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GOOD OR BAD ROOTS? - Sale of local herbs still strong


Left: A customer of 'Princess The Herbalist', who identified himself as Cool-Col, buys three large bottles of 'roots drink' from the proprietor, Cynthia 'Princess' Dermie.   Right: A variety of herbs and roots used to make 'roots drinks.' - FABIAN LEDGISTER PHOTOS

BACK PROBLEM? NO problem. Prostate Cancer? 'Roots' is the answer. Or at least so some persons claim.

Despite the non-concurrence of some doctors and other professionals, Jamaicans have for many years sought medicinal healing from roots and herbs, opting to follow their forefathers instead of science.

Roots such as Chainy Roots, and herbs such as sarsaparilla and 'raw moon', have been credited with almost supernatural healing and energising abilities, from being able to endow one with endless energy for whatever purpose, to healing cancer.

The most common means of extracting and administering these said medicinal values from these wonder plants, is through the 'Roots Drink'.

Cynthia Dermie, popularly known as 'princess' in the Cross Roads market, owns and operates 'Princess The Herbalist'. She is the third generation of roots drink makers in her family, and claims her products are able to cure arthritis, headache and body pains, sore feet, blocked tubes, and even cancer.

"The knowledge was passed down from my parents who used to operate a roots shop in downtown, people used to come from overseas to buy them," said Princess.

A customer was also quite vocal on why he chose to buy three large bottles of a product called, 'Tear Dun Fence'.

"Every week mi buy my roots, cause when di medicine a advertise u hear one heap a side effect, a bear roots fi wi granparents used to boil up before pill dem tek ova an wi nah live long like dem man deh," said the customer.

The names of the different products uniquely describe their uses. 'Higher Level', is a roots that is said to give stamina and increase sperm count. 'Front End Lifter', is a natural 'vitalizer'. Of course, the name of the best-selling roots at the shop, 'Tear Dun Fence', is quite self-explanatory.

An informal survey conducted by THE STAR confirmed that a large number of persons think that there are medicinal benefits from roots products. A whopping 18 out of 20 persons interviewed said that they believed that roots drinks truly had medicinal values.


There have also been sects of the medical fraternity that have done extensive research on the herbs and roots used in the roots drink. President of the Caribbean Herbal Business Association (Jamaican Chapter), Dr. Diane Robertson has been lauded as one of the leading authorities on the study of local herbs and roots.

"A roots drink was selected and its contents were researched at the Natural Product Institute, U.W.I...empirical data has showed that these roots drinks do help to assist in the well being of the male and even female," she said.

Dr. Robertson said that men use these products frequently, because products such as Sarsaparilla has been proven to boost testosterone development. She adds that women too are great benefactors of the medicinal values in roots drinks.


"An elderly or middle-aged woman can get relief from menopause, while a young girl can also get relief from cramps associated with P.M.S. (Pre-menstrual Syndrome)," said the herbal specialist.

But the roots phenomenon is not all positive, as research has also revealed dangers lurking in many of these ingredients to the beloved roots drink.

In a recent Jamaican Herbal Report that has not yet been to print, some of the popular roots and herbs were discovered to contain resins (eg. jalop resin) which overly-strong purgative effects resulted in certain species being subject to legal restrictions in some countries.

In a June 2004 Reuters news agency release, it was reported that the herb known as Comfrey was withdrawn by the Food & Drug Administration due to prospects of liver damage caused by the toxic alkaloids found in the herb.

Even one of the most popular roots ingredients, Sarsaparilla, has been noted to cause serious problems. The same Jamaican Herbal Report identified links with Sarsaparilla and prostate cancer, due to the root's effect of increasing testosterone production.

"People using prescription drugs, women with breast cancer, and men with prostate problems should not take anything with sarsaparilla," confirms Dr. Robertson.


But even with these negatives there is still growth in the roots market. With this growth however has come some form of change. What used to be a thriving enterprise for the average Jamaican is now being fiercely taken over by multimillion dollar corporations.

Entities such as Zion Roots, and Baba Roots, have taken the local roots product to an international level.

Marketing manager for Zion Roots, Wayne Stanbury, says that since the commercialisation of what began as a "roots, rasta-man, roadside thing," the roots drink has become a highly exportable local commodity.

"One of the sons took the family business to where it is today, the international community has become a rapidly growing product market, and now one brother runs the business here, while other brothers run that leg in New York," said Stanbury.

He says although they are under the same Zion company, the local product is quite different from their foreign counterpart.

"The Food and Drug Administration has certain requirements that has to be adhered to over there. For example, down here when you open a Zion it always fizzes. That is not preferred overseas. The foreign product is milder, in that it drinks more like a soda," he explained.

Zion Roots would not disclose any annual sales, simply stating that they were one of the largest manufacturers in Jamaica.

But in the growth of the industry, have these big corporations essentially killed the livelihood of the 'roots-man'? Many persons attest that they are seeing less 'roots-men' on the road, since the commercially packaged roots drinks have hit shelves islandwide.

One former roots-man and shop owner, has survived the take-over of the industry by relying less on roots sale, and more on sale of food, beer and other bar items.

Patrick 'Sweety' Brown, operates a shop located at 78 Church Street. Although the Portland native used to make a good livelihood with his roots business, he admits that the sales have dropped since the 'big companies' took over.

"Mi still mek likkle roots, cause some a mi loyal customers a reques it. Dem usually mix it wit Guiness, Supligen, Magnum, or oats fi dem, mi cook, an sell it alongside oda tings in yah, cause it alone caa work again," lamented Brown, as he showed THE STAR team a batch that was fermenting.

Small scale roots makers charge that persons are losing out on the true medicinal values of the 'roots', as they buy from companies that add preservatives and additives.

"Nuf a dem a nuff addition dem a deal wit, but a natural ting me a deal wit," said Brown, as he held up pieces of Sarsaparilla, Cheney Roots, and 'raw moon'.

"Everything here is all natural. Dem seh 100 per cent natural, but dem add preservative an other things in dem roots whe nuh fi put in deh," said Princess.

Zion's Marketing Manager strongly denied the allegations of these small scale sellers, maintaining that the company's product is all natural.

"Our product is all natural, the way it has been since Mr. Zion's grandfather sold it on the roadside," he said.

Zion roots however is making no claims about the medical properties of their product. "Our motto is, if yuh sick, go to the doctor, but if you healthy let Zion roots keep you that way," said Stanbury

However, owner of Baba Roots, William Wilberforce Webb, says the properties and minerals of a properly made roots drink does in fact have medicinal values (his product, at least).

"They (other companies) say roots do nothing medically because they lack information...baba roots purifies the blood, energises, helps gasterenteritis, digestive disorders by breaking down foods, enhances sexual performance, and if taken prior to a woman's cycle, can help ease spasms associated with P.M.S.," said Webb.

With science now coming to terms with traditional beliefs of the healing abilities of roots and herbs a new global market known as nutriceutical market, is booming business.

This new market comes from the demand of specific roots and herbs, that have now been identified to have medicinal attributes.

Economist say the global nutriceutical market grows about US$78 billion per year, and is now worth about US$240 billion (per annum).

Dr. Robertson says the CHDA (Jamaica Chapter) is in the process of developing the standardisation of the local industry, which she says is a highly lucrative local resource, that is not tapping international markets due to their lack of proper legal frameworks.

"Roots can become the breadbasket of Jamaica if the proper systems are put in place. This industry needs further research and financial assistance to move it into the nutriceutical industry,"said Dr. Robertson.

May 25, 2006

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