I am becoming an amateur herbalist, offering unsolicited advice when someone mentions they have a cold.
“You should make a tea of cordován, yagruma, oregano, menta, and salvia,” I rattle off to my friend Yunior as I see him cough.
This obsession with plants developed in urban Havana. In the middle of concrete and construction debris, in the midst of asphalt and beeping horns, there are plants growing and thriving in every crack and crevice in the city. In Vedado where the streets are more spacious, jaguey and palm trees line the blocks. The trunks and branches of the jaguey trees twist and wind together looking like wooden vines, with spindly long hair: aerial root, hard to the touch. Sometimes small offerings are placed at the bottoms of the sacred ceiba trees: a little brown box of rice and beans one day; another, a soda bottle cut in half and filled with rum.
In Centro Habana and La Habana Vieja, the most compact sections of the city, potted plants reign supreme, with balconies and windowsills full of ferns, cactuses and herbs crammed into improvised planters and half-cut soda bottles. Friends recommend herbal teas the second I let out a cough.
Everywhere I look I am reminded that in addition to its famous revolutionary social landscape, even within its densest urban environment, Cuba is still the tropical island that Christopher Columbus described as “the most beautiful island eyes have ever seen.”
It was the flu that first led me to search out Parcela, an urban garden, and to begin a journey to better understand the varying flora surrounding me. Parcela is easy to pass by; it is hidden from view by a tall corrugated tin fence. The entrance is a small door entered from the sidewalk. Walking up a few steps reveals the entirety of the closed-off urban garden, surrounded by apartment buildings, houses, and the fence facing the street.
The garden contains an overflowing of herbs, bushes and trees growing in beds and in every improvised container imaginable. Rusted paint cans, old metal sinks, plastic yogurt bags, and the bottom halves of soda bottles are all filled with dirt and serving as planters for basil, oregano, and Mexican cacti. Baby banana trees are growing in bright red plastic tubs; a mature avocado tree shades one corner; old gasoline cans and plastic cups lay on the ground, awaiting new uses. A tall wooden stake has a dirty black button-up shirt draped over it: an improvised scarecrow. A wooden rocking chair with a broken seat leans against the fence.
Some of the debris looks like it could be trash, but it could just be waiting to be transformed into an invento: an invention. The verb inventar is part of a trinity of words that have become fundamental bases of the Cuban vocabulary: luchar, resolver, and inventar. To fight, to resolve, and to invent. These words are more than metaphorical: they are common language and frequent answers to the question, “How are you doing?”
Manuel, the owner of the garden, started Parcela fifteen years ago with two other friends, but he now works alone.
“I prefer it that way,” he tells me, scrunching his nose at the idea of working with others. “It’s tranquil here, calm.”
Manuel is older, still healthy and able, with white hair, a thin frame and a slight gut. He wears his button-up denim t-shirt with the buttons open, exposing his white chest hair, and we sweat together when the sun comes out. We make the rounds of the garden.
“None.” We have to search through the huge glossy leaves of the none tree to find its fruit, and when we do I practically gasp. The fruit looks like a potato-sized lump of light green gelatin with brown spots. I try to explain to Manuel how strange this fruit looks to me, but Manuel just shakes his head, no. It’s not strange to him. The none fruit can be eaten for overall immune health, and has been used to help treat cancer, Manuel tells me. We move on to yerba de sangre, a tall, tangly bush with small round leaves and red berries.
“Especially good for women menstruating,” Manuel says. “It’s also good for overall energy. I make a tea and take it all the time.” He pats his belly and nods. Next is siempre viva, a nice fat green leaf that soothes the throat.
“Opera singers and actors use it,” Manuel says, washing off a leaf for me. I nibble on it. The leaf itself is waxy and vibrant, thin but full of juice. It tastes like citrus, not at all unpleasant. Next is the leaf of the yagruma tree. It is a curled up, pale white leaf that looks like it belongs in a pile of leaf litter. The dried up leaves can be cut up and put in teas to help relax the throat.
As we continue our tour, the plants are starting to run together in shades of green. I scribble frantic attempts at physical descriptions of them in my little notebook. Fat leaves. Slick leaves. Spindly stems. If anything has a color other than green it’s the first thing I jot down. I float between Spanish and English, guessing at spellings. I may not be a great naturalist, but I will get closer, I tell myself.
I ask Manuel which plants are most popular in the shop, and he gestures around at the whole garden. “Everything.”
Right now Manuel and I are alone, taking our time to walk around the garden. Sometimes, though, a long line will gather. People will clump on the steps and Manuel will run around gathering whatever they ask for, unless he shakes his head saying “No, no, no hay”: there’s none of that.
