Spices have been used to treat and prevent illnesses for centuries. Sri Lanka traverses many of the historic trade routes and its spice gardens have a rich healing heritage.
The garden felt warm, lush and fragrant.Even as the afternoon rains dripped through the leaves this garden was a haven of luscious plants with some having an immense heritage and healing powers. I was standing in Mr Bonny’s spice garden in Matale and among a Sri Lankan melee of fragrances, spices, and tales of trading routes. Sri Lanka has been the centre of trading routes for over 2000 years with spices at its heart. Today, many are used in ayurvedic medicine as well as cooking.
Palms sheltered us as we wandered through a garden of tropical plants. Borders were defined with coconut shells and jack fruits hung in the air. “Now what is this plant?” asked Mr Bonny. It looked like a stick. But rubbing it produced a familiar scent. Cinnamon. Cinnamomum zeylanicum originates in Sri Lanka and is used in a number of ayurvedic treatments as well as cooking. Cinnamon oil is produced from the leaves and is effective against halitosis, earache, and from shivering. I was fascinated to hear it reduced blood sugar too and was used in combination with other spices to treat diabetes. When the Portuguese came to Sri Lanka in the 15th century, cinnamon was exported to Europe.
Cloves, nearby, were used in treating toothache. It is also a mild aphrodisiac and used in anti pollutants. This spice originated from Indonesia.
We came to another plant. Peppercorns. Red peppers are the hottest ones with black pepper left longer to mature. Green peppers are sweeter and milder. Pepper is high in antioxidants and is said to help digestion. Black pepper also breaks down fat cells which lead to cellulite build up. In Sri Lanka the famous Mulligatawny soup has pepper as its base.
On a fence grew another fragrant plant. Vanilla. The spice originates in Indonesia and is used in cookery. It is the second most expensive plant to harvest as it is so resource intensive. The sweet smell of the vanilla pods filled the air around the plant. I hadn’t appreciated that vanilla is also useful for getting rid of mosquitoes.
In another section grew turmeric. It was unusual to see the plant forms as I am more accustomed to seeing yellow powder in the supermarkets. It is known as an anti cancer treatment but I was unaware it is also used for the menopause. This famous plant originated in India. Above the turmeric, cacao grew. This was not used to make large bars of chocolate but the powder stimulates sleep. It is also a rich source of antioxidants and small amounts have been used to help with heart disease.
Cardamom also grew here and was useful in lowering cholesterol. Close by aloe vera was another medicinal plant used for digestive problems such as constipation. Mr Bonny had a recipe for detoxification using aloe vera. Thanks to an impending bus journey I was not inspired to try it right there and then.
In the small pharmacy there was the famous Sri Lankan Red Oil made from a blend of spices and used to treat a number of conditions from back ache to lumbago and sciatica. Typically it is massaged into the affected area. Sandalwood oil was another product used to treat skin conditions. Along the shelves were various bottled treatments all numbered and explained in the brochure. The slimming pills were particularly foul tasting and there was no hope of me taking those for a month!
When I think of all these plants and how they were traded, the spice routes across the world traversed places like Sri Lanka. It really was a heritage of travel and trade. Listening to all this was a fascinating insight into the ayurvedic way of life. I was instantly inspired to find out more about these treatments. I’ll be planning another journey to do just that and experience ayurveda.