CERRO GRANDE, Curacao (Reuters): For years Dinah Veeris ignored the traditional Caribbean medicine of her native Curacao, but while recovering from an operation she found only her mother's teas eased her stomach pains.
Casual chats with her mother about the herbs in her garden turned into a five-year study of herbal medicine that took Veeris from the island of Curacao through the mountains of nearby Aruba and Bonaire isles, just north of Venezuela.
"There was so much knowledge that I started to do an investigation with older people. They went with me to the mountains to teach me how to use the plants," she said.
Veeris, a former teacher, also collected native plants threatened by Curacao's economic development. In 1994 she opened a garden outside the capital of Willemstad to preserve herbal medicine and the traditions of an island of 130,000 residents that is a self-governing part of the Netherlands.
"When we were young if we were sick we wanted to go to the doctor, we didn't want to have anything to do with herbs," she said. "We were losing these traditions, that's why I wanted this garden that would have all the knowledge in one place."
The garden, called Den Paradera, now draws Curacao residents seeking natural cures, and tourists attracted by the bastion of tradition on an island increasingly populated by shimmering glass offices and glitzy tourist resorts.
On twice-daily tours, handfuls of foreign tourists or larger school parties wander through the maze of plants. The garden is home to species such as the Calabash, a tree with dense wood and gourd-like fruits, used to treat stomach aches, hypertension and breathing problems.
Another plant called Silik Cotton has green pods filled with cotton-like fiber whose aroma helps cure insomnia, while its leaves help ease headaches.
Veeris' treatments are a mixture of remedies used by indigenous Arawak Indians and African slaves, who had been brought to the island by the Dutch. Much of the Indian and African spirituality and medicine was banned by Roman Catholicism, Curacao's primary religion.
"It was forbidden to practice herbal medicine so people did a lot in secret. To this day you hardly talk about it because some people see it as negative," Veeris, 69, explained.
Twice a week she has consultations with Curacao residents seeking help for ailments and emotional or spiritual problems.
Den Paradera, which means "where people feel at home," is an additional attraction to the island's tropical beaches and historic Dutch architecture.
Veeris said tea made with oregano can improve digestion and relieve ear aches. Tropical sage can help women cope with menopause. Her remedies are meant to complement Western medicine.
"A lot of people go to the doctor and it doesn't help so they go to a spiritual healer or to an herbalist," she said.
Herbal medicine has become increasingly popular in the United States and Europe as people seek alternative treatments for problems such as chronic back pain and the side effects of chemotherapy.
Den Paradera also works to preserve island traditions such as digging wells by hand. The tour of her garden includes a well about 60 feet deep, dug in the 1920s. Visitors are also shown the Curacao tradition of trying to revive dying plants by singing to them while rocking them in hanging pots.
Children from the island's schools tour the garden's traditional huts where healers stored their medicines.
"This garden helps remind me that if you use your own herbal medicine, you don't need very much to live," said Veeris. "Once a year I do my medical exams, but if I have a headache, I still use my herbs. I feel very strong."