Close Menu

FST Research | Root Tonics and Resilience

Jamaican root tonics stored in recycled bottles of rum (or occasionally other types of bottles, such as wine or Campari), often with their original labels. Photo credit: Ina Vandebroek 

Jamaican root tonics are fermented beverages made with the roots, bark, vines (and dried leaves) of local (mostly) wild harvested plant species.  They are very popular across the island and among the diaspora because of their reputed abilities to prevent or cure many illnesses and increase stamina and virility. Yet, though a powerful informal symbol of Jamaican biocultural heritage, root tonics lack official recognition and little is being done to develop a sustainable industry for the benefit of the local producers and vendors. In a recent study entitled “Root Tonics and Resilience: Building Strength, Health, and Heritage in Jamaica” published in Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems, researchers from FST’s Natural Products Institute, The New York Botanical Garden (USA), The University of Gastronomic Sciences (Italy) and five community members from rural Jamaica, examine the oral history and cultural importance of Jamaican root tonics, with the aim of laying down a road map for their development.

Collecting roots and lianas (called “wiss”) of various wild-harvested plant species to prepare root tonics in St. Thomas, at the fringes of the John Crow Mountains, 3 days before the full moon. Photo credit: Ina Vandebroek

In the study, the authors interview knowledgeable Jamaicans across five parishes to uncover new insights about the sociocultural importance of root tonics and associated symbolisms. They discover that Jamaican explanations about root tonics are often filled with metaphorical expressions linking the qualities of “nature” and the strength of the human body. They find that reasons for using tonics can be linked to hardships endured historically during slavery as well as to the continued day to day struggle of Jamaicans living a largely subsistence lifestyle. They also find that half of those interviewed considered Rastafari to be the present-day knowledge holders of Jamaican root tonics. Using these and other results the study authors design a road map for the development of a cottage industry to benefit the mostly artisanal producers of root tonics. The road map is premised on a sustainable development framework consisting of social, cultural, economic, and ecological aspects. The four steps of the road map - growing production, growing alliances, transitioning into the formal economy, and safeguarding ecological sustainability - provide a useful starting point for future research on root tonics, the authors suggest, and for applied projects aimed at promoting the biocultural heritage product.

The research was made possible through a grant from the National Geographic Society awarded to Dr Ina Vandebroek of The New York Botanical Garden.


To read the study: Vandebroek, I., Picking, D., Tretina, J., West, J., Grizzle, M., Sweil, D., Green, U., Lindsay, D. (2021) Root tonics and resilience: Building strength, health, and heritage in Jamaica. Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems 5: 640171.

To learn more about the Natural Products Institute and their research:

Published on 01 Apr, 2021

Top of Page