautiful yellow flowers with lanky petals. As a flower essence Ylang Ylang embodies gratitude and is used wash away sorrow.

Ylang Ylang a rare but wonderful tree its scent loved around the world.

In addition to spending time learning about the plants we visited Puerto Viejo, a neighboring town’s farmer’s market to buy produce from local farmers. We hiked in the Gandoca jungle on the Manzanillo Nature Reserve with Omar Cook, Alda and Luba’s brother. On the hike we saw Howler Monkeys, Golden web spiders, a banana yellow Eyelash viper and a boa constrictor that was as thick as my leg.

A Bribri Cacao farmer paints nails with orange sap from a tree.

We visited the Bribri Waterfalls and an Indigenous Bribri community. We went on amedicinal plant tour where we saw how certain plants like turmeric and Achiote are used as natural dyes. We saw how the BriBri traditionally made chocolate by crushing roasted cacao seeds with stones. The smell of the hot cacao was something I will never forget so sweet and comforting.  

Crushing roasted cacao seeds making chocolate the traditional way.

Although it was the tropical rainy season, we had been lucky with beautiful weather but by the end of the trip the rain came and it didn’t stop. It rained like I have never seen rain before, pouring down on us. By our last day we had lost power and the rain had flooded the entire town including our classroom.

Our teacher, Lupo, next to the Bribri waterfall.

But like the rain we went with the flow and ended our training using our knowledge of the tropical flowers in essences. We each paired up and consulted one another. Based on our personal experiences and emotional past we recommended tropical and the Bach essences in combination for healing.

My experience in Costa Rica left me feeling open. Open to possibilities, open to new plants, open to new people and open to dealing with life’s challenges. By understanding the plants I felt I had a better understanding of the great and vast bio diversity of the world.

A cacao bud at the Bribri cacao farm.

All photos by Arvolyn Hill