If he’s not working with customers, then he’s watering the plants, raking leaf litter and plant debris, or cutting large soda bottles in half to be reborn as planters. When he spots somebody waiting on the steps, he calls out cheerfully, “Voy, voy en seguida!”: I’m coming, I’ll be there in a second.
When I ask Manuel if he could generalize about the Cuban population’s use of medicinal plants, he just shakes his head.
“Everybody has different tastes, different interests. Everybody’s into different things.”
I visit Manuel again as autumn turns to winter and it becomes cold and flu season: a subtle seasonal change on the island, though I do find that I sometimes need a sweater. People are coming in droves, looking for the right herbs to help sooth their various pains and congestions. I’ve started to learn which herbs to choose from. Manuel will snip a few long leaves of the cordovan bush, which grows close to the ground and looks like an exaggerated pineapple top; a few stalks of oregano; mint; and remorios, an herb with white and yellow flowers. All are excellent cold busters.
He might also choose to include behucuvi, a waxy brown stalk with thin curly tendrils; the waxy leaf of almasico; the small circular leaves of copal; or lemon leaves that smell as strong as the lemon itself.
All of these herbs can be mixed together in various combinations: it’s trial and error until the mixer hits upon her favorite concoction.
After yet another customer with a cold leaves, Manuel throws his hands up.
“I’m becoming a doctor here!” Manuel seems to approach his work as physical labor as opposed to some sort of spiritual calling. He tends to the watering schedules of the different plants, cleans up piles of leaf litter, and works on more improvisations and inventions to house all of the different herbs and trees. His knowledge of medicinal plant uses is vast, but aside from joking, he doesn’t seem to seriously consider himself a plant doctor or healer. Neither does he use plants for religious purposes. While some customers might come in to buy certain plants at the recommendation of a babalao, a spiritual guide within the Yoruba tradition, Manuel is not personally interested in using herbs in this way.
On the subject of religion, Manuel leans in close to me and says, “Work is my religion.”
Manuel has a tendency not to let me pay for the herbs he collects for me. One day I leave with a bunch of basil: Manuel just wrinkles his nose when I try to offer payment. Another day I take yerba de sangre, and as I try to pay again Manuel says, “No, save it for some mani.”
Mani, as its sold in the streets, is a greasy bar of peanuts and sugar mixed together, with a going price of between three to seven Cuban pesos.
When I try to pay for a substantial bundle of herbs (this one’s a flu buster: oregano, remorios, copal, behucuvi, and hojas de limon) enough for a few days worth of tea, the total cost is five Cuban pesos, roughly the dollar equivalent of twenty-five cents. Manuel only wants to charge me three pesos, and he furrows his face again as I take out the bills.
We’re dealing with very small amounts of money here , but I still feel guilty that he won’t take my payment. Manuel only sells in moneda nacional, the currency with which the government pays Cubans their salaries. Cuba has had a dual currency system since the former Soviet Union collapsed and left the country in dire economic straits. The dollar was introduced in the early nineties, followed by a dollar equivalent, the convertible dollar or CUC, in 1999. Essentially, Manuel is making very little in a market that sells some basics in moneda nacional and others, including soap and shampoo, in CUC. While many customers come in and out, only some buy, and at these prices there are no treasures awaiting Manuel at the end of the day.
I have come back to Parcela various times, touring the garden with Manuel if he’s not busy and making a game of matching names to faces of the various plants. I feel like a less hopeless naturalist as my favorites finally stick. Yerba de sangre, check. None, check. Remorios, oregano, menta and copal? They’ve become my go-tos. I delight in throwing these leaves into a small pot of boiling water, and then pouring them through a strainer for a dark honey brown tea that doesn’t need sugar. One day I prepare a tea for my friend Yasmin, and the next day she tells me that her cough is over. Whether it was coincidence or not, I consider it a success.
On one of my last visits to Parcela, I decide to sit and observe oregano. With so many different plant species and bits of household rubbish mixed together in this bustling garden, I’m feeling overwhelmed and want to devote my attention to just one thing. I draw a view of the oregano from a bird eye’s perspective. Every stalk follows a pattern of four leaves in the shape of a cross and then two more layered on top, opposite from each other. Each stalk is also lined with tiny pairs of buds. When Manuel cuts off the top leaves, the plant will focus its energy into these buds until they grow to their full size.
Taking a break from sketching, I watch Manuel working. He’s wearing his favorite cap from the national museum of art, and he’s wrangling some sort of invento out of two piles of old wiring. I can’t imagine what will come out of this struggle. I go back to my drawing, and when I look up again Manuel has stopped working and is staring at me, sitting in the middle of his oregano plants, with a strange look on his face. For a second I’m not sure if he thinks I’m crazy. A few moments later, he comes up with a newspaper for me to sit on, so my skirt won’t get dirty.