Etnobotánica en Holguín Cuba como patrimonio cultural y natural que debe ser preservado



Ethnobotany in Holguín, Cuba: cultural and natural heritage to be preserved


Etnobotánica en Holguín, Cuba: patrimonio cultural y natural que debe ser preservado



Alena Reyes Fornet,I Elena Fornet HernándezII

I Sociedad Cubana de Botánica. Holguín. Cuba.
II Centro de Investigaciones y Servicios Ambientales de Holguín. Cuba.



Introduction: Ethnobotany and ethnomedicine study and preserve cultural and natural heritage as a component element of a people's identity. The knowledge obtained by these sciences is returned to society in the form of wellbeing and sustainability.
Objective: Evaluate and characterize the importance and usefulness of the flora in Holguín, Cuba, and examine the preservation status of these plants.
Methods: Theoretical methods were used to analyze and determine the antecedents and to process the information obtained, whereas the review and the analysis were based on empirical methods.
Results: Few strictly ethnobotanical studies have been conducted in the region. Most of the research done has not been published in specialized journals. Ethnobotany is not viewed as a separate discipline with its own techniques and goals. A total 564 species are used for a variety of purposes, 344 of them as plant drugs. Of these 41 have been approved by the Cuban Ministry of Public Health (MINSAP) for sale in pharmacies. On the other hand, 6.4 % of the plants declared as medicinal are either toxic or poisonous. The plant families most abundantly represented are Fabaceae, Euphorbiaceae, Malvaceae, Poaceae and Asteraceae. Other uses of plants are ornamental (26 %), apicultural (24.3 %) and timber yielding (23.6 %). Of the total plants studied, 184 constitute some sort of threat and 49 are invasive, and among them 39 are medicinal.
Conclusions: Ethnobotanical and ethnomedical studies require the participation of multidisciplinary teams of biologists, physicians, social workers and project managers. There are limitations to the effective dissemination of the information obtained by research projects. It is necessary to design feasible projects, disseminate and socialize results, and reflect on the social responsibility involved in order to achieve social and commercial results. In this respect, ethnobotany is no exception.

Keywords: ethnomedicine, medicinal plants, wellbeing, sustainability.


Introducción: La etnobotánica y la etnomedicina estudian y preservan el patrimonio cultural y natural como parte de la identidad de los pueblos. El conocimiento que se adquiere con el estudio de estas ciencias regresa a la sociedad en forma de bienestar y sostenibilidad.
Objetivos: Evaluar y caracterizar la importancia y la utilidad de la flora de Holguín, Cuba, y examinar las condiciones de preservación de estas plantas.
Métodos: Con el uso de métodos teóricos se analizaron y se determinaron los antecedentes y se procesó la información. Los métodos empíricos permitieron realizar la revisión y el análisis.
Resultados: Los estudios estrictamente etnobotánicos en esta zona son escasos. La mayoría de las investigaciones no han sido publicadas en revistas especializadas y la caracterización etnobotánica no es vista como una disciplina con técnicas y objetivos específicos. Existen 564 especies usadas para varios propósitos, 344 de ellas con fines medicinales, de las cuales 41 han sido aprobadas por el Ministerio de Salud Pública de Cuba (MINSAP) para su venta en farmacias. El 6,4 % de las plantas declaradas como medicinales son tóxicas o venenosas. Las familias de plantas más representadas son Fabaceae, Euphorbiaceae, Malvaceae, Poaceae y Asteraceae. Estas plantas también tienen uso ornamental (26 %), apícola (24.3 %) y maderable (23,6 %). Del total de plantas estudiadas, 184 representan alguna amenaza y 49 son invasoras, de las cuales 39 son medicinales.
Conclusiones: Los estudios etnobotánicos y etnomédicos requieren la participación de equipos multidisciplinarios de biólogos, médicos, trabajadores sociales y gestores de proyecto. Existen limitaciones para socializar con efectividad la información que se obtiene de los proyectos de investigación. Es necesario diseñar proyectos aplicables, divulgar y socializar los resultados y reflexionar sobre la responsabilidad social para alcanzar resultados sociales y comerciales. En este sentido, la etnobotánica no es la excepción.

