New York Botanical Gardens: Exploring the Conservation Status of Jamaican Root Tonic Plants

7_Buster and roots

A report by Elizabeth A. Gjieli and Ina Vandebroek for The New York Botanical Gardens.

Jamaican root tonics are fermented beverages composed of roots, bark, and other parts of various wild harvested plant species, which are consumed to strengthen the body, increase stamina, cleanse the blood, and improve libido. These concoctions are widely popular across Jamaica, and among the Jamaican diaspora in New York City, London, and Toronto. In order to produce the tonics, knowledgeable people collect bark, roots, and vines of plants from the forest, typically three days before or after the full moon. These plant parts are left to dry, and when they are ready for brewing, they are chopped and boiled in water. The boiling process can last a few hours to an entire day, depending on individual preference and the desired strength of the tonic. When this stage is complete, the concoction is stored in a bottle and left to ferment.

Despite their popularity today and an integral part of Jamaican biocultural heritage, the use of wild and (semi-) domesticated plants for these health tonics remains vastly understudied. Dr. Vandebroek and her colleague Dr. David Picking from The University of the West Indies at Mona, Jamaica are actively researching and documenting the ingredients of these tonics. The data collected in this project can be used to investigate the conservation status of these native and endemic species by mapping them in NYBG’s GIS Lab, led by Liz Gjieli.

3_roots boiling

More than 200 plant species used in root tonics have been recorded across five parishes in Jamaica. Since many species are collected deep inside forests, it is likely that some are vulnerable from a conservation perspective. GIS analysis showed that this was the case for several species, by analyzing the range of their naturally occurring geographic distribution. This is done by compiling all known occurrence records for a species, derived from NYBG’s C.V. Starr Virtual Herbarium and the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF), a repository of information from major herbaria worldwide. GIS software is used to map all of the known localities of the species and calculate an “extent of occurrence” (EOO) polygon. This polygon represents an estimate of the spatial area that a species occupies. Species with an EOO of less than 20,000 square kilometers, and which are also experiencing severely fragmented habitat or a decline in populations or range, are considered “vulnerable”. This is according to the global authority, the International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.

4_chainy root Smilax canellifolia

Identifying species that are potentially at risk with this rapid assessment will warrant further “on the ground” investigation into their proper conservation threat status.  With this analysis, we hope to contribute to preserving the valuable biocultural plant diversity of Jamaica.

Funding courtesy the National Geographic Committee for Research and Exploration Grant #HJ-161R-17 to Ina Vandebroek.

IUCN. 2012. Red List Categories and Criteria: Version 3.1. Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK: IUCN.

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