The Kalu Yala Blog

Plants of San Miguel: Noni, Plantain, and Prickly Pear

January 27, 2011

by Evan Conaway
Posted In: Adventures in the Tropics, Farm to Table Living

What’s up World Changers and Kalu Yala fans?! Evan here with my weekly update. This week I want to talk about a few plants with medicinal properties that I learned about on my first trip to San Miguel. These may be candidates for my project involving the creation of a garden in the backyard of la Casita Kalu Yala (our little house in San Miguel).

Virginia holding the smelly fruit of the noni plant.

Noni (Morinda citrifolia), “pungent but potent”: Next door to la Casita Kalu Yala, lives Sr. José, a cement block maker, junk collector, and all-around admirable man. His pregnant dog accompanied him this particular day, and right after Virginia requested one of the puppies that we will one day call our Kalu Yala pet, Sr. José leaned down and started to pick a white and green fruit from a short fallen tree. I immediately sprung on the opportunity to find out what it was. He informed us that the plant from which he picked the fruit was called Noni, which is a medicinal plant with strong healing powers. Sr. José likes to mix the juice from the fruit with water to create an infusion (that does not have a very pleasant taste or smell) that he drinks when he feels symptoms of illness start to appear. Think of it as a natural Zicam, except not in convenient, chewable, cherry-flavored tablets. According to Natural Health’s Encyclopedia of Herbal Medicine, noni fruit and juice can contribute to the treatment of pain, inflammatory disease (arthritis, heart and circulatory problems), and cancer.

Plantains on the side of the road.


Plantain (plátano, Musa paradisiaca), “fruit or vegetable?”: We passed a plantain tree while wondering around in San Miguel, and Virginia informed me that the villagers prefer vegetables over fruits to stay healthy. This got me thinking… is a plantain a fruit or a vegetable? They come from the same genus, Musa, and bananas are definitely a fruit, so shouldn’t plantains be considered fruits as well? According to the Missouri Botanical Garden and some culinary dictionaries, plantains are considered a “vegetable-banana,” while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention consider it a fruit. I suppose it is up for debate. In any case, the unripe fruit and root of the plantain plant are highly astringent (a term referring to any chemical that shrinks or constricts skin tissues) so it is good for treating diarrhea. Also, the leaves can be dried and made into a syrup that can be used to treat coughs and chest problems, like bronchitis.

And finally…

A beautiful cactus specimen.

Prickly Pear (Opuntia ficus-indica), “not your typical cactus”: The group continued down the road, exploring their school’s biblioteca (library) and the Ministry of Health’s clinic. Strolling, I spotted a familiar plant: prickly pear. I learned about this cactus, that is native to Mexico and Central America, in the herbs, spices, and medicinal plants course that I took last semester. The cactus is formed by pad-shaped stems that have been used to bind injured limbs, and the fruit is a nutritious and popular addition to fruit salads in the area. The medicinal uses of this guy include using the flowers to reduce bleeding and treat gastrointestinal problems, like colitis, diarrhea, and IBS. It was really exciting to find a plant I already knew about! It may make a useful and decorative addition to the backyard garden. (As a side-note for all you professional botanists, in regards to the species name I gave, that is simply conjecture. There are over 350 species of prickly pear, so I can’t be sure. Sorry!)

Further information will be available on these three plants and MORE in the “Es mi San Miguel” book that will be published once our research is complete. Stay healthy and stay green, people!

Until next week,

Evan, your guide to the culture and plant life of San Miguel!

Examining the Prickly Pear.

5 Responses to “Plants of San Miguel: Noni, Plantain, and Prickly Pear”

  1. Kate says:

    Hey Evan! Make sure Abraham teaches you the ins and outs of cooking with plantains! He wrote about them on the blog a few times during the summer: and

  2. Beth (MOM) says:

    Great blog Ev!! Sounds like your project is taking off. Keep up the good work. Pictures are awesome!!

  3. Papa Lanier says:

    Well written. Can these plants be combined and fermented to make healthy booze? Can you post more pictures on the web and give us a link? Picasa or some other photo site?
    Stay well..

  4. Evan Conaway says:

    Kate – Thanks for the tip! I’ll have to ask him to show me some of his recipes!

    Mom and Mr. Lanier: I will definitely post more pictures online. This may happen tomorrow. If not, then definitely on Thursday! Thanks for your support!!

  5. Kyle Conaway says:

    Sounds like you are learning a lot and having a blast bro! Keep up the great work! Love ya!