Palabras claves: etnomedicina; plantas medicinales; bienestar; sostenibilidad.




Since ancient times plants have been for humanity a source of food, shelter, healing and used during religious rites. This heritage needs protection as a legacy of our ancestors and for the well-being of generations to come.

Ethnobotany is the scientific field that tries to understand the dynamics established between humans and plants.1 These last ones are considered a natural heritage, as well as animals, landscapes and the equilibrium in ecosystems,2 including men. The preserved and transferred knowledge constitutes a valuable source of information called cultural heritage. It is important from the historical, scientific, symbolic or aesthetic point of view3 and it represents the current and ancient history.

Ethnomedicine studies and interacts with endemic plants,4 which have medicinal properties. Ethnobotany and ethnomedicine are inseparable; both maintain and study the cultural and natural legacy as a part of people identity and at the same time return the resulting knowledge into men's life quality.

The world knows between 250 thousand to half a million plants with healing properties. However, only about five thousand have been studied,5 More than half of the 7 500 plants living in Cuba are endemic, making it the fourth island in the world in number of plant species 6 and the first in species per km2. Ethnobotany is necessary in order to compile and rescue traditional knowledge of national culture and identity, which should not be lost or sold.

The division Magnoliophyta has 2 072 plants species in Holguín.7 Ethnobotanical studies in this province are scarce. However, the Natural Resources Department, the Holguín Botanical Garden and the Mountain Research Position of Holguín develop research projects including plant uses in their floristic lists.8 These departments from the Centro de Investigaciones y Servicios Ambientales de Holguín (Research and Environmental Services Center of Holguín: Cisat) belong to the Ministerio de Ciencia, Tecnología y Medio Ambiente (Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment). Nevertheless, the number of species used by man in Holguín is not known yet.

Knowledge of the practice given to medicinal plants allows increasing or reaffirming their properties. In this way the corresponding pharmacological studies could be indicated, and their subsequent approval for pharmaceutical purposes.

That is why the main objective of this work is to evaluate, to characterize the utilitarian values of the flora in Holguín, Cuba, and to search the conservation status of these plants. Through this study, it is safeguarded the cultural and natural heritage and thus the wellbeing of the people through the mechanisms of the Cuban Public Health Ministry (Ministerio de Salud Pública de Cuba: MINSAP).



Theoretical methods

Historical-logical, for the analysis and determination of the antecedents, characterization and object conceptualization; analysis-synthesis processing the information and systemic approach.

Empirical methods

Review and analysis of documentary and non-documentary sources

To search for articles, were queried the Scopus (, ISI Web of Knowledge (www. and Scirus ( databases using the following search terms: "Ethnobotany", "Ethnomedicine", "Botany + Holguín", "Ethnobotany + ethnomedicine + Cuba" and "Ethnobotany + ethnomedicine + Holguín". To broaden the search criteria, direct surveys were performed on the websites of journals specializing in Ethnobotany and Botany. Because of the poor findings, it was necessary to include the main website of the Cisat. (

It is presented a table (supporting information) with the scientific name of each species, popular name, uses and references. Uses were divided by numbers: 1. Timber, 2. Apiculture (nectar and/or, pollen), 3. Medicinal, 4. Man diet, 5. Toxic - poisonous, 6. Ornamental, 7. Fiber producer, 8. Other uses (animal diet, craft, shelter, religious), 9. Plant fence. When no popular name was referred, a blank space in the corresponding place appeared. It is also indicated threat categories (CA): Critically Endangered (CR), Endangered (EN), Vulnerable (VU), Threatened (A), Data Deficient (DD), Near Threatened (NT), Least Concern (LC), Not Evaluated (NE) and Endemism (E).9 In addition, they are marked the invasive (I) or potentially invasive species (PI)10 and the approval of the Ministerio de Salud Pública de Cuba (Public Health Department of Cuba: Minsap).11 Plants nomenclature was used according to International Plant Names Index (IPNI) (


The number of studies directly related to Botany in Holguín mentioning the utilitarian value of the flora reach up to 19 records. From them, 10 belong to specialized journals and correspond to botanical research. Contradictory, the biggest list has not been published in this type of scientific reviews.

