Cover Story

Chiriquí tour!

Discover nature’s healing secrets along new Medicine Plant Trail

Casa Cor
Bottled Anamu: this plant is used to reduce muscle pain and arthritis. Pharmaceutical companies are currently studying its significant “anti-cancer cell activity” and anti-tumor properties.

Casa CorTeatime is a delightful way to refresh after hiking the medicine trail at Finca Luz.

Many a cure for common ailments and illnesses – and even beauty secrets – have been discovered in the verdant mountains around the world. Cloud Forest Botanicals (CFB), in the mountains above Boquete, Chiriquí, bottles up the cures that the forest provides. This company began on Finca Luz, a small organic eco-farm near Boquete. Within the rolling borders of Finca Luz there are multiple micro-ecosystems, accessible via a new Medicinal Plant Trail that has just opened at Finca Luz.

Located in the mountains above Boquete, the cloud forest teems with monkeys, cats, small deer and uncounted kinds of insects. The plant species that grow in the mountains have never even been fully catalogued, athough the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) has been working on it for almost 100 years. Botanists, pharmaceutical companies, environmental scientists and ecology students from around the world come here to study the plants of the Panama highlands.

It is possible to walk from an area of mountain cloud forest dripping with wild orchids, purple and red epiphytes, electric-green mosses shading an under-story of wild, fragrant gingers and exotic heliconias, to meadow lands planted with Arabica coffee, bananas, citrus and guavas, and end up in a natural wetland where year-round springs encourage wildlife to water, trout to swim, and where papyrus, elephant ears, lilies and God knows what else abound.

It is the “God knows what else” that gave inspiration to the inception of Cloud Forest Botanicals (CFB). Dianne Heidke and Elizabeth Worley, the founders of CFB, have been living here in Panama for a combined 15 years. Dianne, from Queensland, Australia, and with a background in ethno-botany, has always been keen on knowing plants, their scientific as well as common names, and what they were good for. Elizabeth, from the temperate rainforest of western North Carolina, spent much of her life wandering the Blue Ridge mountains, learning the names of trees, medicinal plants and wildflowers. She once owned a health food store there and studied local herbal medicine with several Cherokee Indians living back in the hills. They both thought they had a pretty good handle on plants, herbalism and natural health.

The cloud forest: a very special place

The cloud forest

Panamanian cloud forests are located in the tropical mountains, and are characterized by frequent or seasonal low-level cloud cover at the canopy level. Cloud forests develop on the saddles of mountains where moisture introduced by settling clouds is more effectively retained. Cloud covered mountains in Central America are home to many shrubs, orchids and plants that grow nowhere else. Only 1% of the global woodland is covered by cloud forests.

A wild world of unknown flora

So when they arrived in Panama some eight years ago, they were amazed at how much they did not know about the local flora. Oh, there was some familiarity…but it was all wildly out of context. Even many identifiable plant varieties were strange and alien. What to make of a twenty-foot tall philodendron climbing the side of an unusual oak — only recognized as such because there are acorns on the ground? Or clumps of elephant ears the size of Buicks, just hanging out in the valley? Hibiscus bushes two stories tall? Poinsetta trees?

“We would walk around,” recalls Worley, “asking What’s this? And, that over there, what’s that? And, what’s it for? We decided to learn.” Local mountain dwellers helped them to identify plants. A common theme began to emerge: medicine.

Another helper along their path of discovery has been Franklin Gruber, who has spent the last 30 years tromping through the jungles, studying with ‘curanderos’ (local medicine doctors), and formulating recipes from the plants he studied to help people heal themselves, without depending on modern pharmaceuticals.

He helped Worley and Heidke to identify plants, gave them a few recipes, and hinted at mysteries they were too “young” in the field of herbalism to yet know. He also introduced Worley and Heidke to Doña Maria Candelaria, at the time a 101-year-old ‘curandera’ living in the El Valle area of Panama. At a mere four and half feet tall, this tiny woman shared her wealth of information.

Experimentation began...

Heidke and Worley’s fascination grew and they spent years at Finca Luz, looking amongst the growth for “medicine plants.” They began to experiment with using them—on themselves first, then on friends. No one got sick (or sicker). People actually began to get better. Skin conditions improved. Vitality increased. Cloud Forest Botanicals was born.

Today, on Finca Luz, the gardens and the forest produce the medicinal plants which are used to hand craft a specialty line of herbal tinctures and quality skin care products. Tours of “The Medicine Way Trail” are now available, so those curious can learn firsthand about the bio-energetics and healing properties of rain forest plants. It’s a wonderful way to get to know a somewhat hidden side of life here. After guests have wandered the trail, they get to enjoy a fabulous morning (or afternoon) tea featuring herbal lemonades, local, organic cheeses, breads and jams.

Contact information

Cloud Forest Botanical products are available in several locations throughout Panama, can be purchased at Finca Luz, or can be ordered and shipped. Visit the website cloudforestbotanicals.com for information. For those interested in touring the Medicine Trail go to boquetepanamacloudforestfarm.com.