Maytenus sp. Family: Celastraceae Kichwa: Chuchuwasu
Chuchuwasu is one of the most trusted remedies of the Runa (Kichwa people) of the upper Napo valley. The preferred method of preparation is to place the bark in a bottle of cheap trago or sugarcane rum (called cachiwa in Kichwa) and let it age. Often the chuchuwasu is cooked in the rum. While the chuchuwasu bark starts out very bitter and the rum it is mixed with reeks of alcohol, when the two are aged together the result is a smooth pleasing taste similar to aged Scotch whiskey or Kentucky bourbon. The mixture is often used as a remedy for intestinal problems such as vomiting, abdominal pain and diarrhea. It can be administered to children (as well as adults) by prescribing two tablespoons regularly for two or three days until the illness disappears.
Many people, however, also drink chuchuwasu habitually as away of preventing illness or preserving health. The taste of chuchuwasu is characterized as ayaj or bitter.
Drinking chuchuwasu is part of a broader traditional practice associated with the ancestors (ruku yayauna) known in Kichwa as ayajda upina or “drinking bitter”. “Ayak” is the taste associated with the jambi yurauna or medicinal trees of the the ruku sacha or old growth forest. In addition to chuchuwasu, several other unrelated old growth forest trees, most prominently the species called challuwa caspi and amarun caspi are also associated with drinking bitters. Another very common jambi or medicine characterized as bitter is ayawaska (banisteriopsis caapi). Kichwa elders say that the old people lived longer and were generally stronger than people living today because they habitually drank “ayaj”. In the 19th and early twentieth century the men from the upper Napo traveled great distances in search of rubber. Many worked as porters for the rubber patrons carrying heavy loads on their backs up over the Andes to Quito and back. These men, now ancestors, are remembered as having endured because they were extraordinarily shinzhi or strong; and this strength is attributed to drinking ayaj. The ayaj in the bark of the hardwood trees was believed to communicate the longevity of the hardwoods as well as their hardness or strength to the drinker. The result was a longer life as well as a stronger physical body. Kichwa people say that because they drank ayak the old people could carry heavier loads and walk farther with less food than people are able to do now.
The strength of the ayaj in the jambi yura or medicinal trees was believed to come from the sun. Hence the medicine was believed to be strongest in the bark on the eastern and western sides of the tree where the sun rays fall on the tree in the morning or afternoon. To harvest the medicine traditional people cut a small amount of bark from the east or west side of the tree. The harvesting operation was carried out with a great deal of respect for the tree as well as for the forest and the spirits (sacha runa or sacha amu) believed to own the forest. In more recent times the bark is frequently harvested for sale. The product purchased in markets is probably not harvested only from the east and west sides of the tree. When harvested for sale the tree is frequently cut down. Then all of the bark is removed and processed for sale. It is for this reason that traditional people believe that the product for sale in the markets is less effective that the bark harvested and drunk after the pattern of the grandparents.