The study of plants uses in nine communities in Sierra de Nipe, obtained 331 species of curative plants.12 Although this is the most complete research found in Holguín in this subject, it was never published and remains in thesis repository of the Havana University.

From the analysis of the consulted bibliography, it was found 564 species with some utilitarian value in Holguín (Supporting information). From them 50 species are endemic of Cuba, 9 from Eastern Cuba and 12 from sector macizo Nipe-Sagua-Baracoa.

The flora is used for various purposes (Fig. 1). The number of plants used as live fences and fiber producers is small. Six of the nine species mentioned in this study are also used in western Cuba.13

Most species (344), representing 60 %, have more than one utility. This fact allows increasing the value of usefulness to each plant.14 The most represented botanical families in the study are Fabaceae, Euphorbiaceae, Malvaceae, Poaceae and Asteraceae (table 1).

Thematic collections of alive, native and exotic plants allow disclosing the potentialities of the multiple use of the Cuban flora. This is the case of the Ethnobotanical Collection Dr. Juan Tomás Roig of the National Botanical Garden of Cuba (JBN)15 and the Collection of the Holguín Botanical Garden (JBH).16

The most representative use is medicinal (61 %). From them, 48 species are in the JBH and 41 are approved by Minsap for their use in pharmacies; it represents 12 % of the species found in this study.

Individuals of the family Fabaceae are mostly used as medicinal. This constitutes half of the species of that family indicated as medicinal.17 The families Asteraceae, Rubiaceae and Boraginaceae are also used as medicinal; this last one has not been mentioned before.

In the literature and popular knowledge, medicinal plants could also be toxic or poisonous. In the current study, 21 species (6 %) are found in this case (table 2). This is the situation of Indigofera suffruticosa Miller, also approved by Minsap.

Half a million people around the world, specifically children, die each year from ingestion of poisonous plants.18 That is why in the popular culture the knowledge of doses, the parts of the plants to be used, as well as whether their use is topical or ingested is transmitted from one generation to the other. For example, the population indicates that Nerium oleander L. (adelfa) is a medicinal herb, but only leaves are used and must be topical because it is highly poisonous.12 Euphorbiaceae possess toxic substances that constitute defense mechanisms against predators.19 Adelia ricinella L. used as medicinal is considered toxic.20

Of all poisoning cases reported in Villa Clara Province, 14 % were produced by Jatropha curcas L. and 1,4 % were due to Datura stramonium L. (Solanaceae),18 both referred as medicinal in Holguín.

Intoxications caused by plants usually possess a complicated diagnosis. This is because the population and most of the medical personnel ignores the toxicological effects and the necessary measures for the treatment.21

Pteridophyta division is represented by 12 species as ornamental; only 2 of them are also used as medicinal: Adiantum tenerum Sw. and Pleopeltis polypodioides (L.) E.G. Andrews & Windham. In the literature refered to Holguín, every plant belonging to Pteridaceae but Adiantum capillus-veneris L. and A. tenerum has no recognized popular name, which means that population could be confused when using these plants.

Other plants approved by Minsap are used but not as curative, for instance: Talipariti elatum (Sw.) Fryxell, Musa x paradisiaca L. and Zea mays L.

Plants therapeutic effect is possible thanks to principles active and concomitant substances, used to prepare phytomedicine. The first ones are divided in products of the primary metabolism (mostly saccharides) and products of the secondary metabolism; these last are responsible for having or not therapeutic properties.22

An example is the "Bach Flower Remedies", which are thirty-eight essences of wild flowers from Wales, England, that allow to treat emotional states of man and animals. Edward Bach discovered these properties between 1928 and 1934. In addition, plants seeds are used in acupuncture because their biological fields restore potential energy into affected areas.23 However, in the consulted literature there are no references for Holguín province of which seeds could be used for this purpose.

