The Herbal Traditions Found in Botánicas
By Joan Whetzel
Mexico has a traditional herbal lore steeped in its historical roots from Europe - particularly that of the Mediterranean region - from Andalucía (with its Moorish roots from southern Mediterranean and the near East), and from Mesoamerican traditions. When the Spanish came to Mexico, the Aztecs already had an extensive knowledge of herbal treatments and remedies using about 10,000 distinct medicinal forms of plant life. While the number of plants used now only covers about 3,000 species, the Mexican herbal traditions were improved by the influx of the European and Eastern herbal traditions. They are now sold in Botánicas across North America.
What Are Botánicas?
Botánicas - sometimes referred to as hierberías or yerberías - sell items in a retail environment such as: folk medicines, religious candles and statues for prayers, amulets and other goods considered to be "magical" or seen as alternative medicines. Other items include oils, incense, perfumes and fragranced sprays, as well as some brand name health products.
Botánicas and Religious Practice
Botánicas are invariably packed floor to ceiling with religious items for the practice of the Roman Catholic faith (.e.g. rosaries, holy water, images of the saints, especially that of the Virgin of Guadalupe). Other religious practices represented include cadomblé, curanderismo, espiritismo, macuma, Santeria, and Voodoo. More recently, items from other religious beliefs and traditions have begun appearing in the stores - New Age. Hinduism, and Buddhism as well as some African traditions and Native American traditions.
Botánicas and Medicinal Treatments
The Spanish word botánica translates to English as botany or plant store, which explains their role as herbal medicine dispensaries. The medicinal herbs sold in these establishments may be dried or fresh, and either prepackaged or sold in bulk, by the ounce or pound. There are herbs to be used for a multitude of illnesses and conditions from arthritis to hair loss, menstrual pain to diabetes. Other herbs can be used for personal situations such as attraction of love, good luck, or prosperity, to ward off jealousy or to protect someone from harm or bad luck.
Filling a Cultural Need
Botánicas mark their presence with brightly painted and decorated signs, which help them stand out in any urban environment and designate them as a curious and mysterious cultural icon to those who are unfamiliar with this form of herbal tradition. But for those who are familiar with Mexican herbal traditions, they serve to remind the people of their roots, where they came from, and to provide a sense of familiarity in a new home. They can also serve as place for the exchange of cultural beliefs, ideas, and philosophies as well as spiritual or religious traditions.
Most immigrants to the US continue to exercise those health care, folk medicine, and religious practices that are culturally appropriate to them. That's where the Botánicas come in. They provide all the necessary ingredients and supplies with which to practice these traditions with the help of a healer, many times, in conjunction with the treatments of modern medicine.
In the US, all larger cities with a sizeable Latino, Hispanic, or Caribbean community (i.e. New York City, Miami, Los Angeles, Houston, El Paso) will have at least one botánica / hierberías. As these communities continue to grow, so will the number of Botánicas. If you live in or near a large city, look online for any stores listed as a Botánicas, Hierbería, or Yerbería.