The study of active principles of plants mentioned by population as curative is important, because it allows corroborating the attributed property and the elaboration of specific phytodrugs. The in vitro antimycotic properties of ethanolic leaf extract of Argemone mexicana L. (cardosanto) against five fungi and four bacteria24 is an example. Solanum torvum Sw. possess a fairly good amount of nutrients and minerals content with protein (15,71 %) and total carbohydrate (28,14 %).25

According to their origin, species can be native or exotic. The first ones evolve naturally in an area; the second arrive at places by man actions allowing them to cross barriers that were not naturally possible. Invasive plants are exotics that threaten an ecosystem, habitat of other species or bring negative economic and environmental effects, as they are rapidly rooted and dispersed over long distances. For an exotic plant to become invasive or not, it depends on the role it plays in the ecosystem and on other factors such as ecosystem type and existing conditions.26

In this study, it was obtained 49 invasive plants, from which 39 are medicinal. Potentially invasive plants reach up to 27; 19 used as medicinal. Among them Casuarina equisetifolia Forst. and Leucaena leucocephala (L.) de Wit, identified all around the province including the Managed Floral Reserve Cabo Lucrecia Punta de Mulas, in Banes municipality.27

Knowing plants origin is essential, as well as their arrival moment to Cuba and the utilization given by man. Studying the use as medicinal of exotic and/or invasive plants would contribute to increase ethnobotanical knowledge in other regions of the world and Cuba. In this sense, the work of the herbaria is meritorious, as they document flora specimens, with their locality, collection date, collectors and serve as basis for their classification and study. In Cuba, there are 12 internationally recognized herbariums with 807 527 specimens and 97 specialized workers.28 Herbariums also play a vital role in taxonomy and are important for ethnobotany, since the same common name is often given to several plants of different families and therefore with different properties. In addition, the same species can have different names in each region of the country.

A correct classification also allows an efficient evaluation of their threat category. Of the plants used by man in Holguín province,31 presented some threat degree (Fig. 2). Threatened categories are Critically Endangered (CR), Endangered (EN), Vulnerable (VU) and Threatened (A).9 Others categories like Least Concern (LC) and Not Evaluated (NE) has 114 and 154 species respectively, which is a bigger number than those that are already evaluated.

The categorization of Cuban plants is a challenge,9 therefore the path to be traveled is long, because there are still non-categorized species and most of them are used for various purposes. Without proper management and conservation, they could be added to the list of endangered species.

This research shows that ethnobotanical and ethnomedical studies require multidisciplinary teams of biologists, doctors, social workers and project managers. In this sense, environmental management plays a fundamental role establishing a balance between the well-being of society, heritage conservation and the sustainable use of natural resources.3 To achieve these aims it uses instruments to modify human behavior towards nature, as well as stimulating and enabling the society behavior.29

In the consulted literature and the specialized search sites are few publications on this subject in Holguín. Some studies available revealed flora and vegetation characteristics,14,20,27,30-34 including particularities of coastal zone.35 The most of investigations containing ethnobotanical results have not been published in specialized journals.7,8,36-42 Besides, ethnobotanical characterization is part of flora and vegetation studies. Then, it has not yet been seen as a discipline with techniques and with specific aims.

There are constraints in socializing effectiveness of the research projects results. Designing applicable results in research projects, spreading and socializing outcomes, allow the reflection on social responsibility to generate social and commercial results.43

The use of flora for various purposes by man has always existed. The value of ethnobotany and ethnomedicine lies in preserving cultural heritage, educating society on the sustainable use of plants and warning the conservation need of the natural heritage, for the benefit of present and future generations.


Conflicto de intereses

Los autores declaran que no tienen conflicto de intereses.



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Recibido: 7 de junio de 2017.
Aprobado: 29 de enero de 2018.



MSc. Alena Reyes Fornet. Sociedad Cubana de Botánica. Holguín, Cuba.
Correo electrónico:

Copyright (c) 2019 Alena Reyes Fornet, Elena Balbina Fornet Hernández

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